We’ve all got that one person who knows just how to trigger us or set us off and cause us “stress” right? Or worse, maybe there’s a whole gaggle of people in your universe that know how to get at you?
What if we knew how to disconnect the trigger button?
And then there’s stress – it’s like it floats in the air we breathe; invading our mind and body; can we escape it? Yes, but not in the way you might think.
I'm offering you two methods or tools for both of those situations. My aim is to give you something tangible to implement and practice so you feel more at ease in your day-to-day life when emotionally provoking situations happen.
To be or not to be triggered?
A few years ago I was at an in-person group session studying A Course in Miracles (ACIM) and there was an open Q&A portion of the event and I decided to speak up and ask about something that was troubling me. I was about to go see a family member that coming weekend and I loved this person, but in the last few years our relationship had changed. I’d had to institute some new boundaries and it had caused a lot of friction because my family member didn’t like the change.
Whether consciously or unconsciously, this family member chose to lash out and say some pretty hurtful things and in a way she had to know would hurt me. Sometimes there was no pretense as she prefaced what she was about to say with ‘this is probably going to hurt your feelings but I’m going to say it anyway’. Just typing that makes my eyes widen and my heart hurt.
My question for the ACIM teacher was this: how can I avoid being harmed mentally and emotionally when I go for this visit; sometimes it can takes days or weeks to shake off the hurtful words spoken to me and I feel like I have to put on a suit of armor to go for a short visit?
My teacher, Tama Kieves, answered with such pure love and understanding, but direct and succinct. She said ‘it’s your choice to be triggered or not, so which will you choose?’
WHOA! I knew in my gut she was right and I did have the power of choice to let my family member’s words wound me or to see them for what they really were, her hurt pouring out in the only way she knew to respond to the change in our relationship – to try to hurt me.
It’s a classic tactic when we’re setting new boundaries with others and it’s human nature for those close to us not want us to change even if it’s for healthier and more loving personal reasons.
Going for that visit with this new thought in my mind was a game-changer and I’ve carried the message with me ever since.
Btw, as I predicted for that weekend, the family member did say a couple hurtful comments, but in those moments the wisdom ‘it’s my choice to let this trigger me or not’ popped into my brain (thankfully) and I honestly looked at her with sadness in my eyes for her pain AND I felt a kind of strength course through my body that reminded me that setting these new boundaries is a loving act for me and for her even if she can’t see it or understand it.
I hope you’ve had those kinds of moments where someone taught you something that just sticks with you forever in such a profound and life-altering way that makes you stronger, more capable and healthier for having learned it.
It’s not magic nor prevents hurtful things from being said to me by others, but it’s a tool or method I can reach for in those moments when it happens and helps me soften the blow or even deflect it altogether. #progressbaby!
The method/tool: when you feel yourself being triggered, pause and remind yourself it’s a choice. You can’t control what someone says to you, but you have 100% choice in how you respond. Take several breaths to further your moment of pause and consider whether to respond and if so, how? PS – no response is a response. This takes a LOT of practice and you can cut down the time it takes by also practicing stimulus response training techniques like meditation, journal writing, night-time and morning rituals, private health coaching, mindfulness training, etc.
How do I escape from stress?
Another great teacher stopped me in my tracks recently and it will be another one I take with me forever. His wisdom came to me while on a walk as I listened to his audiobook “One Small Step Can Change Your Life | The Kaizen Way” by Robert Maurer, Ph.D.
In the audiobook, there’s clips from him teaching at a wellness retreat that aren't found in the paperback version. He tells his audience “What if I could prove to you that stress isn’t real; that it doesn’t actually exist, would you believe me?”
Naturally the audience is skeptical because we’ve all heard about the harmful effects of too much stress in our lives for decades and the myriad of ways to reduce it or better manage it. Heck, I teach various tools and methods to my clients regularly, so I was really intrigued and wanted to be convinced!
The wellness retreat audience was the perfect one to test this out on because they were there to reduce stress and improve their overall health, so they were primed, but skeptical. Dr. Maurer wasn’t deterred.
What about you – could you be convinced stress isn’t real and doesn’t exist? Do your best to read on with an open mind because if you do, you may just be as profoundly struck as I was.
Here’s what Dr. Maurer said and it’s nothing short of mind altering if you really digest it.
To preface – the “disorder” named stress was first coined in 1936 by Dr. Hans Selye. Before that, it wasn’t a medical condition at all.
I’m giving you the basic gist of what he said here, but for a bit more, I’d encourage you to read his whole explanation found here (less than 2 minute read).
Dr. Maurer began to notice highly successful people in various professions seldom used the word “stress”.
“Instead, most used a different term to describe the same physical “symptoms” we all experience when we perceive that we're under duress: shortness of breath, muscle tension, neck and low back pain, trouble sleeping, change in appetite, loss of interest in usual pleasures, crying, etc. When we experience these symptoms, individually or all at once, one or more parts of the body is signaling us that we have exceeded the body’s tolerance for what we want it to accomplish.
While many of us perceive these feelings and label them "stress," successful people consistently use a different word to describe their discomfort. The word they use is fear (or it's alternates, scared or afraid).”
Why the difference?
“The answer was so obvious that it took me months to discover the thing that children already know. What words do children use to describe their emotional pain? They are direct. Children talk about being scared or afraid. Have you ever heard a child say “I'm anxious about the boogey man” or “I'm stressed because the teacher is mean”? Of course not! Children know they live in a world they can't control and they know that fear can show up at any time. So what kind of movies do they stand in line see? Scary movies of course. Children have a healthy relationship with fear and they see fear as something they have to engage and overcome. By the time we become adults, however, most of us no longer experience fear as a natural part of life, but instead as something we get angry at when it shows up. As a result, instead of welcoming it, we want to avoid or banish it.
Successful people, on the other hand, assume that whenever they are doing something important, fear will show up. They know that the “symptoms” of fear, which we are now calling a "dis-ease," are actually our bodies' gift to us to let us know that something is challenging us and needs our attention. When we become afraid or angry in response to fear, we create anxiety...or a stress disorder.”
Re-read that last paragraph one more time. Mind blown?
It might not seem like such a mind blowing concept to you, but in my opinion, I genuinely believe we would have a much healthier society, mentally, physically and spiritually, if we started using the words we did as children to describe what we’re feeling.
Imagine if we stopped using clinical disease language and labeling normal body functions and mental states as disorders?. It doesn’t mean that mental health disorders don’t exist and in various cases there are other interventions or treatments needed, but for natural life challenges and obstacles, it's a great place to start because words matter!
As a society, if we saw our relationship with stress as our “bodies’ gift to us that something is challenging us and needs our attention” – maybe we’d slow down and listen?
When we don’t, that’s when it builds and our body sends us LOUDER messages until we must stop because it truly has morphed into disease.
The method/tool: become familiar with the signals your body sends you when you “have exceeded the body’s tolerance for what we want it to accomplish”. Dr. Maurer’s list is the most common signals (shortness of breath, muscle tension, neck and low back pain, trouble sleeping, change in appetite, loss of interest in usual pleasures, crying, etc.), but maybe you notice other things too. Write them down and see them on paper so you have a renewed perspective for the symptoms/signals. Once a day, pause and ask yourself “did any of my symptoms/signals show up today? Which?” or if you become aware in the moment, name the symptom/signal and use a child-like label for what it is, i.e. scared, afraid, fear, worry. Start here and practice this daily for 2-3 weeks (set an alarm to remind yourself to ask the question; or make it part of your nighttime wind down ritual; or ask a friend to text you once a day to ask you the question; or put sticky notes in frequented locations in your home/office). After 2-3 weeks, bust out a piece of paper and write down what you’ve noticed about yourself and your “stress”.
I’m not saying 2-3 weeks of this practice will cure you from ever using the word stress or anxiety to describe how you’re feeling, but it’s a place to start. If you’re really serious about better managing your bodies’ signals in times of high fear, worry, etc., you can contact me for more resources or sign up for private coaching with me.
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In good health my friend. Be well.