According to Dr. Benjamin Kaplan-Singer, the health of the mind and body comes down to the stories we tell ourselves. He explains the idea in more detail on this Collective Insights podcast about meta-immunity, but in short, the problem is most of us are listening to a non-stop loop of toxic stories so deeply embedded in our psyche, we’re not even aware of them. But they’re playing in the background constantly, and kick in with stress.
The mind is always looking for homeostasis so when stress hits you it affects everything. Not just your psychology but your physiology too, creating a cascade of effects on GI function, immune strength, hormones levels, and microbiome balance. The evidence is so strong it’s created a new field of medical study called neurosomatic therapy.
You know the moment your system is out of line because you feel it in your core, you have no patience, you want everything to go easy, you want everyone to get your pain, and accommodate you accordingly. There’s a part of your mind that knows these demands are unrealistic but a bigger part of you doesn’t care. You just want the angst to stop, and until it does you’re frantic. If this is you, you’re not alone, it’s me too. Anxiety is now the most common mental illness in the world.
STRESS IS A TRIGGER
Today, I needed to leave some documents with a real estate agent. I arrived at the agent’s office only to discover I didn’t have the necessary paperwork. I rifled through my folders, my frustration increasing by the second. Finally, I apologized and left, feeling beaten down. My intense need for administrative tasks to be easy is a symptom of something else.
After the visit to the first agent, I went to see another, to provide a copy of different paperwork. This time, I was sure the exchange would go smoothly as I’d organized said paperwork before leaving the house. But the agent couldn’t find the file on my pen drive and when he accidently deleted it, I ran from his office before I did one of two things: hit him with his stupid computer or start crying.
By now, my body was vibrating with anxiety. Nothing was going my way. So many things out of my control and it felt like they were all hitting me at once. What was happening was my sense of lack in other parts of my life was bumping up against simple day-to-day interactions, and my mind was blowing them out of proportion, causing me to spiral.
In these situations, it’s easy to blame the stress. But you have to ask, which came first: the stress, or the situation to cause the stress? Because one thing we all know in out guts: life is messy. A random event can radically change your reality in an instant. And yet, as often as bad things happen, the truth is most days are routine and pass without a hitch. So which comes first?
WHO DO YOU TRUST?
Trust is a big issue for most people; I know it certainly is for me. I recall giving my father a key-ring with a slogan on it – Don’t let the bastards get you down – about twenty years ago, a birthday gift. He smiled at it, a sort of withering, humbled smile. I was young back then and couldn’t even begin to imagine the kind of stress he dealt with on a daily basis.
He took care of everyone but himself and died young, at 58. After he died, my family splintered in the clichéd way, fighting over his estate. My father was my rock; his strength emboldened me. When he died, I lost a chunk of chutzpah. Then the family infighting broke my soul, and I shut down.
The same question applies: which comes first? The lack of trust or the betrayal that caused the lack of trust? In the long run, it doesn’t matter. What matters is something happened to me that disabled my sense of trust, prompting me to turn against all the people in my life. The worse my family problems, the more I isolated myself, the more I disappeared.
One morning I woke up and everyone I’d ever known was gone. It was just me. The isolation was crushing. But also, liberating. I inadvertently put myself in a situation where I was forced to rely on myself, and also see the heavy ways I’d leaned on friends in the past, the ways I’d used them to abdicate self-trust.
STORIES I TELL
It’s great to be surrounded by a bunch of people who disappoint you because it means you can shift your sense of blame onto them. What’s impossible to see in the moment is that all the ways they fall short of your expectations mirror your own shortcomings. That’s why they trigger you.
This is true for me, true for everyone. I lost my patience with the second agent because he reflected my own incompetence back to me. And my reaction portrayed how deeply I feel this. But what is this sense of my incompetence? It’s a story I tell myself about all the ways I’m not meeting my expectations.
But what are those expectations? Are they realistic? If I feel I’m not doing enough, what more can I do? Why am I not doing it? What can I do bearing in mind I control nothing and life is such that there are no guarantees? What then? How about telling a different story? How about saying: I’m doing my best, and yes, some days, that’s abysmal, but it’s still the best I can do today.
Dr. Kaplan-Singer makes one point clear: the path to healing begins with self-love. Unless, I give myself a break, and see myself as doing the best I can do under chaotic circumstances, I’m always going in circles, spiralling over silly admin upsets. So, how do I break the chain and start to see events in a different light? It begins with some simple practices.
How you start your day shapes your day. If you’re like me, you get up and get going but Dr. Kaplan-Singer recommends a morning routine, a safe place where you can determine your intention for the day. Light a candle, make a cup of tea and sit in quiet, even just for two minutes, take a moment to centre yourself. If you don’t have time in the morning, do this before bed.
For me, this is the most powerful tool. Take out a notepad, open your laptop and stream-of-conscious write. Let the words pour out, don’t censor them. Let your psyche be heard, ask questions, write answers. All the wisdom you need is already inside you, and by giving yourself space to hear it, you will not only surprise but calm your Self. Journaling offers two benefits: a way to know yourself, and a refreshing sense of calm.
Before communicating anything, take a few moments to review your desired outcome. Ask questions like: why am I communicating this? What result do I want? What effect am I looking for? Tuning into these questions will ensure that you’re acting in alignment and therefore are more likely to ask for the right things and get the right result. Which means less stress and the beginning of emotional wellbeing.
Listen to a podcast
I was a big fan of radio back in the day, and love that podcasts remind me of that time. There’s something uniquely calming about listening to voices discuss a topic that interests you. If you don’t have one, create a library of podcasts that interest you and when you feel yourself losing it, listen to an episode, or binge-listen until you hear what you need to hear.
Send me an email
I want to hear the ways anxiety affects your day and how you deal with it. In the near future, I’ll create a newsletter on this topic but for now, if you need to connect with a like-minded soul, feel free to shoot me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Always listening, with love, xo Tasha