As New Yorkers we are continually immersed in conversations about stress. From the media, our doctors, and those who care about us, we are told we must reduce our level of stress. Anyone can recite the hazards of stress–on our bodies, on our relationships, and on our emotional lives.
Yet somehow there’s a remarkable absence of conversation when it comes to the question of what to do to reduce stress. One might hear suggestions along the lines of taking up yoga or golf, or going for long walks. But actual human beings, in my experience, rarely find these to help.
Psychotherapy is notably quiet on the issue of stress. In fact, I’ve come across many therapists’ postings on the internet specifically dedicated to the topic of stress reduction wherein the therapist recommend the very same things you might hear on the news or from a co-worker; in other words, having little to say on the matter, they defer.
I’ve come to believe that no small part of the paucity of helpful dialogue on stress-reduction has to do with our particularly American (and this is quite true in New York) relationship with stress–which is to say that we’re rather attached to our stress. Stress goes hand-in-hand with success, with living a full life, and raising children. And so we talk about stress in ways that perpetuate this attachment. We’re convinced we need it in order to keep up with our lives and so we don’t want to give it up.
I suspect you’ll find it unsurprising that I don’t share the view that stress is something we need. But I am aware that if we give it up (and I think giving stress up–not moderating or reducing it is what’s needed) we’ll need to learn very different ways of getting our work done, raising our children, and managing our time. In a sense, the challenge is less learning to relax (taking up tennis, meditating) than learning to be relaxed–dealing with the awkward, uncomfortable feelings and the new challenges that arise from getting through the day sans stress.
In psychotherapy, I often discover that a patient’s stress is more than just a habit; often stress functions as a way of covering up unpleasant feelings or emotional pain. If you’re stressed, it tends to take over our thoughts and feelings, in a way muting other emotions that may seem too painful to bear. Often what the stress covers up is long-forgotten, and when we peel away the levels of stress, discover that the emotion it was originally intended to cover up isn’t so hard to deal with after all. In other instances, there’s very real, very present pain. But in my book, digging beneath what the stress covers up and confronting those feelings, finding ways of being at peace with them is far better than enduring a lifetime of stress.
Stress keeps us from getting close to people. Whether we’re aware of this or not, that can sometimes be a strategic function of stress. Being close to people is hard work, and letting them get close to you can be terrifying. If we lead with stress, and stress is what everyone else is able to see, they’ll only get so close. This fear or avoidance of closeness is yet another challenge to be taken on in giving serious consideration to eliminating stress.
It’s possible to eliminate stress from your life
While I can promise no “quick fix,” I do believe it’s possible to do the work in therapy to leave stress behind. This begins with an honest assessment of how stress fits in your life–what do you get out of it, what’s in the way of giving it up. Stress doesn’t exist in isolation from the rest of our lives, and eliminating stress means growing in our relationship with unpleasant emotions and in regards to our ability to get close to others.
Stress also isn’t something we produce by ourselves–it’s a cultural activity. Much like changing your diet or quitting smoking, giving up stress is best done in the context of relationships with friends and family–you can all decide together that you’re going to give up stress.