Often, our stress results from the demands and expectations placed upon us by the various positions and people in our lives. Beyond this, there is another significant source of stress that we may be all familiar with. This particular type of stress does not include the tasks or responsibilities common to life. At the same time, the experience is undoubtedly common to our shared human experience. Rather, what often bogs us down and keeps us stuck is not what we have to do but what we refuse to accept. To deal with this type of psychological tension in our lives requires particular stress management skills.
The Stress Management Skills of DBT
We’ll look to the PLEASE Skills, adapted from Marsha M. Linehan’s Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) skills training manual, to address this specific type of stress. The purpose of this tool is to be able to better understand and manage our emotions. Each letter of the acronym points to an area of basic life functioning where simple steps can help us approach our problems with more calm and clarity.
For reference, the acronym is as follows:
PL – Treat Physical Illness
E– Balance Eating
A – Avoid mood-altering substances
S– Balance Sleep
E – Get Exercise
While many of the above-listed areas to consider may seem like obvious suggestions, how often do we let these parts of ourselves go unattended? Beyond that, I believe that there is more than meets the eye in the advice offered by the PLEASE stress management skills.
Focusing on the “A” in PLEASE
Classically, the “A” stands for “Avoid mood altering substances,” which is absolutely a vital and important admonition for managing stress. However, given our current cultural context, I would propose a refresh on our way of thinking about this tool with the “A” updated to “Acknowledge addictive behaviors.” Our culture is inundated with not only addictive and mood-altering substances but devices, websites, video games, gambling platforms, pornography, social media, news alerts, and YouTube rabbit holes that have the same effect. All are nearly all available at the push of a button, which allows these addictions to develop deep roots in our psyche. Especially in our aim to understand the stress that comes from that which we refuse to accept, we must look to the vehicles that allow us to numb, check out, and avoid reality.
For a deeper look at the chronic state of addiction in our society, check out Dr. Anna Lembke’s book Dopamine Nation. Or, for a quick synopsis of the material, listen to Dr. Lembke discuss this issue with podcaster Rich Roll on The Neuroscience of Addiction.
“Accepting What Is” as a Stress Management Skill
For our purposes here—developing practical stress management skills—I want to borrow another pivotal concept from DBT, accepting reality. A significant source of our stress and suffering in life comes from our refusal to accept reality for what it is.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand how hard it can be to accept reality, to say yes to life on life’s terms. From the seemingly silly—coming home to find that someone discovered and devoured my Oreo cookie stash—to the absolutely obliterating—receiving a diagnosis, dealing with a family member’s addiction, or grieving the death of a loved one—the list goes on.
Learning this lesson the hard way
I remember receiving a mid-level introduction to accepting reality during my first year of college. I recently acquired a teal Pontiac Sunbird (yeah, I know, pretty cool, right?). It was a beautiful sunny day, class had just ended, and I was going out for a joyride. I can remember exactly what I was listening to. Turned up full blast, windows down, I drove around blaring Weezer’s Blue album—incredibly fitting for what was about to happen to me. Just as I was singing at the top of my lungs, “Say it ain’t sooooo,” it happened. The sound of crunching metal, the jolt of a very abrupt stop, the confusion, the realization, the horror. I had driven my beautiful teal Sunbird into the back of an average gray SUV.
All in all, a car accident is a very stressful situation. However, when you add to that stress the anguish of rejecting reality, a momentary mistake can turn into a month-long (or longer) stressfest.
Maybe we get stuck in our heads asking why:
“What did I do to deserve this, why is this happening to me?”
Or beat ourselves up with self-deprecating thoughts like:
“How could I be so stupid, what kind of an idiot am I?”
Or drive ourselves mad with unending “what if” after “what if”:
“What if I would have turned on Sunshine Blvd, what if I would have gone to the gym, what if I would have started that paper, what if I wasn’t listening to Weezer!?!”
There’s No Way Around the Truth
The difficulty of life can not be understated here. Life is hard, and accepting that bad things have or will happen to you is not a sunshiny part of existence. Psychologist M. Scott Peck states the reality of this fact and the necessity of acceptance in a most poignant manner:
“Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult-once we truly understand and accept it-then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”
― M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth
At the heart of the matter, here is the simple truth: all of the mental gymnastics that we go through, all of the emotional anguish, all of the self-depreciation, all of the arguments about fairness or rightness, all of the bargaining, all of the resentment, all of the rejecting, all of the clinging, all of the suffering we experience as a result of refusing to accept reality does nothing to actually change it. Once thing you can be sure of is that acceptance is not about approval. It’s not about wanting what has happened. Acceptance is certainly not even about liking our current circumstances. It is, however, the willingness to acknowledge what is and to stop trying to control an unchangeable past or unpredictable future.
Managing Your Internal Dialogue
The internal argument you may feel rising up to challenge this notion of accepting reality may sound like this: “If I accept reality then I am stuck with this bullshit playing over and over on repeat forever. I can’t get past it, or won’t be motivated to.” This is not the case. Often the very energy I need to create positive change is being blocked by my unwillingness to accept the past or current reality. Non-acceptance is what keeps the past playing on an endless loop in our heads.
Another argument against accepting reality is that “acceptance doesn’t make me feel any better.” This is true; embracing reality is not about feeling better. Genuine acceptance often means we must first allow ourselves to deeply feel the pain, loss, sadness, hurt, or disappointment. These feelings are typically what we are trying to escape by rejecting reality. The counterintuitive truth is that by accepting the legitimate pain of sadness and loss, we empty depression (numbness) of its power to make us miserable. By accepting the legitimate pain of uncertainty and unknowing, we drain anxiety of its power to make us suffer endless worry after endless worry.
If you relate to some of the topics discussed in this blog, or recognize your need for some stress management skills, our team at Awakened Path would love to be a resource for you. Connect with us today to get started on your path to a balanced and less-stressful life!