What’s Your Trigger?
“If you stay with the unsteady mind,
Then there is no peace, there is no happiness.”
Recently I saw a commercial for a new phone plan that perfectly illustrates our current relationship with stress. One family is squeezed into a small living room with numerous children acting out as helpless parents look on. The other scenario shows the wife’s sister, sitting alone in a pristine white room calm and happy. She has chosen the single use option and the result is a life of peace and serenity. The implication is that stress is “out there” and that when we’re left to our own devices we are naturally, miraculously stress-free. Buy the plan and stress begone. It is a clever piece of marketing manipulation in a time when it’s a common belief that our world is on a trajectory of accelerating stress.
So, what is stress and how best to manage it?
Back in high school I loved everything except math. There was a strong belief in my family that we appreciated literature and the arts but were hopeless when it came to algebra, geometry and equations. From an early age I developed a stress response to numbers that remains with me today. Just ask my accountant! I believed for a long time that it was the math itself that was the cause of my intense anxiety. It wasn’t until later that I realized, in fact, it wasn’t that math that was stressful but my response to it. Because, of course, there were pupils who lapped up the class. They weren’t stressed by it at all. The problem wasn’t “out there”, the stress was emanating from my belief system. I simply didn’t believe I had the capacity no matter how I tried.
Everything is relative. In the words of the ancient adage, “one man’s meat is another man’s poison”. What one person values, another may think is valueless. What one person finds stimulating another may find overwhelmingly stressful. Personally I cherish the dark and can’t sleep with any kind of light because I grew up in the country but if you’re from the city or the suburbs a pitch-black night can be highly stressful.
We tend to think of stress as caused by something or somebody “out there” as in “they’re stressing me out” or “it’s so stressful”. We tend to think a lot about the physical and psychological manifestations of our stress response. It’s raising my blood pressure, giving me a headache, making me eat ice cream. I can’t sleep, I lost my temper, I drove into a lamp post. We go to great lengths to soothe and manage the symptoms of our stress; book a massage, have a drink, smoke a joint. What we rarely do is examine the true cause of our stress response.
At its core our stress symptoms are caused by our resistance to “what is”. Our inability to accept what is happening in the present moment. Now, for many of us, this means that recent events have us in a tailspin. What’s happening “out there” in some areas of the world can feel wrong, threatening and frightening. If we’re not mindful, our relentless stress response to these external events will bleed into everything we do, everything we touch and everything we think. This will make us, and those around us, increasingly emotional and physically unwell which only adds to our stress levels.
Of course resistance has always been necessary when it comes to standing up for truth, equality and fairness. We must make a stand for what we believe. But what will help strengthen us in this endeavor is to make sure we’re not exhausting ourselves unnecessarily with an ongoing stress response to current events. It’s not going to help. We need to conserve our strength so we can stand up for a better world. Be a better world. We need to be in the best shape possible to help others when they need it, to be fully equipped to handle the stresses in our own lives and the fortitude needed to fashion a future that includes fairness and dignity for all. We have the power to take charge of our relationship with unnecessary stress so let’s examine ourselves to find the answer that’s always within.