After the first few years of chronic illnesses my family started to say to me “do you think it’s stress?”. I was flummoxed as to how to answer. Of course it was stress. I was a mother of 3 young children, I co-owned a restaurant with my spouse, he was never at home, and when he was we disagreed about everything…..yes, I had stress. But everyone has stress. More importantly, I’d had stress before my illnesses. Before we opened the restaurant I had a great career – with stress. I worked full time while carting around 3 kids to different day cares, I did all the grocery shopping and household errands, I did all of the laundry and cleaning and the majority of the cooking. If the kids needed to be dressed up, I took care of it. I was under stress, yet I wasn’t chronically ill.
I’ve come to believe the issue lies with the word Stress. The actual definition, in relation to mental health, is: a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances. Honestly, I know very few people not under stress. In fact, stress is required for us to move forward in life. For example, if in my career I had never felt stress I would never have created the employee database I built, or written the training programs I wrote. We all have, and need, stress.
It wasn’t stress that added to my ill health – it was components of stress. I recently learned that in Tibet there are over 20 words for what we call the mind. They have a word for the actual brain, a word for the mind of the heart, each organ, etc. This made me think about how inadequate the word “stress” is.
Stress can be motivating or debilitating, but we have no way to differentiate this in our day to day language. While I could clearly answer “yes, I thought stress was a contributing factor to my declining health” I couldn’t explain, I didn’t even understand, why. I understand now that there were two major components of my stress that made the difference: feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.
During my career, when faced with a problem, i.e. stressor, I was able to find, and implement, a solution. In my personal life though, I had learned that when faced with a problem I would have no such luck. I could try as many solutions as I wanted but none were going to work. I was living in a situation in which I had no power, no ability to affect the outcome, and I felt stuck. I was financially dependent and, as I grew sicker and sicker, physically dependent. I had no control.
This is the exact circumstance the narcissist creates. Slowly but surely they chip away at your confidence. Once your confidence is wavering they start to take away anything you control. Suddenly you have no access to bank accounts, or the car, or your friends and family. They build a cage around you and, when you are at your weakest, when a normal partner would be pulling you out of the cage, they lock the door. Then they stand outside and mock you.
The components of stress that are dangerous to our physical and emotional well being are those – control, hope, competence, power.
I didn’t understand this at the time. It has taken me years of therapy to understand I was even feeling these emotions. Now it is clear as day when I find myself in similar situations, but at the time I was so mired in my feelings of helplessness I couldn’t even see that was what I was feeling. I had been told, so many times, that I was “the problem” with everything in my/our life, I absorbed the fact that my spouse was amazing and I was a burden. Such bullshit.
Without understanding it myself there was no way I could express it. I often wonder, if someone had asked me about these specific emotions would I have acknowledged them? Unfortunately, the only time this happened was when I went to a therapist who focused on my health. Instead of digging deeper she spent our sessions telling me what foods to eat, to purchase a non-toxic 100% cotton bed and other “healthy” changes. I suppose on some level I did know, because I only saw her a few times. On some level I knew that a non-toxic cotton bed would not change my life.
I’m writing this for a friend of mine who’s daughter has started getting sick frequently. We talked about this a few months ago. My friend knows that her daughter is under stress but wondered what to do with that; how to help her. So if you are reading, here is the lesson: it is not the stress, it’s the control, the power that your daughter needs. She needs to feel, in the core of her being, that she can take control of her life and do what is best for her, regardless of what others think or how others might be impacted. And yes, I understand that this is easier for me to write than for you and she to implement.
The next time you start to use the word “stress” stop and think. Are you referring to the stress that gets you out of bed in the morning, the stress that motivates you, or are you referring to something else? Or, are you not even sure what you’re referring to? Because stress is an inadequate word.
I plan to banish it from my vocabulary. Wish me luck!