by Erin Olivo, PhD, MPH
As a clinical psychologist with 19-years’ experience treating patients, I realized that most people have no idea how to identify or label their emotions. And that’s a big problem because I believe most people have the wrong idea about what stress is, which is why they aren’t very good at managing it.
What we need to do is learn how to manage our distressing emotions—because that’s what stress really is.
I decided to write my first book, Wise Mind Living: Master Your Emotions, Transform Your Life, to provide you with an owner’s manual to your emotions. In Wise Mind Living, I’ll teach you to identify and manage the emotions that might be getting in the way of achieving your goals. We’ll use mindfulness exercises and lifestyle strategies to help change the way you think, feel, and behave in situations where stress or difficult emotions like anxiety, sadness, anger or shame arise.
I also recorded an audio program, Living in Wise Mind: Practices to Master Your Emotions and Transform Your Life, intended as a stand-alone resource or as a complement to my book. Living in Wise Mind brings you an empowering series of guided mindfulness meditation exercises, on-the-spot techniques for managing distressing situations, and training in how to accept and tolerate the things we can’t change.
Wise Mind Living is a continual balancing act between acceptance and change, and it gets easier to maintain with practice. I’ll be teaching some of these strategies at my workshop and I’ve also included an excerpt from my book below. I’m looking forward to helping you along your journey, and remember – it’s never too late to change and transform your life!
So, how are you? If I had to guess your answer, I’d go with, “I’m so stressed out!” You might even feel like your stress is never ending; I hear this from new patients all the time.
When they describe what is going wrong for them, they refer to it as stress. But by that, they could mean they’re experiencing a bad mood, aches and pains, relationship conflict, or pretty much anything that simply is not going their way. Or they might be referring to overscheduling, overspending, overexercising. Or lack of exercise or sleep. Or eating too much. Or not eating enough. “I’m so stressed out!” might reflect an inability to say no or a major life transition or serious trauma. Or a microtrauma (“I forgot my lunch!”).
No matter what is going on with us, we tend to think of ourselves as being under stress. And so we are. But it’s not the stress per se that we most need to deal with to improve our lives. These days, we can’t wade two inches deep into the media without being splashed with advice on how to beat, reduce, or avoid stress—as if that were the very thing we need in order to find happiness, reach our full potential, or otherwise live the lives we dream of. “If only I could get rid of this stress!”
We live in a culture that is very efficient at generating stressors (thanks, smartphone) and that, at the same time, makes stress reduction seem like an urgent task at which we are all failing to measure up. The way we think about stress stresses us out! But when we identify stress as our main problem in this way, when we target stress busting as the way to improve our lives, we make a fundamental error in thinking.
If we only focus on the stress that our problems are causing or on the problems themselves, nothing will change. If we really want to make a difference for ourselves and our health, if we want to free ourselves from our “issues,” whatever they may be, we need to focus our attention on the emotions underlying these problems. These emotions—unmanaged and unmastered—are not only causing the problems; they are also creating the stress.
If we want to manage our stress, we have to manage our emotions. If we want to manage our lives, we have to manage our emotions!
Our stress and our problems both stem from emotions that are being overlooked, ignored, denied, misunderstood, misinterpreted, suppressed, or just generally poorly handled. We might pin the blame on the boss or our kids, on having too little time or too much to do, or on any number of other things. But underneath that, the real troublemakers are our feelings about those things and how we manage those feelings. Our distressing emotions, when they aren’t being taken care of in a productive way, are at the root of all of our most common issues, including over- eating, chronic relationship conflict, money mismanagement, substance abuse, and even, in many cases, poor physical health.
So, as you can see, when you get a handle on your emotions, you’ll get a handle on your problems—and your stress. Then you will be able to effect a top-to-bottom change in every aspect of your life through the choices you make every day: master your emotions—transform your life.
Erin Olivo, PhD, MPH, a licensed clinical psychologist and an Assistant Clinical Professor of Medical Psychology at Columbia University Medical Center, has a private practice in NYC and is the author of: Wise Mind Living: Master Your Emotions, Transform Your Life. www.erinolivo.com