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The Fine Line Between Physical Stress and Mental Stress

Last updated on June 23, 2021

old fruit boxes
Some of these boxes are in need of physical repair, but is the overall situation stressful for you?

Different Treatments for Different Causes

The Work of Byron Katie can be an amazing way to loosen the mental stress I experience in any situation. Because mental stress is usually a large factor in any stressful experience, questioning my thinking in this way can be very helpful.

But sometimes it can get confusing.

For Example, the Back Exercises from my Chiropractor

I got a new exercise from my chiropractor a few weeks ago. He wants me to do a flexed-arm hang (holding a pull-up in the “up” position). This is to strengthen my back muscles which are much weaker than the muscles of my chest and arms. 

I loved the idea and went right to it twice a day. It wasn’t long before something uncomfortable happened. Working these weak muscles in my back triggered some emotional reactions. It turns out that these are the same muscles that get tight when I am emotionally stressed. 

The result was that I started feeling no energy, almost depressed. 

Then the Mind Went Looking for Reasons to Feel Stressed

Nothing is going wrong in my life these days but I could see my mind looking for something. Any little excuse to justify feeling depressed: “Oh, I didn’t finish that job on time.” Or, “I should have done that differently.” 

This was minor stuff but, when I was overshadowed by those weak, emotionally related muscles in my back, it almost seemed believable. My story of “I should have done that job differently” felt true because of the physical stress.

Luckily, I didn’t buy into it very much. Just a little bit of “Is it true?” cut through the illusion. It quickly became clear to me that there was nothing wrong with my life, it was just a physical trigger from working those muscles. The solution was simply to stop doing the exercises until the stressful feeling went down or until I could see my chiropractor again.

I Love Seeing this Distinction

Not all stress has to be worked with The Work. Some of it comes from physical sources including fatigue, hunger, physical damage, etc. By taking care of the body, I can often find balance for the physical discomfort. The Work is just there if I feel mentally stressed about it. 

For example, my old story that “I want a stress-free back” is the mental part for me. I’ve had chronic back tension/pain for most of my adult life. I do my best to take care of it by getting good sleep, food, exercise, seeing a chiropractor, and doing yoga when I can. 

The more I have questioned thoughts like, “I want a stress-free back,” the more peaceful I have become with the way my back is. The physical tension is still there, and may always be there, but it’s not as big a deal to me when I question my hopeless desire for zero physical tension. The desire to control something I don’t know how to control just adds mental stress to the physical.

But There Is a Grey Area Too

My back pain used to be a lot worse before I started doing The Work on all the different things that have stressed me in my life. As I worked through my stresses, my physical pain also became less. Now, 99% of the time my back is not painful at all. There is just a kind of tension that increases and decreases with different experiences at different times.

My conclusion from this is that the mental stress was also a factor in the physical symptoms. So questioning my mental stresses can be a help for releasing physical stresses. 

But I don’t take this to an extreme. I don’t believe that every physical stress is necessarily caused by mental stress. So I don’t do The Work to fix my body. I do The Work to make peace with the way things are: including my body, my relationships, my work, etc. 

I take care of my body as best I can physically, but I allow it to have its aches and pains. I am learning that it is possible to be mentally at ease even with an uncomfortable body.

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Have a great week,
Todd

“I have sat with many people on their deathbeds, and after we do The Work, they always tell me that they’re fine. I remember one very frightened woman who was dying of cancer. She had requested that I sit with her, so I came. I sat down beside her and said, “I don’t see a problem.” She said, “No? Well, I’ll show you a problem!” and she pulled off the sheet. One of her legs was so swollen that it was at least twice the size of the normal leg. I looked and I looked, and I still couldn’t find a problem. She said, “You must be blind! Look at this leg. Now look at the other one.” And I said, “Oh, now I see the problem. You’re suffering from the belief that that leg should look like this one. Who would you be without that thought?” And she got it. She began to laugh, and the fear just poured out through her laughter. She said that this was the happiest she had ever been in her entire life.” Byron Katie, Loving What Is

Further reading: Dealing With The Mental/Emotional Component of Back Pain

About the author

Todd Smith has been doing The Work of Byron Katie on an almost daily basis since 2007. He is just as excited about this simple process of self-inquiry today as he was when he first came across it. He also enjoys writing about The Work, and training others in the subtleties of this meditative process. Join Todd for The Work 101 online course, private sessions, virtual retreats, and his ongoing Inquiry Circle group.

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