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A Stress Management Tool from The 18th Century

“We can easily manage if we will only take, each day, the burden appointed to it. But the load will be too heavy for us if we carry yesterday’s burden over again today, and then add the burden of the morrow before we are required to bear it.”

So wrote John Newton (1725-1807), author of the iconic hymn Amazing Grace, Anglican clergyman and former slave ship master who was hugely influential in ending the slave trade. As a modern day therapist with the benefit of many centuries of research since Newton’s time, I can only say ‘amen’ to his insightful observation of what we nowadays may call ‘stress overload’.

Stress gets a bad rap… it gets blamed for all kinds of things (often rightly so, to be fair!). Stress is pressure and pressure is not in itself a bad thing - without pressure or need, some of us may never get out of bed! The pressure to hunt and find food, to find shelter, is what enabled the human race to survive… if Ugg the caveman spent all of his day sitting under a tree meditating then you and I wouldn’t be here to have this conversation. So when does stress or pressure become harmful? We do know that too much stress can make us ill, worsen illnesses we may already have or just plain make us miserable and overwhelmed.

Whatever your lifestyle you won’t be immune - the pressure of our responsibilities .. stress from health.. work .. relationships … finances, most of us have a complex mix of all of these. So how much is too much? Newton gave us a really good starting point… dragging our old ‘stuff’ into the fresh pressures of today, start’s us off at a disadvantage. I often use the analogy of a radio with a set bandwidth - we have so much capacity and when it’s full it’s full and we literally cannot take anything else.
The stresses of yesterday can look as big as childhood trauma that has damaged our view of ourselves and the world around us, leaving us feeling unsafe: perpetually stuck in ‘fight or flight’ mode… and as ‘small’ as ruminating or worrying over events that are in the past. And so we have the old stresses, added to the ones that were generated today and like the cherry on the cake, we can often add in ‘the stress that is yet to come’ - worrying in “what if?” terms about things that have not yet happened. That’s how our bandwidth can fill up, leaving us no capacity to deal with the unexpected or generally leaving us feeling overwhelmed or unable to cope.

Dealing with difficulties from the past and learning to live more in the moment is something that can be learned. However you choose to manage the pressures of life, begin with the awareness of how much belongs to today… how much to yesterday (the old stuff) and how much you’re choosing to indulge in before it even happens.

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