Stress is an Interpretation
By Barbara McRae, MCC
Believe it or not, we choose the meanings we give to everything we experience in life. Most of it is habitual. For instance, most people worry about being late – especially if you’re challenged with ADHD – and then feel stressed. But we don’t have to make this choice. Worry wastes energy. It’s been said that worry does not empty the future of its troubles; it empties the present of its strength! Lots of people don’t realize how often they succumb to worry thoughts; and this lack of awareness contributes to your stress.
It’s even possible to feel stress when we experience positive events. Attending a new school or getting married could be stressful IF we allow ourselves to worry about potential negative outcomes. You see, events are not inherently good or bad; our responses depend on how we interpret them. The same event can have entirely different interpretations. That’s why I like to say: Stress is an Interpretation! Keep in mind that a blessing can be disguised as a challenge. We decide whether an event is good or bad – and thereby we choose to feel stressed or serene. Nobody else!
How we Contribute to Drama
Here’s a favorite story that illustrates our tendency for dramatizing events. There was once a small village where a farmer lived with his only young son and a horse. One day, the gate was left open, and the horse disappeared. The villagers gathered at the man’s house, lamenting this misfortune; after all, the horse was the man’s only means of plowing and transportation. But he didn’t accept their gloom and responded, “Maybe it’s good, maybe it’s bad; we’ll see.” Dumbfounded, the villagers just shook their heads and left.
Some days had passed when the horse returned with a herd of beautiful wild stallions. The villagers soon arrived at the man’s farm to rejoice with him about his sudden good fortune. Once again, the man replied, “Maybe it’s good, maybe not. We’ll see.”
Then, his son took to taming the stallions, and one day he was thrown from one of the horses, breaking his leg. The villagers knew that the old man loved his son dearly and relied on him to help with the crops. Surely this time he would agree that a terrible thing had happened. As they gathered around the old man, they were taken aback when he remained peaceful and again he said, “We’ll see.”
It Takes Courage to Unhook from Old Patterns
The moral of this powerful story is that we need to unhook from our tendency to judge everything. Often what, at first, appears as a tragedy turns out to be something entirely different. I remind myself of this story whenever I’m tempted to get sucked into the drama of it all. It’s helped me to get through all kinds of minor and major set-backs.
It takes courage to let go of the drama. The villagers, representing the old paradigm of victimization, were disappointed in the old man’s response to these events. They wanted him to think and act as they did. In fact, most people find it much easier to agree with their peers and join them in their habit of complaining and whining; thus, ensuring the approval and support of others at the expense of their own empowerment.
So, don’t waste your time by overanalyzing dramatic events in your life. The truth is, it’s impossible to see the big picture when we focus on individual pieces. It’s like looking at a photo and only seeing the upper right-hand corner, but making a determination about it based on only a fraction of the data. You’re much better off challenging yourself to keep an open mind.
Pause and Ask: “Isn’t that interesting?”
An excellent way to detach from a chronic stress pattern is to begin using the phrase, “Isn’t that interesting?” before you attempt to reframe a challenging situation. Here’s how it works. When you start to feel tense, simply distance yourself from the situation by becoming your own observer. Say to yourself, “Isn’t that interesting?” Posing this question causes you to remove yourself from your stressful thought pattern. Then, choose an interpretation that strengthens and empowers you; it will naturally lead you to a more relaxed state.
For instance, my client Mary felt stressed because she hadn’t heard back from a key vendor for an event she was planning and her boss wanted an answer now. Yet she felt uncomfortable phoning again since she didn’t want to be nuisance. Then, she realized that she had engaged her old pattern of assuming that others would think badly of her.
After acknowledging the pattern with the phrase “Isn’t that interesting?” she was able to replace the old thought with a new one. In this case, she realized that by placing a follow-up call, she was actually saving the vendor from having to initiate a call to her. This positive reframing worked for her because it matched her authentic desire to be helpful. And as a result, her anxiety began melting away. Now, rather than impatiently waiting for her call back, she felt better about herself, and this put her in the right frame of mind to take constructive action.
Constantly reliving upsetting events or circumstances contributes to stress and weakens you. So, reinterpret events by framing them in a way to help you stop stressing. YOU have the power to choose your thoughts. So, make wise choices. The best way to do that is to reinterpret the troublesome event by giving it a positive spin.
~ Barbara McRae, MCC
20-Somethings ADHD Expert, Campus Calm™
(c) Barbara McRae