Michael Apáthy explores what lies beneath stress – and how it can be addressed without creating yet another self care to-do list.
I sat in front of my clinical supervisor for my fortnightly meeting in which I was supposed to talk about how I was coping, and how my work helping others was going. “I’m feeling really stressed at the moment.” I started off by saying. This was not an unusual way for me to start supervision sessions. I was hesitant to even bring this up, because I’d talked about my work stress often before and things didn’t seem to be any better for doing so.
In response she asked “How would you rate your stress from 1-10 at the moment?” “I’d say an eight.” “Eight’s pretty high… What are you doing for self care?” I rattled off a few things I was already doing, meditation, running, spending time in nature. All of the right answers, but I was already doing these things, and was still feeling stressed, and truth be told, pretty unhappy. I quietly despaired, pretended that I’d have a go at the further suggestions for self care that she made, and changed the topic to the work I didn’t want to do with the drug and alcohol addicted citizens of West Auckland, who mainly didn’t want to get state mandated help from me, either.
Eventually, sick enough of the work and the workplace that skipped over the surface of the real social and personal issues, I left, a decision I never regretted for an instant. Looking back, I see this experience of so-called self care as actually being the managing of both clinicians and citizens – a substitute for real connection and healing, and certainly a substitute for addressing the disempowerment of both workers and the poor of West Auckland.
Now as a psychotherapist and ecotherapist in private practice whose caseload includes quite a lot of people involved in social or environmental change work, I have a very different understanding of stress. Stress, the physical and mental strain of meeting demands, is rarely in my opinion the real problem. In fact some degree of stress is healthy, it strengthens our immune system and helps us to feel stimulated and challenged. Stress is real, but it’s also a vague term, that we sometimes use because it’s socially acceptable or even approved of (stress is what hard workers in the capitalist system are supposed to feel). Focusing on stress also helps to hide the deeper personal and structural difficulties from ourselves and others. Stress is simply the feeling of working hard. Absent of other difficulties like compulsive self-sacrificing patterns, real of perceived powerlessness, or chronic depletion, stress is just the feeling of an engine burning cleanly and powerfully at high revs.
So instead of stress itself, let’s talk about more vulnerable territory – anxiety. Anxiety is a danger signal that is felt in our bodies, and which is unpleasant enough to be powerfully aversive. When we’re stressed by being faced with a difficult challenge, and for whatever reason it has come to feel dangerous or unacceptable to fail, then anxiety begins to get mixed in with the stress. Does this sound familiar to anyone who is an under-resourced activist working on crucial issues like racism or sexism or climate change?
Because anxiety is unpleasant we often avoid it. When someone I’m working with comes into the therapy room appearing stressed or anxious but talking about how fantastically well everything’s going, often I’ll ask them how they’re feeling in their body. The body is where anxiety is stored. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve seen a gentle but persistent focus on someone’s internal bodily and emotional experience help them, sometimes dramatically, to get relief from anxiety and buried emotional pain and tension that the person may not have been aware they’re carrying, and which is reducing their effectiveness.
To be fair, if this were easy, we’d all be dealing with our baggage all of time. Often we’re not just anxious about the external pressures, but also about all sorts of internal threats, such as self condemnation if we fail, or the extent of our sadness, fear, grief or even joy. Dropping into the deep bodily experience of these states can be extremely intense, but the important thing to know is that it is a passage, a temporary release of feelings and physiological tension that will pass. We might fear that if we drop into our depths we will drown in the emotions. It is only when we take the plunge, drop down, and feel our feet touch the bottom, that we know it’s safe, and get to feel true relief.
Given this difficulty, why would we choose to face our depths more fully, rather than follow the well worn path of pushing on against the stress and anxiety and exhaustion? The cost of not facing ourselves fully is different for different people. Some of us hold chronic body tension in our necks, shoulders, and back, often leading to back pain or headaches. Others find our stress and anxiety disrupts our sensory and cognitive capacity, leading to us getting mentally disorganised, sleepy or exhausted, or projecting our most difficult feelings on to others. Finally, some of us resort to various self limiting defences that keep us detached, despairing, self critical, physically ill, passive, or overly controlling.
Whatever combination of these strategies you might recognise yourself using, I suggest that you take some time to think and feel a bit about the cost of these strategies to you, and consider that it doesn’t have to be this way. The cost we pay in terms of anxiety and self limitations no longer needs to be paid, once the underlying emotional difficulties have been fully faced.
Sometimes this process of facing ourselves, whether in therapy or not, brings up familiar faces from our past. How many of us in our activism are unconsciously either fighting with or rescuing our parents, or are struggling against others who may have traumatised us in the past? The oppressive and anxiety inducing inner critic, for instance, often has a face, a familiar one, when the mask has been removed. Psychology and activism have often been polarised in terms of locating the oppressor as being wholly internal, or external to ourselves.
What I’ve seen in my own life and the lives of those I work with, is that real lasting change may start out being focused either outside or inside of ourself, but usually ends up spreading to both our inner/individual and outer/communal lives. Self care vs changing the system, or confronting our past wounds vs challenging oppression now, are largely false dichotomies. To put it more personally, if I really address my old unconscious desires to rescue a sick parent, I will become more free to care about the problems of the world today, rather than less.
Real change of whatever variety often takes time, money, energy, and support. What would it be like if in our social or environmental change work instead of being chronically under-resourced, had the best possible support we could imagine?
As a mental health professional, I imagine this from the angle of our psychological needs. What if we all had mentors and peer supporters who inspired and guided us to keep growing and developing throughout our activism? What if we had psychotherapists and counsellors and psychologists who aligned with our values, offered sessions that didn’t cost the earth, and who could guide us through our particular internal barriers to maximum psychological wellness and even peak performance? What if attention to our personal strengths and needs was woven into the very structure of our organisations and processes that we use in our work every day? I’ve known organisations and individuals who have created this support, to varying degrees, and I’ve seen the resilience, intelligence, compassion, skillfullness, and effectiveness that comes as a result. Isn’t this what we need, if we’re really going to change the world?
I started contemplating this article during the international Break Free from fossil fuel actions in May 2016, organised by 350.org. Watching the video footage of massive actions such as the German coal mine occupation, Ende Gelande, I felt profoundly moved by the courage and sincerity of activists around the world. To me, this is the human spirit at its best and most beautiful.
However, if we are to fully succeed in our efforts to make a better world, even more will be required of us. Rising to the challenge is about more than just managing our stress or pushing ourselves even harder. At the most fundamental level, in each of us, there is a person who is vast, energetic, deeply intelligent, fearless, and capable of tremendous intimacy and care. Let’s work together to create movements where the best parts of each of us can be discovered and can have a chance to transform our world.
Michael Apáthy is a psychotherapist and ecotherapist with a passion for activism, who works in private practice in Christchurch. He also does therapy via Skype, and is committed to making psychological support available and affordable for those who are involved in social and environmental change work. www.lucidpsychotherapy.co.nz