Stressing the Not So Obvious

The word stress is typically described as pressure and the idea is that you look at the external or internal (or both) circumstances of your life and detect what aspects are leading to your being all stressed out.  Frequently individuals may point the finger at work, financial pressures, marriage, children, family of origin or living next door to the neighbour from hell.  There are some people who don’t even look that far and what they attempt to do is find orthodox medical or alternative means of reducing the stress symptoms.  The more common symptoms people focus on are tension headaches, migraine, back pain, chest pain, increased heart rate, high blood pressure, dizziness, excessive perspiration, dryness of the mouth, insomnia, trembling, depression, fatigue and nervousness.  Possible remedies pursued are drug taking, meditation, relaxation exercises, time-management.

Those people who choose to examine the internal circumstances of their lives may detect any number of the following symptoms: anxiety, fear, depression, worry about the future, regrets about the past, fear of failure, addiction to success, fear of illness, suppressed anger, hypersensitivity to criticism and mental blocks.  The response to these stress signs may be to seek out counselling and/or resort to tranquilisers, anti-depressants or any combination of these ‘cures’.

The difficulty with seeing the external or internal signs of stress as the problems to be resolved is that the true purpose of the stress symptoms are not being detected or acted upon.  After all, the word ‘symptom’ means a ‘sign’, an indicator that there is some underlying hidden issue that needs to be addressed.  In physical medicine a persistent pain to the right of your lower abdomen may indicate a threatened appendicitis or a recurring abdominal pain may point to a duodenal ulcer.  However, when it comes to stress symptoms, the true nature of the word symptom appears to get lost.  The purpose of an internal or external stress symptom is to emphasise some aspect of the self that is being neglected and the response needed is to directly address this self-issue and not the symptom itself.  All the latter will do is reduce or extinguish the very important information about the self to which the symptom is attempting to draw attention.  In any case, symptomatic treatment will not resolve the core issue and, inevitably, either the symptom will flare up again or some new, more serious symptom will appear.

Take the most common stress symptom occurring at this moment in time, namely exam stress.  There are several psychological, alternative and medical ‘cures’ given for this symptom – counselling to reduce fear of failure, positive thinking, reflexology, meditation or tranquilisers.  However, exam stress actually has nothing to do with worry about exams!  At face value you might rightly say that this is what the young (or older) person is saying: ‘I’m really worried about my exams’.  However, this symptom is masking the real issue that needs urgent attending to and that is ‘I am not an exam result’.  When a person feels that an exam result is a measure of their self-worth, then it is the self issue that needs resolving.  When a young person can be helped to see and feel that her worth lies in her unique and sacred presence and that an examination is both a very limited test of knowledge of the test set, but does not in any way measure her worth, then examination stress dissolves.  I have no difficulty with individuals pursuing the various means described above of reducing their symptoms, but I do want to let them know that resolution of the stress symptom will only come about when the threat to self acceptance has been removed.

In my experience, anxiety is not really about what other people think about us, even though ostensibly this may seem to be the case.  What anxiety is truly about is the fear or terror of showing some aspects of self – spontaneity, expression of feelings such as anger, disappointment, love, risk-taking, speaking the truth.  Visualise yourself being totally true to self, in possession of self, feeling a rock-hard sense of self, fully aware of your own immense power to take responsibility for your own life – will you feel continually anxious?  Hardly!

The other most common internal symptom – depression – attempts to bring attention to the aspects of self that are suppressed, buried, flattened, deeply hidden.  Examples are: your lovability, uniqueness, difference, creativity, anger, worthiness, right to live your own life.  The stress symptom of depression attempts to emphasise those hidden qualities of self and invites the person to detect and begin to express them.  Once again, visualise yourself seeing your immense lovability, specialness, difference and feeling the extent of living from the inside out, feeling free and empowered.  Will you now feel depressed?  Of course not!

Stress then is an ally, a friend, who sends you an invitation to dig deep and discover what aspect(s) of self need to be recovered so that you find yourself back on a well-being path.

Dr. Tony Humphreys is a clinical psychologist and author of Whose Life Are You Living