Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Reclaim Your Health By Banning Stress

Stress is one of the biggest contributors to illness. It creates a constant strain in the body. You may eventually get used to the sensations of stress, but that doesn't make the effects less harmful. Especially over time, stress can lead to serious health problems.

Some people seem to think that it is impossible to ban stress from their lives. To them, stress is something that is just part of life and is naturally connected to certain life events. They implement 'stress management strategies' that make up for stressful times, and counteract or balance the effects of stressful life events. And while management of stress is very important, especially if you are in the middle of a struggle, it can also be sensible to look beyond this and ask yourself if it is possible to ban stress altogether.

If we just look at the way that different people respond to a potentially stressful situation, we can conclude that stress is not necessary at all. Stress is the result of a certain mindset that supports unhelpful thought- or behavioral patterns; it is something that is learned by a repeated sense of pressure, obligation and (self-)indoctrination. But since everyone is in charge of their own mind, each of us can also unlearn this stress-response by learning to recognize the 'causes' and unlearning the habitual structures that keep them in place.

So, what causes stress?

There are a few important habitual contributors (patterns) I would like to discuss here with some suggestions for how to overcome them. These observations come from personal experience with many 'potentially-stressful' life events, years of Mindfulness practice, working as a psychologist, and the regular practice of meditation and letting go. 

Causes of stress:

Identifying with (or repressing) emotions rather than letting them be
Whether it is anger, sadness, fear, jealousy, or any other negatively perceived emotion; if we allow the emotions to take over, then that could lead to a very stressful experience. It also paves the way for future stress, because you condition yourself to identify with your emotions. Repressing emotions is even worse and causes more damage because it has a cumulative effect.
Solution: See your emotions for what they are: Waves that come and go and nothing to be afraid of. Remind yourself that they will pass. Just let them stay for as long as they do without attaching to them (indulging in them) or repressing them.
If you need help with this, I can recommend the Sedona method or Vipassana meditation (learning to be the observer of your mind, with non-attachment and equanimity). Focusing practice can get you more in touch with feelings, if that seems difficult. And if there is a lot of built-up stress stored in the body already, then doing a body scan meditation regularly can be useful.

Habitually reacting to everything (usually impulsively) rather than giving yourself the space to deliberate and reflect
You don't always have to react to a situation instantly (or even at all), especially if you feel pressured to do so. This felt pressure often leads to a lack of clarity, so then it can be better to postpone your response. You may even decide not to react to something at all, even after deliberation, because it may simply not be worth your energy or time. Also, it helps to keep in mind that you never owe anyone an explanation. If you say 'no' to a request, then you don't need to apologize or even tell the person why you said no. And you always have the option to think about it first, rather than letting the pressure get to you and run the risk of reacting from a place of inauthenticity.
For example, if someone asks you to do something and you feel a huge resistance, it is a good idea to postpone your response, to let the feeling pass and then respond from a more balanced (and therefore more authentic) frame of mind. After all, you don't always have to react straight away. This way you can create space for yourself to follow your inner guide. This is especially useful if you have a tendency of wanting to please others, sometimes to your own detriment. If the person still insists on wanting an answer, then the answer will be 'no', because at that moment it does not feel right to you. So it is also in their best interest to give you space. And of course you always have the freedom to change your mind later. But if your response comes from an authentic place, then you won't have to.
So it is good to keep in mind that in addition to all the options you have to respond to a situation or to a person, you can also choose not to react to it, or at least give yourself time to respond. Vipassana meditation is perfect training to teach yourself this option and to experience the power that comes from non-reaction.

Moving away from control rather than staying within your power
That means: don't try to change others, such as their thinking or their behaviors. Always start with yourself. After all, you can always change yourself, and you have full control in that domain. And if you change yourself (thoughts, behavior, or attitude), then other people may change automatically (especially if you no longer need them to change). A lot of energy is lost for people who constantly worry/fantasize about what other people may want, how they feel about others, or how they can influence others in some way. And even more energy is wasted by planning future events, worrying about what may or may not happen, ruminating over the past, and chasing air (such as seeking love, happiness, security, or enlightenment; none of which can be found while in seeking mode).
So as soon as you notice yourself getting into battles of right and wrong with someone, or trying to force change upon others instead of inspire change, then you know that you have left your space of power. Byron Katie clarifies this point nicely: she distinguishes three kinds of business: your own, others' and the universe's business. So make sure you don't waste your time on any other type of business than your own. That is all you can do. And the less time you waste, the more energy you will have to do your part. You can focus all your attention on doing what matters. This is what will change lives. The ripples that come from this are the only thing that can change the world.
Non-attachment and feeling secure within yourself is key here. Stop seeking and be open to finding. You'll be amazed of what is already here and what comes to you without any effort if you stop chasing air and wasting time on external factors that drain your energy. One way to do this is by making freedom a priority. Choosing freedom for myself and others as a highest priority is one of the best decisions I ever made for my life.

Judging yourself and judging others rather than practicing acceptance
Judging yourself or others is a great way to stop connecting with someone on a soul-level and a great way to get yourself on the road to objectification and condemnation. If you find yourself being critical of others all the time, then it may be helpful to learn to let go of this in order to connect with others in a more fulfilling and meaningful way, which will eradicate the stress that comes along with it. Here are some guidelines:
1. Remind yourself that you may have misunderstood their intention. Also, moments and moods change if we don't hang on to them. So if you let go of what others said or did, it is also more likely that they shift their perspectives, because you keep them free of your labels, which can be just another obstacle they need to overcome before they feel they can change their mind. So give them space and give them time. Provide an atmosphere of acceptance without sacrificing yourself (=your own needs).
2. Try to see the world through their eyes. Imagine how difficult their life must be. See their struggle.
3. Remind yourself that they are doing the best they can, as you are.
4. Have compassion for yourself and allow yourself to feel what you are feeling. Know it will pass.
5. Postpone any outward response if you are triggered. Allow life to unfold before making judgments. You never know the full story and thus are in no position to judge.
6. Know that you are free to move on. You don't have to keep this person in your life if it doesn't feel right. Some people are just not a great match and they bring out the worst in each other. If you have observed that this is the case, then moving on is a graceful thing you can do that will be a gift to everyone involved.
7. And last but not least: don't take it personally. Everyone is fighting their own battle. It has very little to do with you, other than that you may be able to assist them in some way on their journey and they may be able to assist you.
The Work by Byron Katie can really help you dig deeper if you have a habit of judging others and if you want to cultivate compassion, and move back into your own power.

Should-ing yourself (and others) rather than prioritizing freedom
Another thing you can do to ban stress is to stop 'should'-ing. Shoulds often have a lot to do with the obligations we feel towards other people. This doesn't mean that you can no longer challenge yourself; it can be very fun and rewarding to do so. In fact for me, challenging myself is one of my core needs. It allows me to grow and explore. But it is always an expansive experience rather than a constricting one. It also has nothing to do with other people and doesn't require others to make any changes in their behavior towards me. So my challenges are a way to stretch myself beyond my perceived limits, rather than a rulebook of things I can no longer do or enjoy (or a rulebook of how others should behave around me).
Shoulds inhibit personal freedom. It makes you feel like you have no choice but to obey 'the rules'. Most countries have their own set of shoulds, and there are also some universal ones. This constricting effect on freedom is also a reason I am not a fan of social conventions, etiquette, certain traditions and (other) rules that restrict spontaneity. If followed too rigidly, they tend to take us out of presence, inhibit our natural flow, sincerity and openheartedness, make us self-conscious and just generally make everyone feel awkward and repressed. I am also not against these societal structures, but I prefer to see them as guidelines (coulds) rather than rules (shoulds).
You can let go of shoulds by deciding to, no longer caring what other people think of you for failing to conform and doing what you feel is right in each moment. If you are not a rebel by nature, it may help to take it step by step. To build a solid foundation for your practice, it can help to avoid all settings that are riddled with rules and expectations for a while, or any people, places or things that make you feel like you 'should' do things in a certain way. This can be friendships, the workplace, family gatherings, etc. Learning to break the rules (with consideration for others), will take you beyond the limits of social expectations and save you a lot of stress in the process.

Living in the past rather than celebrating the present
If you are obsessed with the past and find yourself thinking about it a lot, then it is impossible to stay present. And presence is key to overcoming the stressful mindset.
Solution: Make peace with your past. You can choose to let go and start afresh. Allow the things that happened to you to integrate and become part of you. Breathe into your experiences and see how they enriched you. If you feel violated by your experiences, see what steps you can take to step back into your power. It is still there. It is impossible to break a soul; it is untouchable.
If you need help letting go of the past, I recommend EMDR for traumatic experiences (things that happened in the past that you keep thinking about on a regular basis and associate with negative feelings), EFT (tapping), or Vipassana meditation (staying present). If forgiveness is the main issue, I recommend a process that is called PPP (Positive Psychological Programming), where you let go of your emotions step by step. If you need more information about this process, feel free to get in touch. For trauma, EMDR is amazingly effective, which I have personally experienced for myself and with others on several occasions. Just a few sessions can be enough to overcome a lifelong trauma (although more may be needed if the trauma is more complex or severe).

Living in the future rather than savoring the now
You may have a habit of worrying about future events all the time. This is a very good way to spoil the present moment and prevent yourself from enjoying anything wonderful. And this is sad, because life is generally wonderful (even in the presence of fear, sadness and anger).
Just the fact that you are alive today tells me the universe is looking after you. Trust that all will be well and that life will bring you exactly what you need at the right time. Because it does. Just allow life to unfold. Stop wanting to take control (because you can't). Just do what you feel you need or want to do. Let yourself flow with ease.
If you need help with letting go of future worries, I recommend any type of meditation, yoga, going for walks in nature, and any other activities that have a relaxing/grounding effect on you and allow you to flow with what is, right here, right now.

Dismissing your own needs rather than taking care of yourself
Last but not least, it is important to look after your needs and to do what you can to fulfill those needs. This doesn't have much to do with (e.g. work/life) balance (which is what stress-management is often about), but more so with awareness and flexibility. Since we are all different, it is likely that we all need different types of input and outlets. And these may also change and vary over time. For example, it might be that at times you don't need to spend much time with friends or hobbies, because you get enough fulfillment elsewhere. Some people may also have more energy than others, so they may seek to experience more. Others may need to reflect on life more often, so they may spend more time alone than others. And certain life events may also lead you to need more alone-time. So it is important to get in touch with what feels right to you and to share/communicate your needs with others. If it is somehow impossible to get a certain need met, then allow yourself the space to feel that too. If you continue to practice this and look after your needs, you will see that you will have a lot more to give to others.
So, looking after your needs is not a selfish act. It will make you a much more pleasant person to be around. People will want to know your secret. Also, many of our needs have to do with connection and giving to others, so if you continue to look after and fulfill your needs, you will also (most likely) spend more time helping and connecting with others.
If you need some more guidance with finding out what your needs are or how to express them to others, I fully recommend Marshall Rosenberg's Nonviolent Communication Training Course, which is available online.

Finally, some general guidelines:

- Keep an open mind. Stop defining yourself by your past. Let go of self-labels and stop labeling others, things and events. Treat others as free souls who can change; because you can too. Be open to change. Flow with life.
- Surround yourself by the right people: people who are supportive and accepting of you. If you don't know any at this moment, then it may be best to spend more time alone for a while. Practice self-acceptance. Explore your strengths and build on those.
- Trust the universe. Your path is taken care of. Everything that should happen, will happen. You don't have to plan anything to reach your destination. You only need to focus on doing what matters right now.
- Stay present: Past and future are not your concern. Not now, not ever. They don't exist.
- Stay connected to yourself in each moment.
- Connect with others on a soul-level. See others as enlightened and be open to learn from the experience of being around them.
- Focus more on similarities with others instead of differences.
- Transcend your emotions: this will allow you to connect with love and gratitude, which surrounds us all the time. Learn to tap into that.
- Have patience with others. There is nothing you need from them. You have everything you need in this moment.
- Get a sense of humor and stop taking life so seriously. Your life is meant to be enjoyed.
- Provide yourself with enriching experiences. Follow your heart and follow your dreams. Don't hold back. You only live this life once. Don't let it pass you by. Do what you love and love what you do.
- Focus on one thing at a time. Lack of focus will inhibit integration of experience. Integration of experience is what brings peace of mind.
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