Thoughts on how we respond to stress, along with an experiment for you to try.
by Michael Neill
If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment. -Marcus Aurelius
When I ask people what causes stress in their lives, they are often quick to come back with a litany of stories about external events ranging from lack of money to problems at work to arguments with loved ones at home.
But in fact, all stress is caused internally by only one thing-resisting reality. Without a story that says things should be other than the way that they are, we could not experience any emotional stress.
Think about it-does a stick floating down a river feel stress? No, it flows wherever the water takes it. No story, no stress. How does a plane fly faster and faster through the sky? By adjusting its wing configuration to minimize resistance. Less resistance, more speed (and less stress on the engines and wings).
What makes this 'stress as resistance' model so powerful is that once you really get it, you will see that: Your experience of stress doesn't come from life pushing on you-it comes from you pushing back!
This doesn't mean that resistance is bad. As any weight-lifter or body-builder will tell you, resistance is an excellent way of developing your muscles and building strength-it's just that it's a terrible way of creating change.
Change happens easily when you focus on changing what is within your control: your attitude and your actions.
'Attitude' is one of those unfortunate words which has lost much of its original meaning in the process of becoming a self-help catch-phrase. In the field of aeronautics, attitude refers to the 'orientation of an aircraft with respect to the horizon or other frame of reference'-or as my friend NLP innovator John LaValle describes it, the aircraft's 'angle of approach.'
Used in this sense, it's easy to see our attitude plays such an important part in lessening the impact of stress on our lives. When we approach the circumstances of our life from certain angles, they can seem overwhelming; when we approach them from a different point of view, we can often overwhelm them.
Each of the 'attitude adjustments' I recommend for reducing your stress and increasing your happiness and well-being corresponds to the steps of Reinhold Niebuhr's famous 'Serenity Prayer.'
As you learn to stop arguing with reality, let go of trying to control what is outside your control and make clear choices about how you want to be and behave in the world, you will find yourself with less stress and greater serenity than ever before.
1. Think of a situation you have been finding stressful. If you knew it was completely up to you, how would you choose to be in relation to that situation today? Happy? Strong? Curious? Loving? Accepting?
2. On a piece of paper, make a list of all the ways this situation is "bad for you." Now turn the paper over and make a list of at least as many ways in which the situation could be seen as "good for you." Take a look at each side of the paper in turn and notice how you feel. Whose side are you going to take? Which way are you going to choose to see the situation?
3. When you have decided how you want to be in yourself and how you want to see the situation (i.e. you have chosen your "angle of approach"), choose whether or not to take action to change it at this time. If you do decide to take action, do it within the next 24 hours if at all possible.
Have fun, learn heaps, and stress less!
Copyright Michael Neill. Adapted from "Feel Happy Now!" coming from Hay House in January '08.