Well, what do you know—it is Stress Awareness Month in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. What could be more stressful than a crisis with no end in sight? Of course, it’s bringing stress into our awareness in a big way.
What is stress, really? Of course, we all know it’s a physiological response to circumstances that aren’t in line with how we want things to be. Cortisol and adrenalin hijack your higher-order thinking and turn you into someone who’s scared, angry or sad.
Stress happens when we must face things we don’t like, can’t predict and can’t control. This is something most people struggle with. As humans, we want to be the masters of our circumstances; anything otherwise is extremely unsettling. Our body responds with stress hormones and quicker reflexes and our blood diverting to our extremities. However, when there is no foe to fight, no situation to outrun, all this physiology has nowhere to go. It just sits in our body, potentially causing medical problems if the stress continues without relief.
In my work, I have found people can be placed along a continuum: Some find it easier to act their way into new behavior, others find it easier to think their way into new behavior and the rest fall at various points in the middle. Physical activity is a documented, well-researched way to mitigate the effects of stress. People on the acting half of the continuum benefit from lifting weights, going for a run or doing yoga, anything physical works. I remember whenever my dad was stressed when I was a child, he would go out in the backyard and chop wood for our fireplace. People who are better at thinking their way into a new behavior benefit from things like prayer, mindfulness or meditation, talking it out with friends or listening to music, anything that calms their mind.
All these things are wonderful stress reducers, but I like to help people learn to obliterate stress by changing what they are doing or changing what they are thinking. Stress is really not caused by the events on the outside. The stress is the response you chose to create in an attempt to change what is happening on the outside. This perspective explains how some people experience the same stressors but have drastically different responses to it.
Much of our stress and misery occurs because we refuse to accept the reality of what is happening around us. We experience stress when the one we love doesn’t love us back, our children act in a way that we don’t like, our boss doesn’t give us the credit we think we deserve or a pandemic occurs and turns life upside down.
Misery happens when we invest all our energy into fixing or changing something out of our control. The reality is certain things can’t be changed, no matter how much you put into it. When we encounter something unexpected, unfortunate or heartbreaking, we tend to choose any one of these responses: frustration, denial, anger, depression, bargaining… all the stages of Elizabeth Kübler Ross’ Stages of Grief. These emotions are subconsciously chosen: We don’t have an awareness of the choice, but it’s still a choice. This understanding is important because once we become aware we are choosing our response subconsciously, we can consciously choose something more effective.
In order to be more effective, we need to give up trying to change what can’t be changed. As quickly as possible, we need to work toward accepting what is actually happening. Why? Because it’s happening and you can’t change it. Choosing frustration, denial, anger, resentment or depression won’t change it. You can go through these emotions if you want to, but you don’t have to. Grief isn’t inevitable. When you realize stress is the experience you feel when you can’t change what is happening, all those emotions you experience are no longer some mysterious process. They are the best choices you can come up with to try to change what’s happening. Eventually, over time, most people get to acceptance but there is a shortcut if you want to use it.
Upon realizing the stress your experiencing due to something beyond your control, don’t tell yourself there’s nothing you can do about it. There is something you can do about it. You can accept it, which you will likely do anyway after you’re finished going through all the angst. Feeling those painful emotions won’t change what’s happening, but they will take a toll on your body and lower your immune system.
Instead, tell yourself, “I want to accept what is happening so I’m not going to fight it. I recognize this is something I can’t control so I will let go of the urge to change it and put all my energy into accepting it instead.” This approach can save you days, weeks, months and even years of misery.
You will recognize when you are accepting of the situation because you no longer feel any painful emotions. You are able to feel calm despite whatever is happening. Once you are there, if you want to, for added good feelings, you can begin to search for the GLOW (gifts, lessons, opportunity and wisdom) that you are gaining from the experience. This allows you to transition from acceptance to appreciation and gratitude, and that’s a great place to be.