Seeing as today is stress awareness day I decided to write an article about it. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I have a Phd in stress. Yet I didn’t go to college to earn it, life has taught me it instead. It has been a very difficult course and my final ‘thesis’ has been hard earned. Stress has forced me to ask myself many questions but this one always rings the loudest: What needs to be stressed? My answer to this question has taken the form of 13 antidotes to stress that have worked very well for me as I reflect back over my chaotic life with an edifying 20/20 vision. Each antidote isn’t the only solution as they all have common ground and are inextricably intertwined more like concentric circles than stand-alone pillars. I was a very stressed person and I always thought I was on the verge of going completely insane, yet I didn’t. The reason I didn’t is obvious to me now because it appears that I was doing the 13 things that stressed people need to do. They need to…..
1 Practice triage
I have worked as a firefighter for 25 years. At a bad road traffic collision where people have been killed or seriously injured we use what’s known as Triage which is a process of determining the priority of the casualties treatments based on the severity of their injuries. The dead are left alone and covered with a blanket while we focus on the most critical casualties first. The term triage comes from the French verb trier, meaning to separate or select. Likewise, stressed people need to select and differentiate the things that they can do something about and the things they can’t. For example, when my little boy lost his kidneys and immune system to a lethal, rare type of kidney disease called FSGS there was nothing I could do about the medical situation but plenty that I could do to lessen our stress in those dire circumstances. So I did my own form of triage and it proved invaluable in lessening the overwhelming stress. I focused intently on anything that could lessen the gravity of the situation. I said to myself, okay his kidneys and immune system are gone but is there anything that I can do that I am not doing? And there was plenty to do. We live in a very rural area and power cuts were a regular problem. So I fitted a full back up electricity generator so that when the power did inevitably fail when he was on dialysis the stress was considerably lessened. I took numerous other actions that all proved to be invaluable and highly effective in offsetting the concomitant stress. The lesson learned is that triage is a very practical antidote to stress.
Use stress as an ally.
When I was chronically stressed I began to discover something. I asked myself some interesting questions such as, what if I have got it all wrong? What if stress is actually an ally? What if it is not the culprit that it’s made out to be? Subsequently, I discovered that stress indeed was my ally. When our little son went into end-stage kidney failure, my wife and I were given intensive training in home dialysis. The truth is that our lives were turned upside down with chronic worry and stress. We were absolutely devastated. Yet, I discovered that my stress had many benefits. It had us on guard for the slightest mistake in the dialysis system and our senses were super honed to any changes in our son’s physical condition. My wife became incredibly attuned to even the slightest change in the waste fluids from the dialysis that needed to be examined every morning. One such morning the worst case scenario happened but my wife spotted it very early. My son had contracted a lethal infection that was fast becoming sepsis which can kill a child in kidney failure in less than 24 hours. The way I see it, stress kept us on high alert that saved our son’s life and as we rushed him to hospital I quietly said an appreciative thank you to stress. Stressed people need to make friends with stress and discover for themselves the ally that it is. They need to ask themselves this question: How does my stress serve me? The answer to that question can radically change your mind about your situation. Stress can serve us very well and befriending it has many advantages. Just like the police force, stress protects and serves and once they have uncovered it’s protective function stressed people need to act upon its alerting function which is usually a clarion call for major life changes to be made.
3. Accept responsibility.
Many years ago I decided to renovate my wife’s family home with the intention of moving in there with my wife and our three children. It was the era of the Celtic Tiger here in Ireland and there was no shortage of cash. Then the crash happened and along with it went my building project. I became chronically stressed because I was now in negative equity and up to my eyeballs in debt. The house had gone way over budget and I blamed everyone especially my father-in-law for being economical with the truth in regard to the structural soundness of the house. Here’s the thing: he never approached me to renovate the house, it was I who instigated the whole fiasco. When I finally realised that when I pointed the finger of blame at him 3 fingers were pointing right back at me, I felt unburdened. It’s true. The truth does set you free. When I finally accepted responsibility I gained the clarity to take action. So I sold the house (at a huge loss) and got on with my life. Likewise, stressed people need to take responsibility for their lives and give up the blame game. Stressed people need to see that responsibility is better understood as response-ability and when they learn the ability to respond to their situation with courage and truth their stress with radically reduce.
Shift from literalism to metaphor.
Back to the housing fiasco. Taken literally, it would seem that all I was doing was improving my life. My father-in-law probably saw it differently and I am quite sure he reckoned I should have been put in prison for the safety of all houses. I can still see his face the day I broke down his beloved stairs and threw it out in the garden for firewood. In the end, I gutted the house from floor to ceiling and there was no end to the amount of money it consumed. If the roof was gone off the house then my stress levels were gone out through it. Having been hospitalised due to vomiting blood I decided to go for counselling. I didn’t have a choice. The stress was going to kill me. My counsellor was the wisest person that I have ever encountered and he eventually helped me see my stress metaphorically. It wasn’t about the house at all. It was about me. I was acting out on the world stage what I needed to do internally. Metaphorically, it was my own psychological house that I needed to get in order. It was my defensive walls of fear and anxiety that I needed to tear down. Stressed people would do well to look at their situation using the lens of metaphor. Literal interpretation will only lead to cul-de-sacs but metaphorical understanding will help them see the deeper reasons for whatever situation they may now find themselves in. One person’s stressor is another person’s challenge and we respond to life events not as they are but as we are. We all have our story and it’s a story that matters very much when stress comes knocking on our doors.
5. Become emotionally literate.
Anger isn’t aggression. In fact, anger and aggression are diametric opposites. The way I see it, aggression is the evicted tenant of anger. When we fail to listen to the message of our anger we disown it and send our stress levels through the roof. Stressed people are notoriously angry whether they know it or not. I was that angry man. Well, actually that aggressive man. One day my car was clamped when I was returning from the hospital with my little boy. I was very stressed and tired and needed to get home quickly to give my son his immuno suppressant drugs because I was already late administering them. I pleaded with the clamper but he didn’t care and snapped the lock shut. I flew into a rage but eventually had to eat humble pie and pay the exorbitant release fee. At the height of my rage, I was tempted to run him over. As he released the chains I revved my car as hard as I could so he threatened to call the police. I backed down in what was an undignified finish to a spectacular performance. Back in those days, I was extremely aggressive. Road rage was a regular occurrence until I realised that another person cutting me off reminded me of how cut off I was from myself. If anger is about blocked needs then what I needed was to go easy on myself, to be nice to myself and to listen to its compassionate message. Stressed people need to see that their anger is crying out for ownership. If they truly owned their anger and listen to its metaphorical intent then their stress levels would be dramatically reduced. Emotion always requires motion but that motion needs to be for themselves and not another. Aggression and fear are the hallmarks of the stressed and hidden behind them is usually an attitude of ‘I should be this’ or ‘I should be that’. The stressed need to let go of their shoulds by responding to the wisdom concealed in their emotional outbursts. Emotional literacy is one of the best antidotes to stress that I know of.
6. Practice pessimism.
I know this sounds counter-intuitive and goes against all the advice of positive psychology to focus only on the positive. I am not the ‘glass is half full’ type. Nor am I the ‘glass is half empty’ type. In fact, I am the “have we a spare glass in case it breaks” type. The ancient Stoics practised a technique called Negative Visualisation in response to the vagaries of their lives. Basically, they would imagine all the things that they took for granted being taken from them. By doing this they were tapping into the wisdom of gratitude and being appreciative of the good things in their lives. They were reflecting on their circumstances not from a point of view of lack but in terms of how much they would miss it if all they took for granted was swiped from under their feet. How wise the Stoics were. I don’t agree with everything they preached but I am singing off the same hymn sheet here when I consider my own life experiences. As you know by now, (I talk about him a lot) my son lost his kidneys, his immune system had brittle bones and an enlarged heart and was in the life-threatening category for two years. What I learned in those dark times was that the only way to cope with the stress was to imagine if things were a whole lot worse and it actually worked.
7. Practice familiarity.
Stress is a chronic form of malcontent. They say that familiarity breeds contempt. I would say that it breeds content. It seems to me that there are predominantly three types of stressors. The first type arises from within. The second type in relationship with others and the third in relation to life, work, career, events etc. I can relate to all three as I look back over my life. A major inner stressor for me was a concern about my body image growing up. I stressed about being fat and in my eyes, I was unattractive to the opposite sex. In my relationship to my parents, I was the people pleaser. Actually, I was Churchill’s appeaser hoping the crocodile would eat me last. The major life event that caused huge stress was my son’s illness and the ripple effect it had into every other part of my life. Here is the thing: having spent years examining myself and doing therapy I have realised that familiarity is a brilliant antidote to life’s stressors. Familiarity bred content when I realised that my stressors were messengers alerting me to do the deeper work and face the truth of my life story. Clever stress. Stressed people need to do a U-turn and become familiar with themselves which is probably the first time they will have ever done it. It all began in the family of origin and this is the place where the greatest human addiction was born. That craving is ‘everyone must like and love me’ which is the driving force behind so much stress. The antidote, of course, is to like and love yourself.
8. Listen to their bodies.
Many years ago in my professional line of duty as a firefighter, I attended a horrific car accident where someone was decapitated and burned beyond recognition. It is the most gruesome sight I have ever witnessed. A week or two later I found myself at another gruesome scene where a truck backed over a person’s head. In the weeks after I developed a chronic frozen shoulder that troubles me to this day. What I didn’t know back then, twenty years later I know now. My body was communicating to me how frozen I had become in the emotional realm of my existence. In recent years, I have developed trembling hands and an inner shaking that seems like an earthquake is happening. Here is the thing: At first the tremors frightened me but now they don’t scare me anymore because I have learned to listen to the wisdom of my body. I actually need to shake. It’s my bodies way of de-stressing itself and shaking itself free of chronic worry and tension. Clever body. Stressed people need to heed the wisdom of the human body and learn to interpret the symptoms metaphorically. For example, back pain is a very common stress-related condition and will have its own unique meaning for each person. If the back is the chosen canvas on which to paint their distress then stressed people might need to ask these questions. Are my backed into a corner or am I always backing away from what I really want to do with my life? Am I always getting my back up over things? Questions are a great way of getting on the quest for stress reduction and understanding.
Recently, I was out sweeping the driveway when a jet of water landed by my feet. I was puzzled because it was a fine, dry day. When I looked up I saw my son Aido, with nothing on but his boxer shorts, standing on the window board of his first-floor bedroom. To his heart’s content, he was peeing out the window. With his willy in his good hand and the other hand held together with titanium rods (after his kidney transplant he broke his arm in two places, contracted meningitis and had to deal with a full relapse of the disease), he took aim for me. I dodged the sniper’s second volley and ran for cover as the golden bullets whizzed past me. My parental instinct was to give out to him but how could I after all he had gone through? Instead, I burst out laughing. As I sat on the grass that fateful day I started smiling and for the first time I began to see that life was good. I had a sense that everything would work out fine. I remembered back to his dialysis days when I saw him crying at the window because he couldn’t play with his friends. Now my heart filled with joy as I watched this little legend who had been to hell and back finally getting to be a kid again. Even though the dreaded disease had reappeared in the transplanted kidney I had a deep inner conviction that all would be well in the end. Sometimes the best response to the things that we can do nothing about is to just laugh. In the fire service, we have a very black sense of humour which is really just a way of coping with very tragic situations. Sometimes it’s good to laugh and throw caution to the wind. Stressed people need to laugh more. The mortality rate is still one hundred per cent and not one of us is getting out alive. Every day we sit on the toilet bowl we are reminded of our mortality. If there is a creator, then he or she has a wicked sense of humour by giving us assholes as a daily reminder of where we are heading. All you can do is laugh. Consider this; nobody is going to give a crap (pun intended) who you are or what you were stressed about 100 years from now. The new flock will have taken over and undoubtedly will be totally consumed with their own stress. The absurdity of it all makes it hilarious.
10. Practice gratitude.
The universe is a funny sort of contraption that sometimes seems to give you exactly what you are looking for. The other day I was swimming in my local pool trying to de-stress and recover from two bulging back discs when I met a very interesting man. I had seen him a few times in the changing rooms but we never had any conversation. He seemed a little aloof so I was hesitant to strike up a conversation. However, one morning we both ended up in the steam room so I decided to break the ice. He turned out to be a very interesting man. I assumed he was in his early sixties and was taken aback when he told me he was eighty-four years old. He was the freshest eighty-four-year old I have ever seen. I noticed he had a very sad look in his eyes and I soon learned why. He told me that he was the father of six children and had tragically lost two of them to cancer. To compound his terrible grief, his wife had also died. He told me how he had a complete burnout but eventually turned his life around. He quit drinking and smoking and set up a very successful charitable organisation that has become his reason to get out of bed in the morning. What a legend. I wondered if I would have the inner strength to get out of bed every day if I had been through his terrible ordeal. We, the stressed need to practice gratitude. It is said that if we all were to throw our problems up on a table in front of us we would gladly take back our own. Gratitude is a magnificent antidote to stress. Driving home after my swim that day, I was dam grateful that my little boy was still alive. It could have been a lot worse as I knew so well having spent years in children’s hospitals. In fact, we shared a room with a boy that died. I have learned that gratitude is a wise attitude to the trials and tribulations of life.
11. Forget about themselves.
I know this sounds terribly counter-intuitive in this very narcissistic world of ours. However, life experience has taught me that sometimes we need to forget about ourselves and our problems for a while. When the battle was lost and my son lost his kidneys and his immune system, I hit rock bottom. However, the upside of hitting rock bottom is that you can’t sink any further. Around this time me and my firefighter colleagues decided to raise money for sick children. There are 22 fire stations in our City and County and we created a fundraiser called Climbing For Sick Kids. The plan was to climb Mt Everest on our ladders to raise as much money as we could to take well deserving sick kids to Eurodisney, Paris. The event was an enormous success and we ended up climbing Everest 3 times raising €150,000 in the process. There was a huge amount of organising and it was very time consuming but here is the thing: My stress vanished because I was no longer focused inwards and feeling sorry for myself. Stressed people need to find something that will help them forget their woes for a while. The best way to do that is to focus on others. As Anne Frank said; nobody has ever become poor by giving. Kindness is a wonderful antidote to stress and magically transforms self-pity into self-compassion. What’s the difference I hear you ask? There is the world of a difference. Self-pity is where you see yourself as the powerless victim of your circumstances whereas self-compassion is where you see that you have immense power to create change by having compassion for yourself first and from that place sharing that compassion with the world.
12. Get behind the mask.
I have no doubt that stressed people are wearing a mask and probably have been for most of their lives. As said earlier familiarity breeds content, not contempt. There is a good chance that stressed people have major contempt for themselves. They have more than likely created a life for themselves that is totally based on winning the approval of others. Stressed people need to find the meaning of their mask and then find the meaning in their mask. They need to take note, with compassion and respect, the different areas in their life where they don the protective mask. There is a good chance that they wear a mask at work, at home or everywhere they go and are possibly totally eclipsed. They need to learn to marvel at the mask for it is their own creation/reaction, (same words), to some type of threat. They need to find the safety to get behind the mask by finding a person or group of people who are on a similar journey. Birds of a conscious feather always flock together. As the African proverb says if you want to go fast go alone if you want to go far go together. Finding an environment that is the exact opposite of the environment that caused them to create the mask in the first place is a wise thing to do. In the absence of threat, it becomes easier to remove the mask and have that long overdue deeper dialogue. Stressed people need to see that the mask contains within it the seeds of its own obsolescence. Stress is the harbinger that demands its unravelling but they are the ones who need to pull the first string.
13. Embrace their suffering.
Nearly all stressed people end up at their doctor’s office. My doctor wanted to put me on anti-depressants but I resisted all the way. I knew deep down that my suffering was a path and not a pathology. I am not anti-medication by any means. If someone needs it then, by all means, they should use it. However, something tells me that it’s not a chemical imbalance but a consciousness imbalance. Carl Jung said it well when he said that there is no coming to consciousness without pain. So true. When we follow our pain we are true heroes. We find our own voice that the crowd will never again drown out. That’s exactly what our pain and stress intend for us. Pain is always aspirational and is telling us that we have taken the wrong road. Suffering can bring about the end of one world and the beginning of another. If it’s the grim reaper that demands the head of the false life on a plate it is also the midwife that helps to birth you into a whole new way of living. The labour pains are necessarily painful but eventually, you will reap the fruits of your labour. Pain demands self-confrontation. When we confront ourselves we see that we have been conning ourselves all along with our con-front or false front that we put out to the world. However, when we don’t respond to the whispers of our deeper selves, it becomes a shout and then an incessant scream that takes the form of chronic stress.
So I would like to end my ‘thesis’ with the question that galvanised me to write it: What needs to be stressed? What needs to be stressed to the stressed is that they are a once off beautiful creation in this world that will never again be repeated. This truth is mirrored in their fingerprints and DNA. Stress is stressing the point that the time has come to examine their lives and to discover the truth of their existence. Stress is their ally that is necessarily painful, otherwise, how would it get their attention? When responded to rather than reacted to, it will lead to a shift in conscious awareness that will lead to them realising with real eyes (realise) that the meaning of their life is discovering that they have already been living a life full of unique meaning that is peculiar only to them. For me, the jury had been out for quite some time with regard to stress but as I mature into middle age I am beginning to see that it is a wise creation, created by me, for me. When I get stressed (it’s unavoidable) I use an acronym to help me deal with it. The acronym I use is, well, STRESS. It stands for Something That Requires Expression Subconsciously Suppressed. When I get stressed I look for that something and nearly every time without fail that something proves to be my own immeasurable power.
It’s food 4 thought,