Can we talk about something other than stress?

I’d be rich if I had  a quarter for every conversation in which a client brought up fear of stress and the worry that it will make her illness worse. But is that the most effective use of time and energy?

According to Medicine Net ,  stress  “….is a physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension.  Stresses can be external , such as from environment, psychological, or social situations or internal, such as from illness or from a medical procedure. Stress can initiate a response, such as fight or flight.” 

Stress is an event . . . that happens to us  . . . that typically elicits a response.  

It’s a simple noun – not the bogeyman.  Stress doesn’t make us unhappy or sick.  It’s how we manage our response to stress events that can make things messy and difficult.  

Stress events are neither unusual nor avoidable.  If the temperature drops, you feel cold (stress event) so you turn up the heat or grab some gloves (response).  If you fall and your ankle hurts (stress event), you give it attention (response).  If someone gets angry with you (stress event), you feel upset  (response).  Your life is most likely filled with the mundane and the terrible types of stress that happen. Focus on eliminating stress and you’re trying to do the impossible and wasting your already limited energy.

If I were to start a social movement: 

  1. The twitter hashtag would be #livewellwithstress.
  2. The stress word would include a warning label:  “Use with caution.  If you live with a chronic health condition, this word can cause fear of living.”

Regarding #2,  I also have a problem with the prevailing ‘wisdom’ that stress induces disease. The thinking goes:  If you live with disease or any chronic health condition (such as chronic pain), it’s due to stress.  If you stay sick and don’t get better, it’s your fault because you haven’t sufficiently lowered the stress in your life.

I read a post from a career coach describing a client with ulcerative colitis who struggled to keep his job.  She coached him: “… to put his energy on eliminating the stress in his job so he could create wellness.”  That post got many ‘likes’.   Another person wrote in the comments that he urges his clients to look at the stress in their lives and figure out how to eliminate them — or they will get sick.

Huh? Is it that simple to prevent or cure chronic disease — or even the common cold?  You can’t eliminate stress but I bet you can do a better job of living well with it.

When I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 35 years ago, my mother, thinking that stress would make me sicker, desperately wanted me to do anything I could to avoid it.  Her fear was palpable and I absorbed it.  She would have loved to put me in a glass bowl where I’d be protected from the world and to prevent me from pushing myself in any way. Living as she wanted would have made me miserable and anxious, it would have been highly stressful for me.  But I couldn’t eliminate or avoid this particular stress, my mother.  Fortunately, over time, I learned to manage my response to her worry and that became a life lesson for me. 

Stress events are part of living as full a life as possible.  It’s more harmful to your health to try to avoid it.  In the words of one client, “I want to stop listening to people who tell me that stress is hurting me and that I’m making myself sick by working.  Enough with being scared!  I want to feel the gusto again. “

Over the years, I’ve become quite sick, gotten healthier, sicker, healthier, and so on.  I’ve tried to live without fear.  As I’m aging, I notice that it’s becoming more difficult to expose myself to potentially stressful events.  But then I remind myself that no good comes from focusing on avoidance. Stressful events and the tension they create will be the things that keep me alive and resilient. 

Do I have this mastered?  Hah, no. But I’m not going to let that stress me, either.

How about you?  What are you doing to manage the stress in your life?



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