A perspective on stress that blows my mind

Like a lot of people at this time of year, I'm feeling particularly stressed. I'm trying to enjoy the season, I'm trying to be grateful, I'm trying to live in the moment, but I still feel stressed. And because I hate feeling uncomfortable feelings, I am trying to find even more ways to feel better (there are already plenty on this blog). And so, I've been reading further afield about stress – and I've come across this perspective that just blows my mind:

Stress comes from our wanting things to be different from how they really are.

This concept has its roots in Buddhist psychology, but it's also a strong theme in the work of UCLA psychiatry professor and author Dr Dan Seigel, who says:

Stress occurs when the mind holds tight to what 'should be' and creates tension between that and what really is.

The late Dr Wayne Dyer explored this concept too, and said stress comes when our expectations don't match our reality. When what we think 'should' be happening isn't happening, we feel stressed.

So then, the solution for reducing our stress must lie in:

  • examining our expectations and deciding whether they're reasonable in our current situation
  • accepting reality as it is right now and surrendering to what is in this moment
  • unclenching our fists
  • letting go of the need to control. 

Sound familiar? All these ideas form the foundation of mindfulness (noticing what comes without judgement) and other meditative practices (letting go), and are at the heart of spiritual development (believing in a power greater than ourselves but of which we are a part). 

For me, I can see where I create a lot of my own stress and suffering from having high and unreasonable expectations of myself and what I can get done in any given day (or year). This would be true of a lot of parents juggling to keep up but feeling like they're failing at their own game. There are links here to perfectionism, fear of not being good enough, and a belief in lack and limitation (not enough time, for example). 

These are all complex topics, but the basic idea is simple: stress comes from expecting things to be different from how they are in this moment. And, logically then, peace comes from letting go of those expectations and accepting reality as it is right now (a place from which we can start to make positive change if that's what we want).

As we roll into the craziness of Christmas, I'm finding this idea particularly useful.



Natalie Bartley