Stress and anxiety are undoubtedly one of the main causes of ill health in our modern world.
People are finding themselves under an increasing onslaught of stress inducing factors from our environment, physical causes and emotional circumstances.
But could how we see that stress in relation to ourselves be adding to the problem?
Stress and anxiety are, in effect, emotions – feelings, and associated physiological responses that occur in our bodies, in response to our current thinking. So, in reality, no different than all the other emotions we feel – emotions that make us caring, interesting and functioning human beings – joy, happiness, irritation, anger, jealousy, boredom, love, sadness ….. the list goes on.
Now I can just about guarantee that you, or anyone you know, hasn’t been to the doctors recently to ask for medication to help with feeling too happy, irritated, angry or jealous – or have particularly spent that long worrying about having any of these emotions at any point! And yet we do about stress and anxiety.
So why is that?
One of the problems we have with stress is that we personalise it –
We make it into an identity rather than just an emotion. I’m sure you have heard many people refer to themselves, or someone they know, as an anxious or ‘stressy’ person. Maybe you think of yourself like that. And how often will we say that it isn’t our ‘fault’ as our mother, father, uncle, grandparent, or some other close relative was also anxious so we’ve obviously inherited it?
But can this be true? Can we really just naturally be stressed?
The Human Genome project, which aimed to identify all the genes that go to make up a human being, failed in many ways to achieve its goal which was to identify the genes associated with every disease we can get (there simply weren’t enough genes found to cover them all!). But one thing it potentially did identify is that there is no such thing as a ‘stress’ gene. In other words you can’t inherit a tendency to be stressed or anxious. And if you think about it a baby isn’t born stressed or needing counselling!
So if we don’t inherit stress where does it come from?
The tendency to see ourselves as a stressed and anxious person is, in fact, a learned behaviour –
learnt from the actions, thoughts, beliefs and conditioning of the world around us – our parents, teachers, family and society in general, for instance. Because feeling stress and anxious isn’t a pleasant sensation we have come to see it as a problem, something to be avoided and dealt with. And by paying so much attention to it in this way all we end up doing is actually making it worse – and feeling worse as a result – stressing about stress.
But seeing stress for what it is – an emotion – and not creating our identity based on that emotion can help.
Treating stress and anxiety in the same way we treat all our other emotions takes the pressure off. We’re less likely to fret about it, and therefore it’s less likely to hang around that long, and less likely to have such a negative impact on our health. Just take some time to notice your feelings as you go about your day and how quickly they change – the feeling of stress will also change if you just let it.
And if you’re not convinced watch how quickly a young child will change its emotions – one minute angry and crying and the next laughing – they can do this because they don’t have that much thinking about how they’re feeling!
It’s an emotion not an identity.