The Power of Stress

The word ‘stress’ is borrowed from the area of technology which considers stress as a pressure or strain. For example, some plane crashes have been known to be due to metal fatigue; too much strain and pressure on metal over too long a period of time. The latter has echoes of the Irish and other European banks undergoing ‘stress tests’ to determine their viability. Human stress also became defined as a pressure or strain and it can be physical or social or psychological or some combination of these. Physical stress can arise from cold, long-standing, lifting heavy objects, breathing in toxic fumes, loud noises and so on. Examples of social stress are living next door to the ‘neighbour from hell’, violent and verbally aggressive partner, work-place bullying, excessive demands from others and co-dependence. Psychological strain arises from such factors as hating oneself, comparing oneself with others, addiction to what others think, lack of confidence, shyness, passivity – to mention just a few.

It is well established that stress accounts for anything up to 80 per cent of medical illnesses. In spite of the stress-related nature of illness, treatment tends to be primarily medical with little or no regard for the emotional and social origins of the illness. The seven leading causes of death are also stress-related – heart-disease, brain strokes, cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, lung ailments, accidental injuries and suicide.

Typically, stress is seen as being caused by either external or internal factors or a combination of both. In my view, how a person is within themselves – their interiority – determines how they respond to external sources of stress. In other words, if I am internally under pressure, then I am not in a solid place to withstand the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune. The much loved John O’Donohue puts it eloquently “when you inhabit your own individuality you possess a solid interiority from which nobody can distance, demean, lessen or exile your presence in any way.” It is also true to say neither will you threaten, diminish, dismiss or distance yourself from another.

When individuals experience any one or combination of stress symptoms the tendency is to see the symptoms as the problem. For example, back pain accounts for 60 per cent of lost work time and there are countless medical and alternative treatments for this condition. When any stress symptom keeps recurring, of course, it is important to get yourself medically checked out, but my concern is that this becomes the primary concern and the deeper intentions of the illness are missed. There is also the issue that the literal interpretation of a stress-related illness sees the presenting symptoms as the enemy, the body letting one down and the amazing healing power of the body is forgotten. We possess some 2 billion brain cells which operate for our wellbeing – there is no enemy within!

There is a further consideration and that is that we also possess an unconscious mind that also operates for our good. At this level of mind, symptoms may be created to bring attention to an alienation from self that was developed in childhood in response to emotional, social, physical, intellectual, behavioural and sexual threats to our wellbeing. The unconscious disconnection from one’s real self needs to be brought to consciousness so that as an adult, who needs to no longer be dependent on mother and father, family and other significant adults, you can slowly but surely begin to reside in the house of your own individuality.

In my opinion, stress-related illnesses are an attempt by the unconscious to bring attention to the greatest dis-ease of all – a lack of loving of self. Because the mode of awakening the person is unconscious and the language of the unconscious is metaphorical, then stress signs need to be interpreted metaphorically – symbolising an aspect of the interior world of the person who is ill. When one sees the symbolic meaning, it becomes clear that stress-related illness, rather than being the enemy, is the ally wanting to come home to your unique and sacred self.

In my own life I experienced severe lower back pain over a number of years. My first responses to it were annoyance, frustration and resorting to the use of painkillers. I also took up tennis to strengthen my body, time-managed my work, ate more healthily and took up doing relaxation exercises. All of these responses arose from the literal interpretation of the back pain. There is no doubt that these therapeutic efforts made a difference, but, whenever I stopped these efforts to control the pain, the pain returned. Somehow, I was not getting down to the hub of the matter.

Eventually, when I considered that the lower back pain may be symbolically saying I found the answer that led to a complete resolution. For me back pain symbolically represented:

What was being called for was for me to put my back into caring for myself and to support others to do likewise – not do it for them.

It is important to understand that back pain can symbolise different things for different people and at different times. Only the person who is in pain will recognise the metaphorical interpretation as putting its finger right on the button of the meaning of his or her illness.

Medical and alternative therapies – particularly, when there are serious stress-related illnesses present – are necessary to restore the body to its healthy state – but, ultimately, what is needed is a healing of the wounds to the soul, to the deep emotional self.

Dr. Tony Humphreys is a clinical psychologist, author, national and international speaker. His book with co-author Helen Ruddle ‘The Compassionate Intentions of Illness’ is relevant to this article.