by John Wyatt
Gone are the days when stress relief was as simple as picking up a club and hitting someone. Living in society requires that I find a socially acceptable means of stress relief -- or at least a socially acceptable person to hit.
The greatest single source of stress in my life is frustration. As a child, the hardest thing for me to learn was that sometimes I could not have or do what I wanted. Had my demands been purely material, then I could have kicked and screamed in the supermarket aisles like other children; but it was generally a hobby or physical feat that I simply could not perform. Everyone’s stress triggers are different, and in time I learned mine and how to deal with them.
Most people find death stressful, but when my grandparents died, one by one, I remained calm. They had lived a good life, I loved them, and I always knew that death was natural. My parent's divorce was stressful, but easily handled -- my dad was a jerk and good riddance! School was fairly easy and my friends were adequate -- only moderate stress in those areas. But a single problem trying to assemble a model airplane triggered rage! Here was something that should be under my control, but just refused to cooperate! How dare it disobey me! Sometimes it seemed as if life simply could not continue in the face of such blatant disobedience!
My primary stress trigger is still frustration. Regardless of the task, my inability to complete it for any reason triggers stress. If stress helped me to complete the task then the stress would be fine, but stress only gets in the way, magnifying the cause of the stress, which further increases the stress…you see where this is going!
Eventually, I learned to handle stress through a process I call Holistic Weeding. My first inspiration for Holistic Weeding came after reading an old Chinese story by Chuang Tzu. He tells about a man who was so disturbed by the sight of his shadow, and so upset by the sound of his footsteps, that he resolved to be rid of them. The method he hit upon was to run away from them. So he ran. But the footsteps only sounded louder and his shadow easily kept pace. He attributed his failure to the fact that he was not running fast enough, so he increased his speed until at last he fell over dead. He failed to realize that if he simply stopped and sat in the shade, both his footsteps and his shadow would have disappeared.
My epiphany was ultimately triggered by my wife, Anna. She had offered a corner of our yard to our niece, so her Campfire Girls troupe could start a garden. Like good little children, they cleared the patch, erected borders, and planted their seeds. Then, like good little children, they abandoned the garden to the adults! One day, Anna said “The garden has a lot of weeds.” (Instant panic shot through me!) “Dear…would you please go weed the garden?” And in my moment of panic, I had my epiphany!
I spread my arms wide, smiled, and said: “The dictionary defines “weed” as an undesirable or unwanted plant. But I want them ALL! The weeding is done.”
I wish I could say that Anna appreciated my reasoning, but that was not the case. However, I have not spent one day in that garden, and it is still devoid of weeds! In other words -- I weed my thoughts, not the garden. I had accepted that there was never anything wrong with the garden in the first place. I only needed to change my expectations.
Holistic Weeding becomes a kind of progressive relaxation technique, only mental instead of physical. It begins with the assumption that I do not have to control the events around me, only my feelings about those events. It requires:
1. Stopping whatever I am doing that is causing stress.
2. Deciding how important the task is to me.
3. Explaining to myself why I wish to continue and how I expect to succeed.
4. Making a Go/No-Go decision whether I should continue the task, or abandon it altogether. I must also allow myself the right to abandon the task without guilt.
If I decide to abandon the task I tell myself that I did not fail -- I chose to stop. That absolves me of guilt and leaves it open for me to pick up the task later if I choose. This act of will is generally sufficient to let me look at things in a better perspective. In most cases I return to the task later, less stressed and therefore generally successful. This method works for me since my primary cause of stress is not the task itself, but my inability to perform the task. The barrier of frustration that rises when I am blocked is removed by deciding to stop.
For example, writing this college paper triggered stress. What should I write about? Should I list everything that triggers stress along with detailed plans to address them, or should I simply regurgitate the textbook? Will I be judged on the effectiveness of my plans? Once I realized the paper was a source of stress, I sat back and asked why I was writing it in the first place. My ultimate conclusion was that this paper simply was not necessary to my life. I was writing it not because I had to, but because I wanted to. I resolved to simply write how I felt about stress and how I coped with it.
Holistic Weeding is well suited to handling the main sources of stress in my life, but it may not work for everyone. Ultimately everyone must decide what triggers their stress and devise their own means of coping.