As a culture, we tend to think about stress as something that happens to us from the outside. Another way to look at stress, though, is the entangling of our outer and inner experiences and the gap between how you want to feel and how you actually feel. I call stress the I-don’t-want-to-be-here-now feeling.
Say you have a bad day at work; your boss isn’t happy. You do everything you can to make her satisfied, but she just isn’t having it. You feel wiped out. You leave feeling less than, but without resolve. That’s stress.
Or, you go on a long-awaited Hawaiian vacation and instead of feeling energized like you did when you were online planning it, you feel anxious, crabby, or just plain down. You tell yourself you’re supposed to be happy—got to enjoy the sun, the turquoise water, and the cool drink in your hand before the end of the week. You can barely concentrate on the book you were looking forward to reading. Your mind and heart aren’t having it! Your reaction is different from what you expected, and this becomes stress.
Then you’re back at work, unhappy you didn’t get a break. Resentment builds and you feel stress, counting the days until the next national holiday or even until you can be sick. Stress then becomes about the gap between where you want to be and where you are.
How many of us have organized a party only to find that we enjoyed the impromptu time at the pub far more than the party we planned for months? Expectations can create stress.
Sure, there are things that would cause any human being to feel bad, but let’s think about this together. Stress could be defined as both (1) a normal reaction to what is, by anyone’s standards, hard, and (2) the resistance to what is.
Our reactions to stress get worse the longer we allow the reaction: The car breaks down; you have a reaction. The tow truck takes forever; you have another reaction. You get home and the kids are tired and cranky from their day, complaining about the dinner you managed to pull together with the leftover spaghetti and tacos; you have another reaction. Your spouse asks for something. Ack! You lose it!
Or, you keep running the same, stressful scenario through your mind, trying to solve it in a mental way rather than focusing on and perhaps even enjoying the moment.
Stress the affects how we feel about ourselves. We internalize the bad stuff and think it’s a reflection of who we are.
The answer might reside in the way we manage our stress. What if bringing in our inner voice of compassion, going to therapy, texting or calling a friend, connecting with animals, meditating, or going on a hike could interrupt the pattern of fighting what is and release some of the stress?
Now, it’s possible you might still experience stress, but you might not be as stressed about the stress as you would have been without these adjustments!
As a longtime meditator, some of my most stressful moments have been spent meditating for long periods, sitting with the inner experience of sadness, grumpiness, I-want-to be-anywhere-but-here kinds of feelings. That’s inner stress. It’s deep discomfort. Then it passes, and I feel stronger. Naming a feeling and tolerating it can actually strengthen your inner muscle to tolerate the hard stuff, to cope with the stress, and at least identify that signature feeling of “I don’t want to be here now.”
Part of what’s hard about life is that there is much we can’t control. There is much we can’t predict. But we can learn to cope with our feelings through active, intentional means, as in meditation, yoga, t’ai chi, or simply by bringing our attention through one sense to this moment.
Want to try it?
Take a moment. Close or lower your eyes and bring your attention to your breath. You don’t have to change it. Just notice how you’re breathing. Is it stuck in your chest or deep and full in your stomach? Take a moment and soften with kindness to yourself. Now, imagine a being (person or animal) whom you love very much who brings up joyful feelings. Bring this being to mind. Notice how your body responds as you think of this being.
Now, with great intention, take a deep breath, imagining that this person’s or animal’s love is pouring in through your lungs and heart. You’re breathing in their love and exhaling anything you don’t need or want. If it helps, say, “Ahhh” softly at the end of each breath.
If your thoughts have moved away, gently bring them back to this experience. Take another deep breath, all the way, allowing the experience of love to soften inside you. See if you can soften your shoulders, jaw, forehead, and neck as you do this.
Allow yourself to melt into the softening of your heart through your breath. Take another couple of breaths, each time bringing more and more love into your heart. Notice what you’re feeling. See if you can name the feelings that emerge. Allow each feeling, and take a breath each time you name a feeling. Again, allow yourself to soften with each feeling, noticing each one as though you’re counting clouds across the sky. Soften again, and with the warmth from this experience, notice how you feel.
If it feels right, I invite you to try this exercise daily and see if softening to your own experience with compassion lessens inner judgment and stress.
Bringing heartfelt connection is one way to begin to tolerate the openness that happens when you pay attention to your breath and mind. (This particular exercise is based on the Institute of HeartMath’s research on love and meditation.) As you do, you might experience less inner stress about the outer stress that is inevitable!
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