There are lots of different ways of managing our stress. Exercise can be very helpful, as can mindfulness meditation, spending time in nature, practising relaxation techniques or taking time out with friends. One particular approach to stress management which I’d like to introduce you to, and which has roots in mindfulness, is based on what I call the here/there model of stress.
Before we move on to the here/there model, let’s just take a quick look at stress itself. We all experience stress from time to time because, let’s face it, life isn’t always easy. Most of us experience at least one of the so called top stressors at some point in our lives such as illness, divorce or separation, moving house, bereavement or losing a job. There are also our numerous daily challenges such as money worries, a book-length ‘to do’ list, long work hours, caring for a sick relative, being late for the school run, missing an appointment or arguing with a friend. Even happy events, such as having a baby or planning a wedding, can be stressful.
Now we don’t all react to life’s challenges in the same way. So for example, your friend might find it incredibly stressful to be made redundant while you may view it as a great opportunity to try something new. Your friend may be excited at the thought of presenting to a large group of people while you might feel terrified. What this demonstrates is that it’s not the situation or event which causes our stress, but rather stress arises from the way we interpret our experience, which in turn comes from our own unique set of beliefs and expectations (conscious or unconscious). This knowledge comes in useful when using the here/there model to aid stress reduction.
So what is the here/there model? When we experience something we find challenging our usual reaction is aversion; we are in one particular place (here) but we want to be in a different place (there) because ‘here’ is not acceptable to us. The space between ‘here‘ and ‘there‘ is where avoidable stress exists. Taking the example of ill health, we don’t like it, it feels horrible, it’s changed our life and we believe that it shouldn’t be happening to us anyway. We want to get away from ‘here’ (ill health) and desperately want to be ‘there’ (fit and healthy). This results in an internal fight against a situation that already exists and this inner struggle sets up a lot of stress.
We can see the here/there model at work in so many of our stresses. We’re working through our to-do list wishing we were on the final task, or feeling disappointed about how we performed in a job interview, wishing we could go back in time to fix things. We can even see the model in our rejection of certain emotions. We’re sad but we want to be happy so we struggle against ‘sad’… but this simply brings on stress and more unhappiness. Now I’m not saying that if you are experiencing ill-health or sadness that you shouldn’t want to be well or happy. Nor am I saying that being ‘here’ will eliminate all difficult emotions – life can be pretty painful at times and this approach isn’t about getting rid of emotions we don’t like. The point I’m making is that if we can relate to ‘here’ in a different way, seeing as we’re ‘here’ already, then we will experience less stress.
Relating to ‘here’ in a different way is about acknowledging the experience and allowing it the space to be here, without fighting against it. Not easy when we want to push ‘here’ away. I know. I’ve got the t-shirt. In fact, I have a wardrobe full of the things. However, understanding that our dislike of ‘here’ is influenced by our individual way of viewing life can help us to be more open to our present experience. Relating differently to ‘here’ can also be helped by recognising one of the biggest stories we all tell ourselves. Whether we’re aware of it or not, most of us believe that ‘bad’ things shouldn’t happen to us. It would indeed be very lovely if life only ever delivered us good things, but that’s not the nature of the world and, as human beings, we will all experience difficulty at some point in our lives. As strange as it sounds, when we can get our heads and hearts around this, we are on the path to greater freedom from stress. If we believe that ‘bad’ things shouldn’t happen to us then when difficulties arise, as they undoubtedly will, we will struggle against them.
Once we struggle against what’s already here we’re fighting a losing battle and one which will only cause us extra stress. But when we can begin to acknowledge that difficulty is part of life, OUR life, it can make it much easier to deal with. That’s not to say that ‘there’ is out of bounds, assuming it’s practically possible. We might decide that ‘there’ is our ultimate goal, but we head ‘there’ with the least impact on our well-being when we are willing to allow ‘here’ to be present.
It’s important to finish by saying that this approach to stress reduction isn’t about passively accepting injustice or mistreatment, so it will never be okay for an employer to allow a workplace bully to continue unchecked, or for an unscrupulous landlord to allow tenants to live in squalor. Instead, in allowing our experience to be as it is in this moment we are released from our struggle, able to stand back and choose with clarity, objectivity and wisdom how we wish to respond.
© Michelle Drapeau, 2019