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What Makes Something Stressful?

Updated: Sep 5

It's first thing in the morning and I feel half awake, at best. The elderly bulldog's legs are giving out again, signalling her slow decline. There's an empty oatmeal packet thrown on the counter because my daughter seems inherently incapable of putting anything in the garbage can. She is zipping around complaining about her hair not looking right. She has to leave for school in 5 minutes and rattles off 10 minutes-worth of things she still has to do. I make some time-saving suggestions which are shouted down. My husband arrives on the scene, casually says good morning and how much he likes his remote car starter on a cold day. He seems blissfully oblivious to the frantic atmosphere, which irritates me further.

This is a typical 'stressful' morning for me. But what makes it so?

Life can feel like one long line of stressful events. Yet few people ask themselves what it is about these events that makes them 'stressful' as opposed to simply things that happen. The dog is old. That's facts. Why get upset about it? Well, because she's going to die and there will be a lot of uncomfortable decisions around when and how and what ailments to treat and when to say enough is enough and the entire process is going to be awful.

Already there are obvious clues as to why the dogs legs giving out may be stressful to me. I'm adding a laundry list of resistance to it. I wish her legs wouldn't give out, that she were not declining. Not to mention that I'm projecting into the future (where most stress lives, by the way). I don't want to go through the experience of my dog's death and making those decisions around it. I'm presuming the whole event will be terrible, (which it's more likely to be if that's how I'm going to approach it).

If I just took the incident as information, that the dog is old and her legs are weakening, without attaching any resistance or future significance to it, the whole morning could play out differently. Perhaps I wouldn't be primed to be annoyed at my daughter's habitual lateness and counter-garbage. I have the values of promptness and neatness. At this point in her life, she does not. Facts.

I would not bother offering my daughter suggestions about how to save time, which she has not asked for, and would not be shouted at in return. It's a simple shift of acceptance, but it makes a big difference for one's peace of mind.

"Stress is wanting something to be the way it isn't." -Eckhart Tolle

Suddenly my husband's 'oblivion' seems like genius. I can use it as an example rather than an irritant. I can allow my dog to be old. She doesn't need the vet at this exact moment. I can allow my daughter to be late and suffer her own consequences. I can tell my husband that yes, it must be nice to remotely start the car and wish him a good day. Voila! I might even feel magnanimous enough to throw out the oatmeal packet.

Try looking at your own stressors. Are you wishing things were some other way? Try accepting what is, taking it as information without a big story behind it. Cut out the future suppositions. The more you can do this, the less you will get involved in it all and try to control it. 'Controlling' creates tension and tension is not peaceful.

It's worth noting that this is not the same thing as accepting truly bad behaviour. If someone is crossing your boundaries that is another matter (and another post). There are things that my daughter is responsible for keeping clean, for example, that are not as negotiable as the oatmeal packet. But for things that are facts, accept them as they are and see how much serenity you can claim for yourself. You might find that there's not as much stress in the actual events of your life as there is in your own thoughts and judgments. And those, you can control with practice.

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