Welcome to a new month and new topic as we follow Kevin Schoeninger’s weekly messages on Spiritual Growth Monthly. This month Kevin explores the book Total Recovery, by Dr. Gary Kaplan, to show us how many of the ailments we live with every day may be the result of a lifetime of accumulated stress.
Dr. Kaplan’s case histories include stories of people who experienced severe trauma when they were young, and carried both physical and emotional scars for many years afterward. Even if many of us have never experienced trauma as severe as these individuals, we’ve all had our share of smaller stresses and setbacks, and we may still carry painful memories or physical discomfort as a result.
One of Kevin’s phrases really struck me. It is the idea that “traumas and tensions are stored in the body”. We don’t have to resurrect bad memories to feel awful. It just sits there, lodged in our muscles, bones and organs, and plagues us with chronic pain, depression, and a host of illnesses.
The idea of little stresses accumulating should not really be all that surprising. We experience this phenomenon all the time. A decade of little pieces of cake, or an extra beer or two, sneak up on us, and one day our pants don’t fit. Or we don’t really notice all those little lunches we charged to a credit card, until surprise, we find ourselves in debt.
On the plus side, little steps have been repeatedly shown to be the most effective way to change behavior in the long run. You know…those sensible lose-a-pound-a-week diets, gradual exercise plans, or throw out one piece of junk a week kind of changes.
It makes sense then that dealing with little stressful moments from our past…even just yesterday…would be both a relatively easy and effective way to lessen the accumulated damage the stress does to our bodies and our minds.
“Our body stores our life history, and unless we release the tensions and traumas, they will eventually bring us down.”
Kevin asks us “what is your story?” Our history, the story of how we got to where we are resides somewhere deep in our cells, and continues to influence every decision and action we take today. If we ache somewhere from a lifetime of tensing up against adversity, or simply feel worn down by life, we will never feel better until we can let go of what causes the pain.
Looking back at our stories can be tricky, I have found. It does us no good if we simply indulge in a litany of past grievances. You may have known people who do that. They seem to start each day by casting themselves as a martyr to their upbringing, or still clinging to some old emotional wound. They experience no joy in the present because, like Dicken’s Miss Havisham, they stay stuck in the cobwebs of their pain.
Once I tried to encourage a family member to focus a little less on her painful past. “The past is all I have,” she said. When someone is determined to believe that, there isn’t much anyone else can do, no matter how much physical pain they live with.
Conversely, some people have trouble letting go of their glory days. “How can I lose my job?” says the former high school football star. “How can my husband leave? I was Prom Queen,” cries a harried suburban mom. They look around at today and are horrified. How life could happen to them this way?
Of course, we are more than just any one moment of our history. How we have progressed from early highs or lows is a major part of our story. For a clearer perspective, Kevin suggests we look at our history through the eyes of our internal objective observer. We can look back without judging ourselves, or other people, and even see how far we’ve come.
Kevin gives us an exercise…to write down significant events from our past, in two columns. One side for “empowering moments” and the other side for “disempowering moments.” Look at what you write as a scientist would. What do you notice? Are there trends? As the crime scene investigators would say, what is the real evidence?
When we bring up old memories all sorts of old feelings come with them, and it’s the feelings where we can get stuck. Would those feelings still apply if that same event happened today? Would you react the same way as a sensible adult as you did as an overemotional teenager, or even a child?
I’ve had some real eye opening experiences looking at my past this way. Okay, so someone slighted me when I was 15. So what? I can look back now at all of us at that age and none of us were as clever or cool as we thought we were. We all hurt other people sometimes. When you’re a teenager being thoughtless and clueless just comes with the territory. And growing up turned out to be no easier for the “cool kids” as it was for the rest of us. Whatever happened, it’s really not worth holding on to.
Do we hold old disappointments? Did our parents or spouses let us down? Did people we love fail to measure up to our unrealistic expectations? If we don’t forgive, the weight of all those disappointments can breed bitterness and resentment, a churning up of stomach acid, and muscles knotted in pain.
For me, it’s all about forgiveness. You may carry a memory for decades, but if you experience the same thing the person who hurt you was going through at the time, you begin to understand what may have made them act the way they did.
You can hold on to memories without holding on to the pain. You can put them is a gentle place, out of reach during your day to day routine, but safe and sound in case you need to look at them again someday. That is one of the blessings of growing older. You can look back with a new perspective, and say, “okay, now I understand.”
In my mind at least, I would add an additional column to Kevin’s “empowering” or “disempowering” memories. I would add an empty one in the middle to stand for neutral, or having lost all power to cause me pain. Whenever I can change a painful memory into a powerless one, I feel stronger, and more at peace. I can mentally move any memory I choose into the neutral zone. And sometimes I have to look at them and laugh. Whatever made me give power to those old grievances in the first place?
Kevin will continue exploring this connection between accumulated stress and physical illness all this month, to help us all recover from whatever old stress is doing in our lives. I hope you will join us at www.spiritualgrowthmonthly.com.
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