I don’t really remember when I first heard that shrill noise in my ear. You know the one, like Elizabeth Bott in ‘Just William’ after she says, “I’ll scream and scream and scream until I’m sick”. I guess it must have been towards the end of 2014 when tinnitus became part of my life and I knew straight away what it was. I had heard about it from my dad and other members of my family who were sufferers. At that point I had no idea what was causing it but, I was soon to find out.
Just a few months after I first noticed tinnitus, I walked out of my job on 31st March 2015 as a primary headteacher and never went back. It turns out that the tinnitus was just one sign that I was ridiculously stressed and already well on the way to burnout. And I really had done burning out in style. My adrenal gland was absolutely wrecked; I was exhausted and had literally nothing left. After a year of trying to get better, I resigned from my 20-year career with no idea what I was going to do next.
Just ten days after resigning from teaching, I received an email about training to be a hypnotherapist and coach and that is exactly what I did. Since 2016, when I launched my business, I have learnt a lot about stress. I know it is a contributory factor to the tinnitus I still occasionally experience, and I also know how detrimental it is to so many other aspects of our health. Stress has links to many illnesses which is becoming an increasing problem to individuals, businesses, and society as a whole. My breakthrough happened when I finally understood stress.
Is the world really stressful?
Have you ever wondered why stress is such an issue in today’s world? Well, you don’t have to look far to see that the general consensus is that life is stressful. Particular roles and situations are more stressful than others and that stress needs to be managed in order for us to survive. But what if the idea that the world is stressful, is just an innocent misunderstanding of where stress actually comes from? In this article, I am going to share with you what I have discovered about stress, to help you to understand it better so you can experience it less.
The science of stress
First, it helps to understand some science about stress. In the animal kingdom, the stress response – i.e. the release of adrenaline and other hormones into the blood stream – has one purpose; to ensure the animal stays safe. You may well know this as the fight or flight response. This response is used in the short term to get the animal out of immediate danger. Animals only use this process when they experience clear and present danger, but us humans can cause the fight or flight response just with the power of our thoughts. The reason this is bad news for us is that those hormones are only meant for short bursts. When they hang around in our bodies for too long, they cause havoc in the form of all those health conditions associated with stress.
The symptoms of prolonged stress are a result of having too much adrenaline and other stress hormones in our blood stream for too long. This stress can be caused by a variety of factors, from ‘stressful’ events, situations, jobs, and even people. However, some situations and jobs require a syringe of adrenaline. You might have noticed that even though some things in our society are labelled as ‘stressful’ there are some people who actually enjoy them. Deadlines and goals are my idea of hell but for some people they are motivating, energising, and exciting. In fact, without any stress at all, we might never meet a single deadline. In a similar way, just one piece of music can evoke happiness in some people and sadness in another. I worked with a team recently where I played a piece from Madam Butterfly. In a group of 40 people there were at least 5 different answers to the feelings the piece evoked.
The missing piece of the stress equation
You might be beginning to wonder what the missing piece of the equation is. When society is telling us:
CIRCUMSTANCES = STRESS
A vital piece of the jigsaw is being missed; THOUGHT IN THE MOMENT. After becoming aware of this, we then see that the stress equation actually looks like this:
CIRCUMSTANCES + THOUGHT IN THE MOMENT = STRESS
The inside out truth about stress
The truth is that no matter what is going on in our environment, we cannot experience it unless thought is involved. That is why we all experience life differently, why we don’t all agree and why each one of us will find different things create that stress response in our bodies. We think we are cameras, but we are actually more like projectors, creating our experience through thought, moment by moment.
You might now be wondering what you can do to change your thinking to address this and the answer is as little as possible. The thing is, if you begin to focus on an ‘unwanted’ thought and try to change it, you are more likely to make it bigger and more powerful in your mind. It is a bit like picking a scab. We all know that a wound is more likely to heal if we leave it alone and that a picked scab takes ages to heal – but many of us can’t help but pick at it anyway! The self-development industry encourages us to poke and prod at our issues but what that tends to do is create more things to think about and do which increases the level of stress we experience.
So here is a much simpler way to look at stress, along with some key facts that are useful to know.
You are the thinker not the thoughts
We get so caught up in our thinking – like a fish which does not know it is in water – that we don’t realise what we are creating. Just by being aware that you are not your thoughts really helps to create a different perspective.
Your thoughts appear at random
You may have noticed this happening in your own life. You are focusing on something and a thought about a random past event appears in your mind. All your thoughts are of this nature, so you don’t get to decide what turns up in your head. Trying to control that process is tiring and fruitless.
You don’t have to think that
Although you don’t have a choice over when and what thought appears, you do have a choice as to whether to continue down that path. You really can refocus your mind and decide to think about something else.
Your feelings are your guide
Feelings are like the human dashboard, but we have been reading it wrong. If you think that your feelings are telling you about the outside world, you will be trying to change the outside world to feel okay and that is usually very difficult. Once you know that feelings are telling you about your thoughts, it becomes easier to let a negative thought go and allow a more positive one to come in.
Thoughts are like clouds
Just like clouds in a breezy sky, thoughts are meant to flow through our minds. They can do that if we let them but when we get caught up, they can hang around causing overthinking, worry and similar thought patterns. These are often what leads to the stressful feelings we have been talking about.
There’s less to do than you think
The great thing about these facts about how the human system works is that there is nothing to do. Unlike what other ‘self-development’ or ‘stress management’ techniques offer, the idea of this is to take things off your plate, not add more. This subtractive model of psychology helps to reduce stress by helping you understand where your experience is coming from and how the human experience is created. Like anything in life, once you understand how your system is working, you just work better.
So, there is nothing to do but notice. Notice your feelings. Notice your thoughts. Notice how they pass and flow when allowed to. And know that nothing outside of you ever has the power to create your experience of life. You are empowered in any moment to choose something different and I hope this article helps you to do that more every day.
“There is nothing to do but notice. Notice your feelings. Notice your thoughts. Notice how they pass and flow when allowed to.”Clare Downham