Stress and Your Stories

Recently, we have been covering some stress management techniques. You may recall that we talked about breathing, exercise, getting outside, and talking with a friend. These are short-term stress management techniques so that you can de-stress enough to implement more long-term solutions.

But, in this next series of posts, I want to talk about something that generates stress for us – something that we can change just by becoming aware of it.

I have mentioned before that stress is a part of life – a necessary part of life. The same struggles that are required for a butterfly to emerge from the cocoon are the same ones that build the muscles so that it can fly once it has emerged. So, don’t think of stress as necessarily bad. Or that you can escape it.

Did you know that your body has a stress reaction when you see the love of your life or when you kiss said person? Very few people think of that kind of stress as bad. In fact, scientists call it eustress (good stress). This is opposed to distress (bad stress).

What makes distress instead of eustress? Mostly, our stories.

Our stories are our interpretation of events. If you see someone coming towards you and you think it is your enemy, you will have a very different reaction than if you think it is your best friend. And when it turns out to be neither, you will still have a predisposition to treat the person the way you would treat whichever one he reminded you of.

After my mother retired, she went through a phase that deeply embarrassed me whenever I was around her. She was living by herself so she didn’t have to please anyone. Because she is a frugal person, she started shopping at Goodwill for her clothes (raising 3 kids as a single parent on secretary’s wages is not for the extravagant.) She was never a “fashionista”, so she didn’t really make sure that what she purchased or wore went together, stylewise.

Additionally, she hung around with other ladies who had similar tastes. (Which is not surprising. We tend to gravitate to those who are similar to us.) This meant that she got reinforcement for her “style” choices. Unfortunately, those choices said “homeless bag lady” to me (and to most casual observers.)

The highpoint (low point?) came when my wife and I picked her up at the airport as she came for a visit. She was wearing a hat, such as I had never seen before. This hat was handmade (not by her.) Imagine a checkerboard of blue and white squares… made into a top hat. Slightly floppy. Do you remember a couple of decades ago when craft people made those covers to fit over a roll of toilet paper (to disguise it)? My first impression was that she was wearing an oversized one of those. (I found out later that was everyone’s first impression… at least those of my generation. She actually got compliments on it from those in her circle.)

We had already planned on taking her to lunch from the airport and she proudly wore that hat into the restaurant. I can’t imagine a teenager being more embarrassed about their parent than I was, then. (No, I was definitely not a teenager.) And, yes, I was highly stressed over it.

But, you know what? That was about me and my issues, not about her. My story was “what will people think about me, having a parent like that? What kind of reflection is that on me?”

Now, how did I know that people were going to know/think that she was my mother? How did I know what others were thinking? I didn’t. I simply projected on them, the interpretation (the story) that I decided they must be thinking.

Not too long after, I became aware of what was going on inside and changed the story. And, do you know what happened? The embarrassment and stress melted away. (We did, however, find her a “better” hat – one she looked good in. We also started a campaign of upgrading her wardrobe every time a gift-giving occasion came around.)

Once you realize how stories are coloring your outlook, you can begin to take control over them.

Your turn. Take a look at your own stories over the next couple of weeks. Can you see where your interpretations are adding to your stress? If you need a little help with that, connect with me and let’s talk about it. I have additional resources that can make all the difference for you.

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