This is an issue that every single one of us can relate to. For some of us it is more situational and for some of us it is a constant day-to-day struggle.
What is stress? I consulted Merriam Webster Online for this one.
Here is what they write:
1. “A state of mental tension and worry caused by problems in your life, work, etc.”
2. “Something that causes strong feelings of worry or anxiety.”
3. “A physical, chemical or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation.”
Interesting. A state of mental tension, caused by problems, and that causes worry, anxiety, and bodily tension. We will revisit this in a moment.
Before I started my master’s program in Chinese Medicine, I was one GIANT ball of stress. Constantly. I didn’t know how to relax. I also had no idea that life could be different. Here was my life: I had a plan or an idea of the way things should go, then something happened that thwarted my plan, I went into a tizzy and freaked out, I pouted and mourned my loss, and then I took out my frustration on others, or kept it all bottled up inside and made myself sick.
Sound familiar to anyone? This is the way I grew up and what was modeled for me. I know we all have different experiences, but this was mine. I grew up with my mom and my sister- my parents divorced when I was 5 and then we moved far away from my father when I was 13.
My mom was an alcoholic and a single mom doing the best she could. Because of her drinking, she was unable to express herself in a calm manner. We grew up in a very volatile household with all of her stresses being taken out on my sister and I. The only coping skills I knew were to behave exactly as she did- freak out when something went wrong, and then take it out on someone else.
Yuck. That is not a nice way to live or to be. Of course, as I matured, I became aware of how my actions impacted the people I loved, but I felt helpless as to how I could change. It was like I was stuck in a pattern.
But that is all that it was. A pattern. There wasn’t something wrong with me, which I believed. It was just a pattern I had developed.
When I was in acupuncture school, studying Taoism, I learned a profound lesson. I could change my pattern. I didn’t have to react the way I was habituated to reacting. That was just a pattern. The study of Taoism changed my life. For those of you who have never heard of it before, or think it might be a cult, I assure you, it is not scary. Taoism is a philosophy that is pervasive in Chinese culture. And it greatly influenced the development of Chinese medicine.
The basic premise of Taoism is to learn to go with the flow (Wu Wei), and to connect with the natural flow of nature and live your life in sync with the ways of nature. The book Tao Te Ching is the treatise book on Taoism written by Lao Tzu in 6th century BC. There are many translations out there, so I will not recommend one book over another- I think it is personal- whichever one speaks to you most clearly is the one for you.
The story that served as my epiphany was this: when a large boulder blocks your path what do you do? The person who is connected with the Tao would simply find a way around it.
The person not connected with the Tao would scream, and fret, and pout, and agonize that their way had been blocked. Sound familiar?? Hmmm. A BRIGHT light went on for me then. I realized that I had a CHOICE! Who knew that when dealing with life you had a choice? I didn’t! But in that moment I realized that the only thing I could control was how I chose to perceive what was happening, and how I chose to react (or better, respond) to things.
So, often our worries and anxiety come from feeling out of control, but dearly wanting to be in control. The key is to LET GO of your attachment to outcome, and understand that you can’t control what will happen. You can do your best in a given situation, but then you have to let it go, because you can’t control what others do, or what the weather does, or if a large object suddenly blocks your path, etc.
The other aspect of this is your perception.
Did you know that we don’t all see the world through the same lens? I am sure you have heard of the glass half-empty vs. glass half-full. Some people choose the glass half-full lens, and things appear rosier and not as grim, and then others choose the glass half-empty and things appear grey, and dark, and gloomy. If you tend to be one of those glass half-empty people, I invite you to try to look on the bright side on occasion.
The only things you have control of in the whole wide world are how you choose to perceive a situation and how you respond to it. For me, realizing this was liberating. Completely.
I invite you to ponder this for a while, and start practicing letting go of your need for control and viewing situations through a different lens.
We will continue this discussion next week, but for now, let me know your thoughts in the comments section below. How do you tend to see the world? Do you allow your need for control to cause you anxiety and worry? How can you work on changing that?