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A New Way to Look at Stress to Improve Health Outcomes

By

New way to look at stress - Dr. Axe

Every once in a while, if we’re really lucky, we might happen to come across an idea that radically changes the course of life in unimaginable ways. I came across such a thing many years ago that had amazing implications for how someone deals with stress and how this can not only improve health outcomes but also result in a person experiencing way more peace, joy, love and goodness in their life. 

I have had the fortune of working with close to a hundred people with different types of advanced cancer cases and many hundreds more with a variety of other serious health conditions in my practice as a life coach and herbalist. 

This last year, I had some time to reflect and look back at all the work I’d done with people, and I noticed something very curious I’d never seen before about my whole experience working with people. 

What I discovered with the people with advanced cancer and other serious illnesses was that if they had a strong sense of purpose, desire and conviction to keep on living, all of them ended up finding a way to survive, recover and even thrive regardless of what treatment option they chose or challenges they had to go through. 

Conversely, the people with very serious health conditions who were totally overwhelmed or confronted by life, who couldn’t find a further purpose, eventually died or numbed themselves right out no matter what treatment option or program they did. 

This recent article published on NPR.org refers to a study which concluded a similar finding whereby there is a strong correlation between having a sense of purpose and positive health outcomes.  

While this might seem obvious at first glance, it’s also something that rarely gets talks about. Instead, when you hear about someone turning around cancer or another serious illness, most tend to attribute their success to a specific program or some sort of medicine they took. When someone passes away from something like cancer, often people will say it was due to them doing the wrong treatment option and blaming it on the chemotherapy or radiation and that they should have gone the natural route.

For those who died going the natural cancer treatment route, there are others who think they would have survived had they done the standard allopathic treatment. These are certainly valid ways of looking at it. However, rarely do you hear — maybe the deeper reason they lived or died had more to do with them either having a strong desire and purpose to stick around or because they wanted or were ready to go. 

I’ve seen all sorts of healing modalities work for people to turn around next to impossible conditions like late-stage cancer, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s and more. Although I would never personally recommend it just because of the significant side effects, I’ve even seen chemotherapy and radiation work with a small number of people with very advanced cancer.

For example, I have one client who was administered chemotherapy 20 years before I met her, and her doctors were incredulous that she lived — telling her that the amount of chemo that had been given to her would have killed anyone else. Yet she had an incredible conviction that it would work and she survived despite all odds. I’ve also seen people try all those same healing modalities and still not make it. 

The thing that I consistently found as the more accurate indicator for whether someone was going to live or not was whether they had a deeper sense of purpose or desire to keep on going or not. If they didn’t, the treatments or recommendations might have helped buy them a little more time, but the person invariably went downhill and passed anyway. 

So if having a desire to live is so important and obvious and has such a big impact on health outcomes, why is it something that’s so rarely touched upon in the relationship between the health practitioner and the patient? The primary reason is that to have this conversation would invariably bring up a lot of emotional pain that the patient hasn’t been able to process or deal with in their own life, which is very uncomfortable to look at. This is coupled along with the fact that the human brain is wired up to avoid experiencing things that are painful in order for us to survive. 

The other thing is that we are very selective with who we feel safe to open up with and talk about what’s really going on in our lives. We can intuitively feel if it’s safe or unsafe to reveal more of ourselves to someone and can sense if they’ll be able to really “hear” us without judging, reacting or trying to fix or change us. Furthermore, most people are aware that doctors and health practitioners are generally not trained in the ability to help people with stress beyond prescribing a pill, natural medicine or doing some sort of physical therapy work. 

So instead, the default option is to get into a discussion about symptoms and treating symptoms or recommending a health program that serves to distract the patient/client away from feeling the pain of any underlying stress and reach for some relief. The treatment or recommendation options could include anything from a chemical medication, natural medicine, physical therapy or energy work, which all help give some relief. Natural substances like cannabis and kratom are also becoming increasingly more popular as they become more legalized and easier to procure. 

While there is sometimes a cost with some of these options in the form of side effects, I also don’t think there is anything wrong treating or recommending things for dealing with symptoms with any of these ways either. If people didn’t have these options for getting relief, they might not be able to handle the stresses of life or function at all. 

People will typically employ these strategies until they don’t work for the physical and emotional pain and then they’re often faced with the choice of stronger and stronger treatments or having to face the stress head-on. 

In my health practice, I often recommend medicinal herbs and dietary adjustments to those I work with. While these help in detoxifying the body for those who are just wanting some form of relief, I find I get far superior life-changing results with people when I work with them on what’s behind the stress (for those who are at a point where they are ready and willing to look at this). Helping them see other ways of perceiving and addressing their stress and emotions is key to bringing about change. I’ve found this is not just something that benefits people with serious health conditions but is enormously valuable for anyone. 

Regarding stress, I know that most people would love to be able to offload and not be burdened by it. The reality is that there are few places where it’s safe enough for someone to open up fully and work through what they’ve been holding on to without being judged. Instead, people mostly go through life holding on to or concealing the things that they are ashamed about, thinking it would be the end of the world if anyone else ever discovered those things about them. 

If someone is very lucky, they might have a friend or a family member with whom they can share more with, but it’s extremely rare for a person to have someone in their life with whom they can fully be themselves and talk about whatever is on their mind, trusting that the other person will just listen, won’t leave, will still love them, will not react or tell them that there is something wrong with them or try to fix them and still get behind and support all their goals and dreams. The thing I’ve found is the biggest gift by far for someone is for them to know that they’re lovable just the way they are and the way they aren’t. 

I do a lot of this work nowadays with people and am continually amazed at the results I see for people when they get freed up from the burden of self-judgment and knowing that who they are fundamentally is okay and lovable. 

All the time, energy and money people expend trying to conceal or fix something about themselves or compensate for some perceived deficiency or lack, can now be redirected towards other projects and things that bring a deeper sense of fulfillment in life. 

I had a client who had been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD) by a psychiatrist. She had a successful career in health care but was becoming increasingly frustrated with many of her clients who weren’t following any of her recommendations, and they’d come into her office time and time again with the same problem and not making any progress. 

What she really wanted to be doing was work with people who were more proactive and who took more responsibility for their health, but she couldn’t see any way out of her dilemma and was noticing she was having a harder time focusing on her work and gradually becoming more depressed. Taking stress leave from her work, she spoke with a counselor who referred her to a psychiatrist where she had been given the diagnosis of ADD and prescribed Ritalin. 

When she sat down with me, she thought her problem was the depression and her lack of focus and was thinking that I’d have a diet plan and medicinal herbs that could help with that. As I listened to her story more, I realized that there wasn’t really anything wrong with her. The only thing that was off was perhaps was her own perception that there was something wrong with her and her being hard on herself for not being able to focus. 

I saw that she hadn’t been “fully heard“ by the practitioners she had seen — and they had thought that there was something wrong with her that needed to be fixed with a chemical medication. Of course, this was a completely reasonable suggestion on their part and that would have given her some relief and helped her get back to work. She could have gone on treating her symptoms, learning to cope as best she could in her job and become more ingrained in the idea that she had a medical condition while dealing with the side effects of the medication and that would have been a reasonable way to go. 

I took a different approach, letting her know that lack of focus and depression is a completely normal response for someone who is doing something that they don’t like to be doing. I pointed out that if I or someone else had been in the same situation, we might have responded in the same way. I also said that it was perfectly fine if she wanted to treat the symptoms with Ritalin and suppress the emotions and deal with the side effects from that.

Or, the other options would be to learn how to be more effective at having people take more responsibility or she could retrain and do something else. She didn’t get to choose her clients, so retraining was the next best thing, but the thought of doing that terrified her, and she had no idea what she wanted to do next or how she would survive financially while taking the time to reeducate herself in a different career. 

One weekend, I invited her out to an event on living your life to its fullest. It was there that she had an even deeper experience and saw that she was okay just the way she was. After this, she started to see a whole new avenue she’d never considered before and found a way to make it work financially while transitioning at the same time. 

Within one year, she had retrained in another health modality she loved, started an independent practice which became very popular and successful, and all the symptoms of ADD went away by themselves without her ever having to take any medications. 

One of the things I’ve found the most helpful for clients is helping them shift their understanding and relationship with stress. Most people relate to it as something bad that they need to manage, suppress or push away and this makes sense considering the design of the human brain and how it works to help us avoid pain to survive. 

However, depending on your understanding of what stress is and what causes it, stress can also be seen as a tremendous opportunity to grow personally and become an avenue for someone to have a lot more joy, peace, fulfillment and satisfaction in life. It just requires gaining a little more awareness and looking at things from another perspective. 

Remember back to the last time you experienced a high amount of stress, or if you’re experiencing it right now, take a moment and get present to how you feel in your body and ask yourself, “what am I feeling right now in my body?“ and “what am I thinking?“

What you’ll probably notice is that there are two parts to it:

  1. Some sort of emotion (usually some fear, anger, sadness or grief, with fear and anger usually being the most common), and
  2. Some sort of repetitive story or interpretation about a scenario where you can’t see any hope, where things look impossible, or where you lose something and it has sort of a “gripping” aspect to it (i.e., you can’t stop thinking about it).

Now, change your thoughts and put your attention on something completely different. Notice how the uncomfortable feelings and bodily sensations dissipate or go away immediately. When you go back to thinking about the same stressful thing, the bodily sensations come right back. The emotions are tied to your “perception” or interpretation of the situation. 

Years ago, I started noticing something very curious that was happening with all my clients with cancer and other serious conditions. Whenever they had family or friends come over, they enjoyed spending time or when they went out and did events or activities they loved doing, all the pain and symptoms would dissipate or even go away. As soon as they were alone or stopped doing the activity, the pain and symptoms would come right back. This cycle started to become highly predictable. Nothing else had really changed in their reality except what they were thinking, what they put their attention on or how they perceived the world. 

If someone can change the perception of a situation, this can have things start to change, but there’s an even more critical aspect that needs to happen for the stress to completely disappear. And this is so simple, we’ve almost all completely missed it. 

I’ll use the example of relationships to exemplify the common strategies people have around dealing with stress. Then I will discuss how someone can use this new approach to make stress disappear completely. 

Think back to the last time you were really stressed out about something that someone close to you did or said (perhaps an intimate partner or a close family member). It may have looked like it was the other person who was responsible for you feeling that uncomfortable and unpleasant emotion by what they said or did. Since the normal response of the human brain is to avoid pain, you unconsciously might employ any number of strategies in that situation. 

You might try and change or control the other person to get them to do something different. Another strategy might be, rather than confronting them, to numb yourself out to the feelings by taking medication or consuming a substance, so you don’t have to feel the unpleasant and uncomfortable emotions. Some people might respond by eating more as certain properties in foods produce a sedative-like effect in the body which numbs the emotions. 

Likewise, you could distract yourself from the unpleasant emotions with some sort of an addiction (which could be something as simple as constantly checking your cell phone or watching more TV or Netflix, which would have you thinking about something else). Finally, you could distance yourself from that person by not spending as much time with them, or maybe even cutting them out of your life. Sound familiar? We all do this to some degree. 

These strategies all work and give some temporary relief from the stress, but by doing these, you may want to consider that you have set your life up to have your internal state of happiness and peace be dependent upon an external circumstance having to be a particular way (that you mostly have no control over). When things go the way you want, you’re happy and at peace, but when things don’t go the way you want, all the uncomfortable emotions come rushing back in and you feel an increase in stress. 

These strategies might work for some time, but we all know that life isn’t static and things are constantly changing. When something major happens outside your control — the other person gets sick, they lose their job, they do something where the strategies you used to keep things under control don’t work anymore, etc., then stress can get really out of hand and have a massively detrimental impact on your health, energy and overall well-being. I’ve even seen this eventually lead to cancer in many cases. 

The good news is that there is a whole other way of looking at the same situation that gives a very different result, and that is to consider that the emotions like anger, sadness, grief and fear that you have such a hard time being with were already there inside you even before that person showed up in your life. In other words, the other person didn’t cause the emotions in you, you already had the negative emotions in you when you were born. The other person was just doing what they always do and that triggered and brought up what was already inside you. 

I had a hard time believing and fully comprehending this until I had my daughter … she used to laugh and giggle in her sleep a few weeks after she was born but never laughed when she was awake. This wasn’t something that she had learned or modeled from myself or my wife. It was something that she already came into the world with. Other times when she got angry at something in her very early years, it wasn’t a response she had learned from her mom or me either … it was something she already had in her. The circumstance served to trigger and bring it up in her. 

Understandably, it would be more desirable to not be carrying around these negative emotions, especially since they can have a hugely detrimental impact on our health and our lives. Furthermore, most people would love to experience more love and compassion, which is really not possible when we’re consumed by anger, fear, sadness or grief. It behooves us to not be holding onto these. 

Rather than being a victim of someone coming into our lives who triggers these emotions, another way of looking at this is perhaps they’re a gift in disguise. They are doing us the service of being able to see certain aspects of ourselves more clearly that we want to let go of anyways. This allows us the opportunity to become more loving, caring and compassionate. Yet, that still leaves us with the question of what do we do with the negative emotions when they arise. 

If you look close enough, you might notice how life tends to keep on repeating itself, giving us the same circumstances over and over (as if it were somehow trying to teach us a lesson) until we learn to work through the challenge. In school or college, you don’t get to go on to the next level until you pass a course. In your work, you don’t get a promotion until you achieve certain performance goals or show a certain level of competence that most often required you having to work through a challenge. With relationships, you might notice that the same issue(s) tend to keep on happening over and over until you learn something from the situation, and there is a shift. 

Think back to a time and area in your life where it initially looked like nothing would ever change no matter what you did and then one day something completely different happened, and life was never the same afterwards. 

If you look back at that event, you might remember having had to take an uncomfortable risk, or telling the truth to yourself or another person about something that was uncomfortable to do, letting go of resentment and forgiving someone, or expressing love for someone when it was scary to do. These things most likely all involved you having to “feel” some uncomfortable emotion, face your fear, or feel and let go of anger, grief or sadness that you might have been resisting to do prior. Once you had felt the emotion, the circumstances changed in life thereafter, and you never had that same circumstance show up in life again. 

I used to be terrified of asking women to dance who were very good at dancing. Even though I had taken dance lessons for a couple of years, I would go out on social dance night every other Friday night and sit in the corner most of the evening and only ask women to dance who were beginner dancers. This went on for over a year. 

One day, I finally got up the gumption to go and ask someone who was a really good dancer to dance. Now, the entire time I thought I was going to die and could feel my whole body shaking. However, after about a couple minutes of dancing with her, the fear completely passed. From that moment on, I never had any issues asking anyone to dance. And just a few years later, I even ended up meeting my wife through dancing (and she was a much better dancer than me at the time). 

Consider that the lesson is to feel the negative emotion so it can disappear. Once you’ve felt it and released it, you can now be in the same situation that always triggers you and be at peace and freed up to take a completely new action. Once this happens, usually the circumstances of life shift and things are never the same going forward. 

Often it seems like there are some things in life we can’t have, but yet, if we’re open and willing to feel the emotions and experiment with new ways of looking at things, completely new solutions and circumstances can present themselves that often were unimaginable before. 

Going back to the example of the relationship. So now you realize that you have had some negative emotion(s) in you triggered by the other person for you to see yourself more clearly. You could still go on what you’ve always done in the same situation, getting more of the same results, and that would be a completely reasonable thing to do. You could also recognize that the stress and negative emotions when they get triggered are slowly causing your body to fall apart and you now have an opportunity to have these disappear and be displaced by love and compassion. 

Now it might initially look like letting go of your anger would mean you have to settle on never getting what you want, but now you’re also aware that perhaps there are other solutions if you are only able to change your perception and fully “feel” the negative emotion. There’s no reason that you shouldn’t get everything you want in the world, but perhaps there’s a different way to go about things that might yield a better result. 

After all, if you look back at your life, there were times when things came easily and effortlessly to you in relationships … you just might not have been aware of what you were doing at the time that worked. Furthermore, there are other people out there who have figured it out as well, so it’s definitely possible. Not that you were doing anything wrong, but it might just be a matter of being open to learning something new, gaining more awareness and trying something different. In the meantime, you might decide that having more love and letting go of the things that are causing the stress is the way to go. 

The wonderful news is that this model of perceiving stress as an opportunity can actually be applied to any area of life. For the most part, the rest of the world doesn’t really see it in this way. It’s incredibly easy to buy into the notion that we’re victims of other people and constantly changing circumstances in a hostile world.

And while there is not much peace that comes with constantly trying to control and protect oneself against factors that are largely outside of one’s control or constantly numbing or distracting oneself from the stress, there is certainly nothing wrong with living this way either. Everyone is free to choose how they want to play out their lives, and a life like that might be providing the perfect lessons and experience for someone. 

On the other hand, for someone who wants to discover more peace and joy in their own life and is interested in changing their relationship to stress, for the most, it’s a gradual process. This process involves starting to discover what’s really right and good about life. Ultimately, the areas where someone has been experiencing stress have also been the biggest opportunities in disguise all along for someone to have more love, joy, peace, better health and goodness in their lives. 

If someone is interested in learning to walk more on this path in life, I recommend working with someone who can just listen from an unconditionally loving place. Someone who doesn’t judge and can help them to see what’s really right about life as this can make all the difference in the world. Plus, it can shave decades off of the learning curve not to mention having the journey be more enjoyable. Gradually, this becomes a habitual way of seeing the world, and it’s quite a delightful way to live. 

Jonathan Ley is a life coach, herbalist and detoxification practitioner dedicated to bringing active listening and unconditional love into the health practitioner/client dynamic and working with people to help them develop more conscious awareness around their health and a deeper sense of fulfillment in all areas of life. Find out more about him and his practice at www.painfreehappylife.com

Josh Axe

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