Freedom from unhelpful stress


Article first published in Cornwall Today as ‘Is Stress keeping you safe, or wearing you down?’.

Sometimes stress is an entirely appropriate response to a situation, but most of the time Stress arrives prematurely and is unhelpful. Learning to thank Stress for showing up, before sending it on its way, will free you from the stresses that don’t serve you.

April is Stress Awareness Month, which, given how persistent Stress is in many of our lives, seems a little greedy and untimely. It reminds me of T.S. Eliot who summed up the change WW1 made to the world by calling April the “cruellest month”. What does new life feed on, after all, if not the remnants of what came before?

Even Spring can be a monster when it affronts our feelings. Spring and Stress are familiar characters in our lives and colour our experiences with the emotions we expect of them. Spring is idyllic, innocent and uplifting. Or at least it was before the war. or before this bereavement or that illness.

Stress can also be flipped on its head and taught to serve us more kindly and April seems a good time to upend this troublesome companion. The 17th of this month is World Haiku Day and poets (excepting Eliot) have traditionally addressed more joyful themes at Springtime.

The words stress, stressed and stressful are often used like a musty blanket to hide under but Stress is actually a remarkably good friend, warning us with waves of cortisol and adrenalin when danger is near, keeping us safe.

Yet many of us experience stress in advance of difficulty, weaving fictional futures that ignore the evidence of past experiences. Much of this anxiety comes from letting Stress in when it isn’t needed, a bit like welcoming a fire-fighter into your home only to discover they’re also an arsonist. Stress is eager and sometimes needs to be asked to stand down: “Thank you, but this difficult phonecall/dentist appointment/extra shift isn’t going to kill me.”

I call this kind of anxiety, “dirty worry”. It isn’t useful and doesn’t serve us. It may sound odd, but I’ve found, and a great many of the people I have counselled over the years have found, that by creating a mindful dialogue with Stress it’s easier to tell whether your anxiety is useful. If it isn’t, thank your Stress and send it on its way. Cortisol and adrenaline may be exactly what is required in the face of war or wild animal, but longterm exposure to these chemicals is harmful and unpleasant.

Creating this different dialogue offers a new awareness of Stress. We notice its arrival and can consider whether its presence is appropriate or not. This awareness is another word for mindfulness and a useful form of exercise in emotional resilience.

Like any skill, mindfulness requires practice. Yoga, meditation and outdoor exercise are all beneficial because they remove us from fixed, reactive mindsets and train our emotional muscles to flex and respond.

This April at Lifetime we’re focusing on getting to know our Stress better. Our retreat this month offers a holistic starting point, providing food, exercise and conversation that nourishes body and mind, and you’re very welcome to attend.

If that’s not possible, our private Facebook group, Lifetime Therapy Gratitude Practice is a relaxed place where people of all walks of life notice and name the things they are grateful for. Wouldn’t it be nice to notice Stress, and to thank it once in a while?

Malachy Dunne

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