Uncovering the Intentions of Stress

I gave my first talk on ‘Coping with Stress’ back in 1982 in An Grianan, Termonfeckin, Co. Louth. How I viewed stress back there is very different to how I now see it. However, in reading several recent articles on the subject, I find that the advice I would have given back in 1982 has not changed. Suggestions around work-life balance, relaxation skills, healthy diet and physical exercise continue to dominate the stress literature. As regards the popular work life balance recommendation, I find this notion confusing as it suggests that work is not an integral part of living and that living can only be enjoyed when you are not working! In my opinion, work is an integral part of my living and this view is reflected very powerfully and poetically by Khalil Gibran, when he says ‘Work is love made visible.’ I would put it somewhat differently: ‘Work is your True Self made visible.’ However, sadly, not too many individuals operate out from that solid interiority and it is too often the case that ‘work is fear made visible’ and, inevitably, becomes stressful in nature.

How do I view stress now? In the past, I would have responded to stress symptoms – for example, rushing, racing, worrying, being aggressive, perfectionistic, fear of failure, long working hours, success addiction – as behaviours that needed to be reduced and eventually eliminated. The difficulty with this approach is that it is critical of the symptoms presented, rather than realising that a symptom always signals something deeper that is calling for attention – this is as true for medicine and psychiatry as it is true for psychology and sociology. Human beings have the remarkable unconscious ability to bring attention to what they dare not express consciously, but can express in symbolic ways. For example, in my own life I used to suffer from excruciating and crippling lower back pain. Lower back pain is the most common stress symptom and accounts for sixty per cent of absenteeism from work. For several years, I responded to my back pain in a literal and critical way. In other words, I looked on my back pain as a problem to be gotten rid of rather than a symptom to be understood. I followed a lot of advice I used to give clients – rest, relaxation, physical fitness, work-life balance. These interventions certainly eased the pain but never addressed the deeper issue. Inevitably, the pain returned – and this is the wisdom of a symptom to keep recurring until the hidden issue is addressed. I partially addressed the hidden issue with the realisation that I took too much responsibility for others on my back but it took me longer to realise that the deepest issue was that I constantly ‘turned (twisted) my back on any care for my Self.’ This realisation was the ‘turning point’ and taking action on more care for myself has eliminated the incapacitating pain. I still get an odd twinge but I am quick to respond to the signal and re-turn to care for Self.

Stress is then best seen metaphorically as ‘pointing to’ or ‘emphasising’ a hidden, sub-conscious issue that requires resolution. The hidden issue has always to do with some troubling aspect of your relationship with self that is not in your consciousness. For example, many men have come to me for help complaining of ‘being all stressed out’ from the demands of their jobs. They come looking for ways of managing the stressful situation and are surprised by the deeper exploration of the possible absence of work on their own relationship with self. Indeed, the hardest work for men to take on is to find heart for themselves – to nurture and take care of themselves – and to consciously realise ‘I am not my work.’ The resolution for many men’s stress at work is to reclaim their own Self-worthiness and to actively ensure that their own wellbeing and the wellbeing of their intimate relationships with others and with their children are not jeopardised by work demands. They need to inhabit their own individuality and to assert their own values and, particularly, that people matter infinitely more than profits and success. Ironically, the mature employee, manager and employer is far more creative and productive, but this is a bridge too far for many men who, dependently, get their recognition through work and success.

What about the most stressed member of our society – the married woman, with children and career – what is the hidden issue there? Many women have a major difficulty in asking for and receiving help and are not conscious of how unworthy they feel to receive. Resolution of their stress involves becoming conscious of their subconscious fear of asking and receiving, being compassionate towards their neglect of themselves and beginning to make the authentic choice to start saving themselves and allow others to save themselves. Love, of its very nature, is about giving and receiving. The receiving of love and care is as much a privilege as the giving of love and care.

Dr. Tony Humphreys practices as a clinical psychologist and is author of several books on practical psychology, including Work and Worth take back your life.