This is an article on stress that I recently had published on Paleo Magazine’s website…
I’m grateful to all the Paleo pioneers for leading us down the path of greater understanding of how our bodies really work. Because of them, millions of us no longer waste time and energy on health and fitness strategies that are based on a misunderstanding, and many of us have discovered a level of wellness that we didn’t even know was available.
So it may not surprise you to learn that there is also a huge misunderstanding of stress in our culture. The way we currently think about stress leads us all too often in the wrong direction and causes us to spend far more energy than is necessary trying to cope with, or manage, our stress. A deeper understanding of how our minds work has the potential for a life-changing shift and will dramatically change the frequency and amount of stress we experience. And if a Paleo lifestyle advocates a life of less stress, then it only makes sense that we would strive to understand the real source of stress.
A simple misunderstanding
A patient shows up at the doctor’s office looking terribly concerned.
“Doctor,” the patient says, “I don’t know what to do. Every night the strangest thing happens to me. My eyelids start to get heavy. My mouth opens wide to take in big slow breaths. And then, next thing you know, I pass out. And I don’t come around for hours, sometimes not even until the next morning. Something’s really wrong.”
“Ummm” the doctor says, “it sounds to me like you are just falling asleep. Everyone does that. Nothing to be concerned about. In fact, that’s normal and healthy.”
“You don’t think something’s wrong? My body just shuts down for hours at a time.”
“Nope. Totally normal. Go enjoy your life.”
“Oh my gosh! Thanks Doc! I can’t believe it. I feel so much better!”
This amusing story, while admittedly a bit far-fetched, isn’t that off the mark when it comes to all the well-meaning advice out there about how to “cope” with stress. The constant need to cope with stress comes from a simple and innocent misunderstanding about how our minds work. The good news, the “oh my gosh! I feel so much better!” news, is that anytime anyone comes to see the way our minds go through periods of high and low states just like our bodies, then stress stops looking like something to fix or cope with, and we experience far less of it in our lives.
Challenging conventional wisdom
I came across the Paleo diet at a time in my life when I was facing a perplexing autoimmune issue involving unusual allergies and asthma that was only just coming onto the radar of the allopathic medicine experts. Now, after almost 10 years of living a Paleo/Primal lifestyle, I can say with confidence that this understanding of food, health, and nutrition has made my life richer and better, and I am deeply grateful to have discovered the riches and resources of the Paleo world. A constant source of amazement for me has been how the ancestral health paradigm has overturned so much of the conventional wisdom that I had previously assumed to be true.
- Weight gain used to make sense to me from the perspective of calories in versus calories out.
- Good nutrition, to me, used to be embodied in the food pyramid; so I ate plenty of whole grains and dairy.
- Strength used to look like it was measured by how much I could bench press.
- Fitness and good movement used to look like how hard and how long I could run or ride or ski (or power through that fitness class at the gym) while spending most of the rest of my time sitting at my desk.
Now all of these look like a misunderstanding of how it works. And all of these misunderstandings were innocent by-products of accepting conventional wisdom. I was intrigued that there may be something else out there that reflected a deeper understanding of how our bodies work. And I wasn’t a believer in the Paleo lifestyle until I tried it for myself, and saw results that could only be explained by a different, unconventional, paradigm.
Outside-In versus Inside-Out
The same kind of paradigm shift is available to us in terms of understanding stress and wellbeing. I’m part of a rapidly growing international network of wellbeing professionals who are advocates for this new paradigm, based on an understanding that explains how we can all experience extraordinary mental health no matter the circumstances of our life. Especially for my fellow Paleo enthusiasts who have seen the limits of conventional wisdom regarding our physical wellbeing, perhaps the door is open to seeing the limits of conventional wisdom regarding our mental wellbeing too.
The prevailing wisdom about mental wellbeing is that we live an outside-in experience of life, which typically means that our circumstances are the cause of our experience. This paradigm, so pervasive in our culture as to be invisible to us, says that when circumstances in life line up the way we want them to, we are happy and successful, and when circumstances in life don’t go the way we want, then we are completely justified in our misery, frustration, anger, and sadness.
So, by this line of reasoning, the source of stress looks like our boss, our bank account, our troubled marriage, the traffic, our overfull inbox, the demands of others, politicians that we don’t agree with, and on and on. We can’t be faulted for seeing it this way, as we’ve been raised to believe this is true, just like the conventional messages about nutrition, health, and fitness. Yet there’s another paradigm, and just like the Paleo diet, I wouldn’t expect most people to believe it until they’ve tried it themselves.
The inside-out understanding of life points to the fact that we all have peace of mind and wellbeing available to us at any moment, and that the only thing standing between us and being in touch with our peace of mind is our thinking. It would be absurd to assume that when clouds roll in that the sun has actually gone away, rather than just being temporarily obscured. So too, our thoughts can be just like clouds that temporarily obscure our experience of our ever-present wellbeing. The presence of clouds doesn’t indicate that the weather is broken, any more than the presence of “dark” thoughts indicates that we are broken.
“The secret of happiness is simply this… your happiness does NOT depend on getting what you want.” -Michael Neill
State of Mind as the most important variable
We’ve all had the experience of having the same set of circumstances look bleak one moment and much less bleak, even hopeful or funny later on, when our state of mind has shifted and we gain some perspective. One way to make sense of the inside-out understanding is to think of our “state of mind” like a pair of sunglasses with an ever-changing tint to them that we often don’t even notice we are wearing. Sometimes the lenses are very dark, sometimes they have a medium tint, and sometimes they have nearly no distortion at all. The nature of being human is that our state of mind, or the lenses we are seeing the world through, is changing all the time. While we can certainly do things that temporarily influence the “tint of our lenses,” it’s incredibly helpful to see that this “tint” changes all the time without any effort on our part. What’s true for every single one of us is that whenever our “lenses” are especially dark, we all experience similar “symptoms.” Seeing the world through dark lenses, we are all prone to:
- Experience frustration, irritation, or anger
Take things personally
Lose our sense of humor
See few or no possibilities
Feel like we are the only ones with this problem
Feel very judgmental of ourselves and others
Feel like we are the victim
Feel like life is complicated
Feel tightness and constriction in our bodies
As our “lenses” gain a lighter tint, the “symptoms” we experience in life inevitably change, and are also quite predictable. As our state of mind lightens or clears, we are all much more likely to:
- Experience compassion, understanding, and love
- Not take things personally
- Find our sense of humor and our creativity
- Feel hopeful
- See more possibilities
- Feel warmly towards others and a sense of connectedness
- Feel lighter
- Feel like life is simpler
With a conventional approach we typically – and mistakenly – expend lots of effort focusing on alleviating these symptoms, thinking that we can and should work on them to reduce our stress and to have a better experience of life. Yet, from the perspective of this deeper understanding, the symptoms merely point in the direction of the real cause of our experience, which broadly conceived, is our “state of mind”. When we see that our temporary state of mind, and not the circumstances, is the source of our stress, the simple act of noticing our state of mind changes our experience and our stress begins to diminish. I encourage you to try it for yourself, and play around with the simple act of noticing your state of mind, without judgment or trying to change it.
You don’t need to be meditating or practicing mindfulness for this to have a profound effect. In fact, you don’t need to practice anything. You can just notice your state of mind at any moment. Practice, while often helpful, is not what leads to true or lasting change by itself. That only comes from seeing something in a new way – what we might call having an insight. Through the simple act of noticing our state of mind and its connection to our experience, we can gain life-changing insights into the real source of stress, as well as the source of peace, productivity, connection, and joy.
“You can have your experience without your experience having you.” – Linda Pransky
Understanding the nature of something changes our experience of it
It’s important to recognize that this deeper understanding is simply a description of how our experience is created, and not a prescription for how life should be lived. The key takeaway is not that we need to manage our thoughts to have better, happier, more positive thinking, but rather that when we have a deeper understanding of what I call the “Human Operating System,” we see that what typically looks like a problem to be solved is more accurately seen as an innocent misunderstanding of how our experience is created.
Here’s a story that might help bring this to life:
There was a time when my kids were much younger, and I headed into town with one of my boys who was a toddler at the time. After a visit to the park, and some lunch, without warning, my son starts whining. A lot. I tell him, with increasing urgency, to please ask differently for what he needs. Despite my feeble attempts, the whining worsens. I insist that whining isn’t the way to get what he needs. The whining then yields to crying, and my frustration level climbs quickly. Then the crying turns into a full-blown tantrum, and, at wit’s end, I feel exasperated and want to scream myself. I can’t help but think that my son is in need of some real education about how to behave when out in public, and that I’m currently a lousy parent. I feel hopeless and daunted and I’m not sure I ever want to go out in public with my kid again. I call my wife, hurriedly describe the situation, and tell her with panic in my voice that this is a disaster. She says calmly, “oh, it must be nap time.”
One of us has an understanding of the natural rhythms of toddlerhood and doesn’t perceive an issue or problem and knows that this circumstance is very likely to be experienced again, maybe frequently. The other one of us lacks that understanding, and so is perceiving a BIG problem that needs to be fixed or worked on so that it doesn’t happen ever again.
A deeper understanding of health, fitness, and nutrition changes our perception of what’s possible for our physical wellbeing. A deeper understanding of “state of mind” changes our perception of the real source of stress, and what’s possible for experiencing our own wellbeing.
“If the only thing people learned was not to be afraid of their experience, that alone would change the world.” – Sydney Banks
Beyond conventional wisdom
At every moment we are living in the feeling of our thinking. Rather than the circumstances being the cause of our experience, it is always and only the thoughts we are having about our experience and our degree of awareness of thought in any moment that explains our experience of life, without exception. This doesn’t mean that life isn’t going to knock us around from time to time, or that bad or painful things won’t happen to us. Life is, indeed, a contact sport. But our experience of these circumstances is not a given, and is subject to change at any moment when our thinking about the circumstances looks different to us.
I see many clients who come to me suffering from anxiety and overwhelm. All of them, at the beginning of our conversations, attribute their stress, worry, and concern either to their current life circumstances, to some past trauma, or occasionally to what they perceive as an inherited or genetic predisposition. With every one of these clients, a deeper understanding of the nature of thought has brought them relief from their suffering, and it is not uncommon for clients to find they no longer need pharmaceutical interventions. While the details of each person’s insights are unique to them, what is common to all is the realization that the content of our thinking is not where answers lie; rather seeing the quality of our thinking in the moment — seeing our state of mind and its natural ups and downs — is the source of peace of mind and freedom from stress and anxiety.
I, along with my colleagues around the world, have seen the implications of this deeper understanding help people in all aspects of their lives. It has rescued countless marriages, eased stress and anxiety for tens of thousands of people, led to remarkable performance in organizations of all types, helped people effortlessly overcome addictions, and much more. Just as the claims of the ancestral health lifestyle appear to contradict conventional wisdom, and are still broadly dismissed by many, the claims that a deeper understanding of our innate wellbeing can offer such profound results for anyone, might seem outlandish to you at first. Yet just as the wisdom of the ancestral health lifestyle lies in its deeper understanding of how our bodies actually work, the wisdom of an innate health approach to mental wellbeing also lies in its deeper understanding of how our minds actually work.