5 Ways to Drop the Drama

How we create stress in our lives and how to let it go.

The doctor was clear when she called with the lab results that drizzly day in January, now more than six years ago.

“The mole was malignant,” she said. “We will remove the surrounding tissue and then I want you to see an oncologist.”

I felt the fear begin to bubble up as the story line developed in my head: What if I needed chemo? What if it the cancer had spread? What if what if what if?

Then, I took a deep breath, settled into my body and thought about what I knew to be true in the moment: I was standing there feeling just fine. I knew that the doctor would remove more tissue, because lab tests revealed cancer in a millimeter of skin. I knew that the cancerous mole was already gone.

Nothing more. Nothing less. I didn’t have to create a bad-news story line around the information, didn’t have to add to the drama by filling my head with scary thoughts. I could accept the moment, ease the stress and start on the healing process.

How we create stress with our stories

So often, we build stories around the events of our lives. We create a fictionalized account of what might happen, instead of staying focused on what is happening. Instead of dealing with what is, we begin to wish and what-if our lives away. I wish this hadn’t happened, what if the trouble continues, etc. — and that keeps us from dealing with the present moment.

This wondering and worrying clouds our brains and bodies with stress during the very moments when we need peace and clarity to carry us through. Staying stuck in the story can keep us from dealing proactively and powerfully with the moment we have now.

We’ve all done this at one time or another:

  • You hear a rumor of pending layoffs at work and immediately create a story that you’re sure to be fired because the boss never liked you anyhow.
  • You find a lump in your breast and project a plot of hospital visits and illness.
  • The relationship ends and you create a tale that you aren’t lovable and there are no good men out there.

Of course, our story rarely matches the reality. A rumor of layoffs doesn’t mean you will be laid off and it doesn’t mean it will be terrible if you are. A lump doesn’t necessarily mean cancer, and a bad break-up doesn’t mean you’re unworthy of love. But attaching to a future wish or what-if does add to the pain.

Our view of how we think things ought to be can keep us stuck in resistance, and that contributes to our stress and bad feelings.

“Our suffering often comes from how rigidly we are looking at things or how tightly we hold on to this idea of how things can be,” says Karen Horneffer-Ginter, Ph.D., psychologist and author of Full Cup, Thirsty Spirit.

As human beings we are already in the habit of projecting and predicting and trying to make sense of the uncertainty in our lives, she adds.

The challenge is to experience your emotions without dwelling in all the negativity or ruminating about what could go wrong. Recognize and validate your feelings, then move through them into a place of acceptance.

Living with the truth

Acceptance doesn’t mean you like your circumstances, nor does it mean you’re giving up or endorsing bad behavior. It simply means that you have a clear view of what you are dealing with. That clarity allows you to go forward to make sound decisions and take reasonable action.

Here are five ways to drop the drama:

  1. Look for the lightness. Even the most difficult moments can include bits of lightness, peace and humor, Horneffer-Ginter says. Look for the beauty, and also keep an eye out for the irony, the silly, the humor. This creates space and movement that can help us get out of our rigid thinking and into our more resilient nature.
  2. Cut the judgment. When you catch yourself blaming, judging or criticizing a circumstance, stop and take a more neutral approach. Life isn’t all black and white, good and bad. When we get stuck in a rigid mindset we are less able to cope effectively with the moment at hand. Instead, look at what is without judgment.
  3. Seek another perspective. If you are ruminating about all the negative news, stop and take another view. Imagine yourself looking down at the situation from above. Discover another perspective, open to new possibilities. Look for the meaning within the circumstances and you’ll diffuse the stressful story line.
  4. Act with compassion. Go gently, be patient and kind to yourself. When things are difficult, it is easy to add on a layer of self-judgment, Horneffer-Ginter says. Instead, cradle yourself in kindness.
  5. Experience the emotion. The most resilient people tend to be those who experience a range of emotions. Allow yourself to do just that, experience your feelings without judgment. Don’t behave badly from them, just pay attention, become aware and mindful and then get curious. Accepting your feelings is one way to diminish the drama in your life.

I used all of these practices while treating the melanoma through two minor surgeries and dozens of follow-up visits. Many days, I had to remind myself to accept the moment and not create a story around it. But, when I could stay present to the reality, I found that I could handle it just fine.

Without some dramatic story line running through your life, you’ll see that you too are strong enough to live with what is, and it’s always better and less stressful than what we imagine.

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