Winning with Stress
An interview with
Paul Beckow M.Sc. R.C.C. Individual, Couple, Family, Counsellor
Int: Paul there seems to be a lot of talk about stress these days. You're a therapist. Is stress as serious a problem as we make it out to be?
Paul: I'd say so. Simply take a look at how much money we spend on prescription drugs in this country. Drugs supposed to "help us make it through the night" In many ways we have accepted stress as a sign of the times, something we think we have to learn to live with.
The majority of us have tried at least some of the popular stress reduction techniques. Relaxations practices, massage, meditation, jogging, visualization, or vacations and so on. We try to get rid our stress - without a lot of success. Our response to the presence of stress in our lives is, to put it bluntly, ineffective.
Int: Why is that? Why aren't we effective with dealing with something that is so common?
Paul: I say that you and I deal with stress out of a model of understanding that offers us little personal power in responding to stress. Through our culture, we have been handed a set of ideas about stress that leave us ineffective in responding to these important signals from our body. Furthermore, the ideas we have about stress remain unexamined. As such they continue to exert a profound and limiting influence on our capacity to release our stress. Or, as Id prefer to call it, the experience that we call stress in our lives.
Int: Okay. So, these limiting ideas for understanding the experience of stress, what are they?
Paul: Most of us view stress as something we get from troubling events and circumstances outside ourselves. "The traffic jam stresses us" This is how we talk. We believe that the experience of stress informs us of something about our environment- something that is wrong out there. It stresses us. And somewhere along the line we've accepted that we all have to learn to live with a certain amount of stress.
We believe stress is inevitable, inescapable, the natural consequences of being alive. And we put up with it. Then the best way to deal with stress in this model is to learn how to reduce the stress that has been caused in or bodies by outside events - This is where recommended activites such as jogging, meditating, yoga etc. come from. This is doing something after our body has persistent patterns of stress reactions. This is our basic model. And it doesn't provide us with a lot of power. In fact it gives the circumstances power.
Int: What do you suggest instead?
Paul: I suggest considering a model for understanding and responding to stress that gives each and every one of us greater personal capacity to respond. I suggest a model that empowers us, not the circumstances, and makes it possible to dissolve stress as we notice it appearing in our lives.
Int: What would such a model look like? How would it work?
Paul: First, rather than considering the circumstances we find ourselves in are the source of our well being and that undesirable events are the cause of our stress- what if we operate as though each of us is the source of, or 100% responsible for, our own experience of well being. In the face of the events in front of us.
Next, then instead of acting as though stress informs us of something about our environment that is undeniably stressful out there… what about responding to stress as an internal signal that tell us something about ourselves. In this model, stress is not information about our world. It is "feedback", information, telling us something about ourselves.
Third, instead of attempting to reduce, mask, or escape stress, what if we viewed stress as an internal signal about which to be curious. What if we used these signals as a springboard to an inquiry within ourselves? A signal for a correction.
In other words, rather than considering ourselves good "stress survivors" what about us considering we have the capacity and resourcefulness to effectively release stress. In this model, stress is a call to "rebalance" to make a correction within ourselves.
Int: So what do we look for?
Paul: In this model we regard two and only two factors as the cause of our experience of stress. These are internal factors. Consider that stress is brought about by first: not the events in front of us, but "what we believe to be true regarding the circumstances" we find ourselves in. The "internal conversations" we are having with ourselves about the events in front of us. And in this model, the second cause of our experience of stress is caused by: the actions we are taking (or we are not taking) in response to the events around us. These primary causes are simple, yet rarely obvious to us unless we know how to recognize them.
Int: Do you have an example?
Sure. Let's take the simple example of being stuck in a traffic jam. You're going home form work. You're in a hurry to get home. You have guests coming and you've planned an important dinner for them. The traffic has come to a halt with no real explanation. You're at a standstill for 10 minutes, then 20 minutes, the 30 minutes. And there seems no way out, and you know that because heaven knows you've been looking for one! What is your experience of this event?
If we find ourselves annoyed, irritated, anxious, suffering, it would be useful to consider that it's not the traffic jam that is causing our experience of this incident. It is the internal conversations- what we are saying to ourselves, what we believe to be true about the traffic jam- that is the source of our stress. In addition it is the patterns of action in response to this event that holds our stress in place.
Int: Our "internal conversation"? What do you mean by that?
Paul: Each of us has the capacity to bring to our awareness the specific conversations or notions or beliefs that are producing the experience we are having. In this going home-traffic jam example our experience is produced by such notions as:
"This shouldn't be happening. Something's going wrong here. The dinner I have planned wont work now- If the dinner doesn't work that means more trouble - my guests will think terrible things of me - I'm letting others down - Why does this kind of thing happen to me? - Being stuck here is a useless waste of time - I've screwed up again etc."
And almost always there is a certain "taken for granted ness/ acceptance" of these ideas. They remain unchallenged, unexamined, and they exert a tremendous influence by being unchallenged. They appear to us a "the truth" about things.
But what would happen if we treated these simply as unexamined beliefs and then challenged them? When we do this we begin to take on some accountability for our own experience.
Int: And then what?
Paul: Well, we might do something I call "flipping to the opposite reality". That is, accept that what we think is true is really only one way to view our circumstances. We can take any stress producing conversation and flip it over and change it to its opposite. We can assume this reality as true and begin to find evidence to support this point of view. We can look and see what turns up to support this altered perspective.
As in the traffic jam, we can challenge troubling notions by generating other points of view, flipping them to see what we can see. Points of view such as: "Nothing is necessarily gong wrong here. - something is different from what I planned not wrong - Our dinner will work out different from what I planned, not necessarily poorly, because I will arrive later - I am not invalid if others are upset with me - and so on. We can "try these on for size," so to speak, and see what things look like from there.
While this strategy might seem foolish or even dangerous at first, something quite amazing happens when we try it out. "Flipping to the opposite reality" allows us to shed some light on other points of view that are equal viable, but aren't normally available to us.
Int: So this is positive thinking.
Paul: No. Not really. What I'm suggesting is not just positive thinking. When we are challenging a stress producing conversation we are having with ourselves we don't try to suppress it, avoid it, or overpower it or counter it in any way. Instead we face it by bringing it into the open where we can critically evaluate it. We can judge its value to us. With this in mind we can then ask "does this particular view empower me in this situation?" If we see that is doesn't why not simply discard it?
Int: You also said something about to patterns of action maintaining stress. Will you elaborate?
Paul: Sure. We can notice that we take certain actions in certain situations. Consider that the actions we take, or fail to take, prolong the upset. Using the problem of the traffic jam again, perhaps we are sitting in the car blaming ourselves for being late. This is action we are being. Or we are sitting in the car complaining and moaning about our plight. We've all done it ! These actions support consolidate the upset. What about new actions. Finding something valuable or satisfying to do while we are waiting. First, we accept that we are there that we are not moving. That's an action.
Most often our actions are in "reaction" to the situation we are in. Yet the situations call upon our ability to "respond" - our response ability. What about finding someone with a phone in the auto line up to borrow and call home? Or while we are at it what about calling the nearest Chinese restaurant and have a meal delivered? How about putting on your favorite music to have just the "rest time you we looking for." Reading your book. These are actions which produce a sense of satisfaction and effectiveness and are also possible in this situation. Can you see that?
When we find nurturing actions to take in the middle of challenging circumstances we feel proactive and resourceful. We discover new and creative actions. New ways to look after ourselves that feel good. In this way we grow and expand our capacity to act effectively, light-footedly, in the world.
While the traffic jam example is simplistic and one many of us might master easily enough, I maintain that even the most stress full circumstances can be met and taken on with this same kind of inquiry.
Also it is important in using this model to begin by describing our stress in a clear and specific manner. That is, stress equals a specific situation in front of us. It is imperative that we achieve this clarification. " I am experiencing stress related to "x" - and identify the specific problem.
Stress describe in its general form cannot be addressed. "I feeling stressed because of my kids" doesn't do it.
"My son has not been attending school. And I am feeling stressed about this" sets us up to do the work.
The stress then becomes a call to uncover "what is it I believe to be true about this particular situation that is making this difficult or troubling?" By raising these ideas to our awareness we can challenge or destabilize these points of view. In addition we can learn to disrupt the automatic action patterns that are holding us in a stressful cycle. When we assume this posture, we discover the satisfying new actions that are missing. We ask: what actions would produce a sense of freedom and satisfaction for me in this matter/"
Int: The workplace has been identified as a major source of stress in today's world. What about work related stress?
Paul:Okay. Let's use our model to address work-place stress. First be specific. Identify the exact problem you are referring to when you say "stress at work". Can you see "stress at my work" or " My work stresses me" is an amorphous generalization that leads nowhere?
Int: Fine. Rather, say - I have little time and too much work and it stress me.
Paul: Good. Great. Now examine what do you believe to be true about this problem? The stress exists as something you believe to be true about having more work than you can complete. What seems real is that you have more to do than you can finish in time. This may be a fact. Now life may not always be what we wish it to be but we can always interact constructively with the way life is. So inquire, what beliefs do I hold to be true that are generating this experience of stress?
Perhaps our experience of stress is caused in this situation by such ideas as: Something terrible will happen if I don't finish all that I have to do" "Everything has to or must be done" "I am expected to do everything" Not completing everything means I am in effective or irresponsible in some way. Others will see that" "A responsible person does everything" "My value as a worker here is dependant on my doing everything"
Can you see that ideas such as this must leave you upset? And that if they can be raised to awareness they can be challenged?
Further this problem of having more than you can complete may be supported by such actions as: Failing to say no to more requests. Failing to priorize. Failing to ask for help from others. Hiding that you require support. Falling to ask for help. Failing to clarify others expectations of you. Making promises you can't keep. Failing to protect yourself form interruptions or using your time productively. And so on. Can you see this invites us to explore the actions we are in response to this situation?
Can you see that this kind of exploration can assist us you get at the structure of a problem? And when we find the trouble making beliefs and/ or the missing actions we are back in the flow. We have possiblities that weren't available before.
Int: For many people conflict with others in the work place is said to be the source of difficulty and stress. What about that one?
Paul: Well my bet is when you look as what people believe to be true about conflict, you may find such ideas as: " to have conflict or difference with others means something is wrong, a failure of some kind, even dangerous" " Conflicts shouldn't happen" My value is dependent upon people agreeing with me, supporting my ideas". Conflict is personal. If others disagree with my view they don't support me" I feel vulnerable or threatened or useless if my ideas are not accepted". "Something is wrong if others do not see things as I do", and so on.
Also using our model, stress associated with conflict with others is probably supported or held in place by actions such as: failing to communicate or clarify misunderstandings, hurt feelings, or differences. Failing to understand what is motivating others and giving room to their point of view. Avoiding conflict. Stopping expressing ourselves and holding back. Becoming inauthentic. Reducing our participation. Failing to have a context for conflict that accepts and allows for conflict as a means to growth and new discoveries. Etc.
These are some of the actions, and/ or lack of actions, we take when we consider conflict to be dangerous rather than a natural process of relationship. The price is that we lose affinity with others. We become inauthentic. Pretend. Identifying these new actions invites new skills of communication with others. Again we take new actions and we grow and expand.
Int: Okay I'm seeing what you're suggesting.
Paul: While I'm offering some suggestions for responding to stress producing situations here, what really works is to come upon these realizations yourself, right in the particular situation you find yourself in. They are then seen or uncovered freshly newly, in the exact situation in front of you. This brings a certain insight, sense of discovery, freedom, where there was none before.
Int: So - a new model for winning with stress. This seems like a new bit of practice for us all.
Paul: Definitely. This way of viewing stress places a certain power and ability to respond to difficult life situations in our own hands. This is a view that invites us to treat the signal of stress as an important immediate source of information about ourselves. Not like we are bad or wrong or at fault, but as an invitation to be curious about ourselves.
In this model - we, and only we can be responsible for our experience of well being, or satisfaction our sense of effectiveness. In this way, impasses, moments of being stuck in life, and the signal of stress, can be an exciting new opportunity for reorganization and growth. In this way we can be "winning with stress" when it appears in or lives.
Winning with Stress Course
For personal or couple counselling, for more information, or to register for a course - please contact Paul Beckow at The Victoria Family Institute.