Hands On Therapy | Moving Towards A “Stress-Free” Life
2388
page,page-id-2388,page-child,parent-pageid-2315,page-template-default,ajax_fade,page_not_loaded,smooth_scroll,,wpb-js-composer js-comp-ver-3.6.12,vc_responsive

Moving Towards A “Stress-Free” Life

Introduction

In my work as a Myofascial Release Therapist, I see the effects of my clients’ “stress levels” in each person who gets on my table. Having been in practice for many years, I find that even the most comprehensive treatment program for musculoskeletal pain and other physical discomforts can be defeated or dramatically curtailed when dangerous patterns of self-destructive behavior and/or thinking persist. The patterns to which I refer in this article are those that involve stressors and stress.

As participants and observers of modern society, we are all intimately aware of the use of the word “stress”.  Unfortunately, it is often used with vague connotations in phrases like “I’m stressed out”, “that was a stressful time in my life” or “I carry my stress in my shoulders”. If this concept of stress were used in a more precise and insightful way, we might begin to recognize that stress can be controlled or influenced. Having a merely colloquial comprehension of stress does not encourage us to look into the full and true nature of stress.

This article is designed to take the reader on a step-by-step process providing insight into the valuable ability to reduce physical and emotional pain caused by stress and explains how the best way to avoid “being stressed” is by identifying what messages are driving us to the experience of stress. The asterisk* in the title is meant to indicate that there is no such thing as an absolutely “stress-free” life. Our goal is to get as close to that condition as possible.

Amazing changes can result in the fascial system, in the strength of muscles, in the flow of chi and in the fluidity of motion in the body. In order to make these changes non-transient, more than just a change in the physical and energy body may need to occur. A change in belief patterns must also align with changes in physical patterns! So let’s start our exploration of this concept by defining some of the language within the topic at hand.

Step 1

Stressors vs. Stress Basics

The first step in this discussion is to distinguish between the often-confused terms ‘stressors’ and ‘stress’. We will define the word “stressor” as a condition or expectation existing outside one’s physical and emotional self and outside one’s control. There are different places we encounter stressors: Stressors in our immediate environment; stressors in our non-immediate environment; and then stressors all over the world! In every country, city and culture and family there are stressors that exist. Because of the wealth of stressors in our world, let’s distill the definition of stressor a little further by differentiating between two types of stressors. Let’s call them potential stressors and kinetic stressors.

Potential stressors are those that lie outside of our awareness. For example, on a day-to-day basis we are unaware of what is going on with our cousin John because we don’t have a play-by-play report or experience of his life (Cousin John is obviously not on Facebook!). However, if we are informed of a condition that exists- in this case perhaps Cousin John has contracted a rare fatal disease- then the knowledge of this reality changes from a potential stressor to a kinetic stressor- a stressor that is now within our field of active awareness.

Another example of a potential stressor is a decision that is being made in a private meeting between our boss and her superior in which they are deciding to terminate our position within the company. The reality of us losing our job is occurring in the present moment, but it is only when we are made aware of it the next day that it transforms into a kinetic stressor because the information is now in our field of active awareness.

Let’s take a moment to remember that these are still stressors at this point. In other words, these two examples are conditions or expectations existing outside our physical and emotional self and outside our control. We cannot control stressors. We can only be aware of them or unaware of them. That being said, unless potential stressors are brought into our awareness thereby making them kinetic stressors, they have little or no impact on our immediate reality. The bulk of the discussion in this article will focus on kinetic stressors. So from here on, when I use the word stressor(s), I am referring only to kinetic stressor(s).

Review
Stressor” is a condition or expectation existing outside one’s physical and emotional self and outside one’s control.
Potential stressors are stressors that lie outside of our awareness.
Kinetic stressors are stressors that are within our field of active awareness.
Now that we have defined and differentiated the two types of stressors, let’s turn to the definition of stress for a moment. The following one-line definition will be the launch point for the remainder of the discussion as we expound upon the individual concepts within this definition. Stress is our physical and emotional reaction to a stressor through the filter of an internalized message that is applied to the stressor. Obviously, there is some explaining to do!

The physical and emotional reactions in the definition of ‘stress’ mentioned above can be one or many of the classic symptoms of stress. For example, pain, shallow breathing, difficulty sleeping, incessant worrying, overeating, tight muscles, uncontrolled emotions, sadness, and addiction can all be physical manifestations of “stress”. Take a moment to list what physical or mental reactions you have when you consider yourself “stressed”.

Two Examples of Stressors

For the sake of emphasis, I’ll state one more time that stressors are external and stress is not external. Likewise, stressors are not internal but stress is internal.

Apart from their location inside or outside of our selves, what is the relationship between stressors and stress? This is the most furtive, yet most misperceived, idea to which I hope to bring awareness. The common belief is that stress encompasses all the crazy and anxiety-filled things going on in our world and our reaction to the craziness. While this is a seemingly simple and obvious idea, I assert that it is incorrect, or at the very least, imprecise! There is much more to the equation.

We cannot control stressors. We can only be aware of them or unaware of them.
Let’s take a look at two different scenarios in order to help us sift out the particulars in the relationship between stress and stressor:

Scenario 1: Someone we care about and are connected to- perhaps a parent or a sibling- asks us to sit in a chair and not get up until we have turned our hair blue merely by thinking of the word ‘blue’.

 

The first thing to note about this situation is that the condition/expectation belongs to another person at this point. The expectation was made without asking our opinion or assessing the reality of such an outcome. After all, we can’t really turn our hair blue just by thinking of the word blue can we? It’s a pretty silly expectation, actually. So, in this example, are we likely to feel stress because of this silly expectation? Doubtful. Nevertheless, we have an expectation or condition that someone else is trying to apply to us and that expectation is in our field of awareness but we have no stress about it.

Scenario 2: Our boss expects us to finish a project by the end of the day or we could get fired. But we know that the project we are being asked to complete would realistically take two days to complete.

Would this create a certain amount of stress? Very possibly so. This scenario is a little more visceral, is it not? So, why the difference? Is it because the second scenario of completing two days work in one is any more physically possible than turning hair blue?  Not necessarily. So why might the second scenario create more stress?

Stress is our physical and emotional reaction to a stressor through the filter of an internalized message that is applied to the stressor.

Step 2

Exploring Where Stress and Stressors Interface

We have defined stressors and stress as two different phenomena. One occurs externally and one occurs internally, respectively. Examples were given in the previous section regarding the interplay between the two phenomena asserting that the interplay between the two is not as straight forward as we might think. So where do these two worlds really meet? Or do they ever actually touch?

To answer that question let’s introduce a new field of interaction (and the crux of this discussion) by asking “Where do stressors and stress ‘interface’?” An interface is an object or concept through which two separate objects communicate or influence one another. For us, the interface between stress and stressors lies in our beliefs and the identifiable messages that relate to those beliefs.

belief is an overarching theme established in the formation of our persona- who we believe we are and what we should be doing to reflect who we are. To borrow from the words of Abraham-Hicks, a belief is a habit of thought. We perpetuate these habits of thought of who we are (or should be) in our daily routines, in the way we approach our work, in our religions, in our relationships, in our communication styles- in every aspect of our living! These habits of thought are expressed to ourselves, our children, our friends, our family, to everybody through our actions and through the transference of messages.

Messages are situation-specific applications of a belief. Many messages can arise from one belief. These messages can be spoken aloud, spoken internally to ourselves, delivered by body language to others or exerted by insidious repetitious behavior over a period of time upon those who look to us to find their way in this world- namely our children.

Here are three examples of beliefs and two situation-based messages that might arise out of that belief.

Belief: I was never good enough for my mom.
Message 1: If I make more money at my job, I will impress my mom and then I will be good enough for her.
Message 2: If I can find a husband that she will approve of, maybe then I will be good enough for her.
Belief: The future is scary if I don’t have enough money.
Message 1: If I am late just once I will lose my job and I will be out on the streets.
Message 2: I have to take a job that pays more as opposed to a job that I love.
Belief: I have to do what my father says or I will be punished.
Message 1: I can’t speak up at work because my boss will fire me.
Message 2: I have to let someone else decide for me, then it won’t be my fault if things go wrong.
Review
The interface between stress and stressors lies in our beliefs and the identifiable messages that relate to those beliefs.
A belief is an overarching theme established in the formation of our persona- who we believe we are and what we should be doing to reflect who we believe we are.
Messages are situation-specific applications of a belief.
It is through the interface of our beliefs that the external environment influences the internal environment. That is to say, it is through beliefs and messages that we allow stressors to transfer into the body and become stress! How does this happen?

As stressors (from the external environment) arise, we tend to see them through the filter of our beliefs and then try to react to that stressor according to our current belief system. We view that stressor as something that threatens our belief system or we try to force our body to conform to the stressor based on our belief system. Instead of evaluating the stressor on its own merits as possible/impossible or wanted/ unwanted we apply habitual thought to the matter and try to figure out how to react (re-act = acting in a way we have in the past).

When we do not ask “What is a healthy way to respond to this stressor?” and, instead, apply habitual thinking that does not serve us or respond to the stressor with an action that cannot physically be sustained our body responds with stress. We react this way at the expense of our health because, if we attempt to preserve the belief instead of coming to a clear understanding of the reality of the stressor, we push our body further than we should for good short-term or long-term health and our body and psyche begin to manifest the symptoms of stress.

It is our level of stress that should be an indicator of whether we are responding instead of re-acting. Stress levels are an indicator of whether we are responding in a way that serves us versus not serving us. Stress levels tell us when we are pushing our body and psyche beyond its capacity to adjust!

In our examples above, we were presented with an example of being asked to turn our hair blue. If we do not believe that we can turn our hair blue by thinking of the word ‘blue’ then there is no belief that takes that external expectation (external because someone else asked us to turn our hair blue) and turns it into some internal (internal because one calls oneself to action) expectation of achievement.

However, in the more plausible Scenario 2, we might have some applicable beliefs that can then cause stress internally. When we have an expectation from our boss that we have to get a two-day project done in one day we can produce a message in alignment with a reality that protects us from injuring our body or psyche that might go something like: “I’m sorry Andrew (the boss in question), I know we need to have the project finished, but, because I, like every human, have physical limitations and, because you are asking me to do it by myself, that expectation is unrealistic.” On the other hand, we can defer to a belief that we learned long ago that says “I have to do this because my ‘authority figure’ says I have to.” Or perhaps the old belief is “I am super-human and I can do anything that someone asks me to do”. Neither of these two beliefs/messages are congruent with reality. But in order to fulfill the belief that “I must obey my authority figure” or “I am super-human”, we force our body and mind beyond its physical limitations which causes the manifestations of stress (i.e. back pain from sitting for 24 hours straight, neck pain and eye strain from concentration, muscles that tighten in reaction to the “stressful situation”, increased stress
hormones being released from lack of rest, etc.). So, in cases like this, when we act on a belief that cannot realistically fulfill an external expectation, stress occurs in the body.

Review
It is through the interface of beliefs that the external environment influences the internal environment. It is through beliefs and messages that stressors transfer into the body becoming stress.
It is our stress level that should be an indicator of whether we are responding instead of re-acting.
When we act on a belief that cannot realistically fulfill an external expectation, stress occurs in the body or psyche.

Step 3

Changing Beliefs, Not Stressors

To recap, in the scenarios above, we have a situation where we have no problem dismissing the expectation of turning our hair blue because we don’t have a related belief that triggers an internal reaction of stress. But in the latter example we may have one or many components in our belief system that are activated by the unrealistic demands of an authority figure. So, if a stressor (external) does not activate a component in our belief system that doesn’t serve us, then it remains external. If a stressor does trigger friction in our belief system, it translates into  stress (internal). So I present the argument that, to reduce or minimize (internal) stress, it is not the (external) stressors that need to be avoided or changed or manipulated, but it is our belief systems that must be examined in order to replace beliefs that are not serving us with those that will! Let’s face it, we will never be able to get rid of stressors no matter how much we fight, run or brace because we cannot control others- period! What we can control (with insight, exploration and effort) is our belief system and the messages that arise from our belief system.

If you feel like it would benefit you, take a moment to ask yourself the following questions. I recommend that you read each question one at a time, put this article down, quiet your mind and receive whatever answers arise. Give each question a moment to percolate before moving to the next question.

  • What is a belief that you received from your father? In what message(s) is that belief carried out from day to day?

  • What is a belief that you received from your mother? In what message(s) is that belief carried out from day to day?

  • What is a belief that you received from your closest sibling? In what message(s) is that belief carried out from day to day?

Once you have identified a belief you have received from another, ask what messages you might use from day to day that are supported by this belief. Then, ask: “Is this belief serving me?” You will know if it is serving you if, when you apply this belief or its messages to stressors in your life, you feel minimal or no stress in response to those stressors.
Review
To reduce or minimize (internal) stress, it is not the (external) stressors that need to be avoided, changed, or manipulated. It is our belief systems that must be examined and replace beliefs that are not serving us with those that will!
We will never be able to get rid of stressors no matter how much we fight, run or brace because we cannot control others– period!
Identified a belief you have and ask: “Is this belief serving me?

Step 4

Taking A Closer Look at Belief Systems

For the purpose of this article, let’s delineate two types of beliefs. Ones that serve us and ones that don’t. Put simply, beliefs that serve us are ones that empower us and make us feel good. Beliefs that don’t serve us do not empower us and make us feel bad! It is important to note that we can have dysfunctional beliefs in our belief system without making our entire belief system dysfunctional.

Continuing to put it simply and assertively, if an external situation causes internal strife, one should call upon himself or herself to examine what belief is at play and ask “Is this belief serving me?” Remember that a belief about one’s self or the world is carried forth as situational messages and there can be many messages stemming from one belief.

So our life-long refinement becomes a process of identifying when a stress reaction is occurring, hearing the message that is driving the situation and asking “what is the belief behind that message?” Then, we ask: “What message would serve me better?”

Here is an example of old beliefs being replaced by corresponding messages that might serve us better:

Old Belief: “I am not good enough.”

Messages:
“That’s too extravagant for me to do for myself- I don’t deserve that.”
“She won’t go out with me because she is out of my league.”
“I can’t ask for a raise. I would never get it.”
“I should put others before myself.”

New Belief: “I am good! I am enough.”

Messages:
“I have done the work to see how I am just as deserving as anyone else.”
“I am a kind and good person. If that is the kind of man she wants she will be attracted to me. If not, then ‘c’est la vie’.”
“I am deserving of a raise because I have worked hard for it. If I am valued, there is little reason to be denied a raise.”
“If I don’t take care of myself I cannot take care of others!”

4 Steps To The Refinement Of Living A “Stress-Free” Life

    • Step 1:    Identify when a stress reaction is occurring.

    • Step 2:    Identify the message that is driving the stress reaction in relation to stressor.

    • Step 3:    Ask “What is the belief behind that message?”

    • Step 4:    Ask “What message would serve me better?”

In Practice

To further see how this refinement of a stress-free trajectory through an interchange of beliefs can happen, let’s look at a conversation between two friends as we see how such a revelation might unfold:

Wendy: Stress is killing me! I’ve had a headache for a week and there is a knot in my shoulder that will not go away!

Marsha: What is it that is causing you stress?
Wendy: I’ve had to work really long hours for two weeks straight.

Marsha: So you feel like you have to work long hours?
Wendy: Well, I have to work until the job is done.

Marsha: And who said you have to do that?
Wendy: My boss does.

Marsha: So the expectation that has been placed upon you, in other words, the external stressor, is this: My boss expects me to keep working until the job is done?
Wendy: Yes.

Marsha: And what is your body saying about that? And by that I mean, what signs of stress are you seeing in your body?
Wendy: I have headaches from staring at the computer for so long. My low back hurts from sitting in my office chair for hours on end. I can’t sleep at night because I am up thinking about what I didn’t get done that day. I am grumpy because my body hurts and I don’t have enough time to do the things I need to do at home and to spend enough time with my children!

Marsha: Okay, so we have identified the stressor- your boss’ expectation- and we have identified the stress that your body is experiencing. So let’s partition some of the messages and beliefs that are linking the external to the internal. Why do you have to work long hours just because your boss tells you to?
Wendy: Because he is my boss and I have to do what he tells me to do.

Marsha: What if you didn’t do what he tells you to do?
Wendy: I would get fired or I wouldn’t get promoted.

Marsha: And what would happen if you got fired?
Wendy: I wouldn’t have a job and I have a family to support.

Marsha: So, your body is obviously telling you that it cannot handle the long hours- that is your reality check. And it is obvious that if you keep asking this of your body it will only get worse and worse. So is your job more important than your body?
Wendy: Well, since I need my body to do any job, whether it is this job or another one I would have to say
‘no’.

Marsha: Okay, so what if you went to your boss and said “My body cannot handle the work load that I have?”
Wendy: He’s my boss and I have to do what he says.

Marsha: Who said? Have you approached him with your complaints?
Wendy: I can’t do that. I couldn’t tell him that.

Marsha: So what is the belief that gets in the way of you telling your boss that you are trading your health and your relationship with your children for his expectations of your work?
Wendy: I guess it is that he is an authority figure and I can’t ask for what I need, nor can I say I can’t do something because he would think less of me.

Marsha: And from who did you learn that belief?
Wendy: It’s always been that way. It’s commonly understood.

Marsha: But from who did you learn that belief?
Wendy: My parents I guess. Well, okay, my dad. He was a very strict man and he was my tennis coach until I was in high school. He would make me practice every day and wanted me to be a professional player. I’m remembering now that he would make me do drills every day even if I had an injury.

Marsha: So this belief that you don’t have the authority to say what is best for you and to establish your limits comes from way back then and is now being expressed through the authority figure who is now your boss?
Wendy: Yeah, I see your point…

Marsha: So what is a message that might better serve you and empower you to make changes that will
decrease your stress, give you more time to be with your family and ensure that you can work for as
many years as you want to without having to have surgery or be crippled when you retire?

Wendy: Something like “I will always work to the best of my ability but I know what my body needs and I
have the right to ask for what is best for my health and my family”?

Marsha: That’s a great start!

So in this example, we did not explore every message at play. What we did exemplify was how beliefs can and do influence what we tell ourselves day in and day out and how holding onto these beliefs can limit and even injure us. What we read here was an example of how we trade our health and welfare to preserve our beliefs even though the large majority of time we have no idea that we are doing it! Then, once we have worked to identify the current message and the underlying belief (and it isn’t always necessary to find out where it came from- though it is often very interesting), we can replace the errant message with one that will serve us here and now.

Step 5

De-Colloquializing Stress

Now that we have explored the ins and outs of stressors vs. stress, let’s go back and take a quick look at a small sampling of the colloquial language surrounding the topic and debunk some of these phrases. The reason for doing this is to begin to change our language around the topic so that we are less likely to fall back into old patterns of thought and behavior with stressors.

“I carry my stress in my ___________”
Our physical reactions to stressors internalized as stress vary widely from person to person. I hear this process expressed with regular frequency in phrases such as “I carry my stress in my hips” or “my low back holds my stress”. What does the phrase “I carry my stress in my shoulders (or insert your area(s) of the body)” really mean? The way to phrase this sentiment more precisely is: “My pattern is for my body to express my re-action to messages about stressors by tightening my shoulders”. We would probably be met with some strange looks if we used that phrasing, but, in order to discover how not to “hold stress” in our body, begin to think of situations in this manner: I can feel a physical reaction to this situation so I must be internalizing a stressor. Then we ask “what message(s) would serve me better so that I don’t internalize?”
“I’m stressed out”
A closer look at the sentiment behind this phrase when reworked with our new understanding of stress might go something like this: “My body is telling me that I have been internalizing an external stressor. So, A) What is the external stressor(s) and B) what message do I have about that stressor(s)?” The phrase “I’m stressed out” is much different than “I have stress about this.” It would indicate that the body has been under duress for quite some time and has reached a level of being “stressed out”. So we may have an additional belief or message at play that says “it is okay for me to not feel good for an extended amount of time”. That message, too, can be explored and a new message that serves the long-term health of the individual can replace it. If we feel a stress symptom, we are internalizing a stressor. We must immediately intercede to find out what belief/message is doing damage to our system.
“He/She/That stresses me out!”
The first thing to note here is that we are now moving from situations being the stressor to actual people being the stressor. It is important to look closely at this kind of statement because we can often see things in these other people that “drive us crazy” about someone in our nuclear family (Mom, Dad, Sister, Brother) or perhaps even in ourselves. So a more insightful statement might be “When I am around this person I feel__________. My belief about feeling this way is___________.”
Another set of beliefs that relate to tho this message may revolve around the idea of how we must act around others despite what emotions arise around a certain individual. We can access that belief by filling in the blank in this sentence: “I believe I have to be/act __________ around this person in order to preserve how people see me.” In this case, the emotion that you feel is incongruent with the way you are forcing yourself to act and internal stress can arise due to the cognitive dissonance (believing one way while acting in a way not in accordance with that belief). If we feel that we have to maintain a belief about the way we feel we should act but the external stressor is driving us to act differently, thereby challenging that belief, stress can occur in the system because it takes energy to resist that drive.

There is certainly more to explore in this particular colloquialism but the discussion so far has, hopefully, provided a little insight on the topic.

Summary

This article was designed to take the reader on a step-by-step process to provide insight into the valuable ability to reduce physical and emotional pain caused by stress and explain how the best way to avoid “being stressed” is by identifying what messages are driving us to the experience of stress. Stressors, as the external component of this equation, are often internalized, not because of any genuine assessment of possible/impossible or wanted/unwanted, but rather from re-actions based on our beliefs. It is through our beliefs and the correlating messages that other’s expectations or perceived expectations are brought into our internal environment and experienced as “stress”.

It is our level of stress that should be an indicator of whether we are responding instead of re-acting. Stress levels are an indicator of whether we are responding in a way that serves us versus not serving us. Stress levels tell us when we are pushing our body and psyche beyond its capacity to adjust!

So our life-long refinement becomes a process of identifying when a stress reaction is occurring, hearing the message that is driving the situation and asking “what is the belief behind that message?” Then, we ask “What message would serve me better?”

I hope this article has provided insight into the unconscious influence of our belief system and has provided a useful step-by-step process to living the most stress-free life that is available to you!