Stress is defined normally as ‘a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.’ We’re sort of re-defining it in this series of articles as ‘a set of unknowns which the mind seeks to compute with, resulting in a state of mental or emotional strain or tension.’
As we’ve seen, when you’re immersed in the unknowns, everything seems overwhelming and the gaps, mysteries, blanks and holes and your own identity seem to be joined together as one thing. Recognising that this isn’t actually the case — that you are a being who is experiencing something called stress — is the first step towards moving slightly away from the turmoil, into a position we’ve called Fixed Orbit: you are still very stressed, still dominated very much by the unknowns at the centre of your anxieties, but not quite overwhelmed by them.
Then, with a little rough analysis of these unknowns, you may be able to step back a little further and achieve Wayward Orbit. Now the stress comes in waves, drowning you for a time but then backing off for a bit, like waves or a tide.
Stress is a real thing which exerts a real force over individuals, just as gravity exerts a force over rocks in space: it pulls you into orbit around it, and it’s often difficult to escape from that pull. You may occasionally slip back into earlier positions and feel that all is lost, or that you are helplessly stuck in the middle of something you can’t control. But the shaky, on-again, off-again relationship with stress that we are calling Wayward Orbit is achievable. Moving out of that state into a position which we’ve named ‘Opposing Terminals’, in which you and the stress appear to be on more or lesson equal footing with each other, takes quite a bit of work.
It starts, though, with what can appear to many as a surprising breath of fresh air.
In most cases, whatever the stressful trauma that is being endured, it’s possible to picture or remember or envisage a period or place outside that trauma. In the case of a health issue, this might be a time before the issue arose; if the stress is to do with a relationship, then there’ll probably be a time before that relationship began or a zone of life outside its influence. If the stress is financial, there may be a time when it wasn’t so intense or when money was plentiful. The next steps up this stress ladder involve building upon times or places beyond the reach of the stress. If these can’t be isolated in real life, they can be imagined. The idea is to build up a ‘positive terminal’, a zone that exists in its own right, not related to or connected to the stressful situation at all.
You might need to use your imagination; if you’re a writer this might come more easily.
1. Picture yourself free of the stress or anything to do with it. What do you look like? What are you doing? What would you plan or begin to think about?
2. Extending the above, free from the stress, what would you like to do? Think of daily activities, weekly activities, yearly activities that you would engage in if the stress were no longer there. Go into as much detail as you like.
3. Have there been times when there was no stress from this particular quarter? What were you involved in during those periods, if so? Would you continue doing these activities or develop new ones?
4. Now do everything you can, within the time and resources you have available at the moment, to actually engage in the activities you have outlined above.
Of course, this might be limited activity -- and at any time these mental constructs may tumble down — your stressful circumstances are undoubtedly very real and powerful. But that is to be expected at this stage. Just as an electrical current flows back and forth between opposite terminals, so your stress will occasionally get the better of you and 'reverse' you. However, progress is being made — at least for part of the time you are aware that your life is not entirely to do with stress. You are no longer in orbit around the stress, however large it may loom.
Throughout these de-stressing exercises, it’s vital to maintain as much as possible a healthy diet and a good sleeping regimen. Stress is exhausting — your body and mind are working overtime to deal with an invisible foe. It may help to picture stress as a kind of virus which is consuming your mental and physical resources in the same way that a pathological condition does. The day will leave you feeling drained and sleepy as though you’ve been working physically hard for hours. So get the sleep you need, and try to feed your body with the healthy ingredients it requires to combat an illness.
The next few steps are crucial. You’re no longer basing your whole life upon the stressful situation; now you need to truly break free from it.