By Jesse Cannone, CFT, CPRS, MFT
Perhaps it starts when the alarm clock doesn’t go off for some reason. Then you get a flat tire on the way to work — in the rain. You finally walk into the workplace soaked and a half hour late when the boss heads your way with an unhappy look on his face.
Your heart begins to race. You get a queasy feeling in the pit of your stomach. You’re already getting angry over the anticipated encounter and you feel a headache coming on.
“I really don’t need this right now,” you think. How right you are.
At the root of it, stress is caused by a perceived need for things to go our way. I “need” to get up on time. I “need” to get to work on time. I “need” to avoid a confrontation with my boss. I “need” to keep my job. This is called attachment.
Here’s the problem. When we’re attached to the idea that we actually need something to go our way in order to be happy, we become stressed out when it doesn’t. Notice I didn’t say “if” it doesn’t.
Not to stress you out, but virtually every major disease and health condition known to man is either caused by stress or made worse by it.
Heart disease? Check.
And the list goes on. The bottom line is stress will shorten your life. So the question isn’t whether you should get rid of stress. It’s how. Here’s the answer in two easy steps.
Find the source
Think about a situation you find stressful. When the kids are climbing the walls, your spouse is grouchy, or your co-worker fails to carry his share of the workload those are external stressors. It could also be the loss of a job, the mounting pile of bills on the table, or even world events.
Our response may be to attempt to control the situation. “They” are stressing us out so we try to change the people who are making us miserable. But human beings can be stubborn creatures who rarely bend their behavior to fit our desires.
Or we might simply throw our hands up in defeat. We feel incapable of changing the situation or how it affects us and simply give up.
Both approaches have a fatal flaw. We believe we need a change in those external circumstances before we can feel happy and unstressed. But that change may not happen before stress ruins our health.
We need to recognize that stress never comes from something or someone else. It’s a completely internal reaction to an external circumstance. We cause our own stress.
A new way of handling stress
Recognizing that stress is caused by our internal reaction to external circumstances makes the solution to stress much simpler. We must only change how we respond to situations as opposed to trying to change the world around us.
Easier said than done? Not if we take a minute to examine why any given situation causes us stress.
Let’s take that pile of overdue bills as an example. Your rent is late. The car payment is overdue and the loan company is threatening to repossess. You just checked the mail to find a disconnect notice from the electric company. And to top it off your wife is going ballistic because she’s stressed by the lack of money too.
How in the world do you keep from being stressed in a situation like that? You start by recognizing the difference between a need and a want.
Yes, you want to be able to pay your bills on time. You want to keep your vehicle. You want a peaceful home without your spouse yelling.
But consider whether you really need things to be different before you can be happy. Do you really have to have things a certain way before you can allow yourself to feel at peace?
When you examine your beliefs closely you’ll almost always find that the cause of stress is that perceived need to have things your way. Change that belief from a need to a want and you’ll suddenly experience a load lifted off of your shoulders.
It’s okay to want things to be different. It’s okay to take actions to improve your circumstances.
In the meanwhile, don’t sweat the stuff you cannot change. As a result you’ll experience an immediate improvement in your health and quality of life.
The Serenity Prayer
God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
The courage to change the things that I can;
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr
This article first appeared in our monthly print newsletter, Live Pain Free.
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