A client sits down across from me.
“How are you?” I ask — not the social “How ya doin’?” of casual interactions, but the “How are you, really?” of therapeutic inquiry.
“I’m feeling stressed.”
My internal radar flickers with interest. “Stressed” is a term that obscures far more than it reveals. Endocrinologist Hans Selye chose the word back in the early ’50s to describe the body’s response to any demand made upon it to adapt, and it has since entered the popular lexicon as a synonym for tension. (It’s amusing to note that “stress” has been adopted verbatim into many other languages, as in el stress, der stress, il stress.)
But what does this vague word mean, really, right here and now, in this body, in the present moment? What does it feel like? Sadness? Anxiety? Dread? Irritation? When we explore, we find that what we call stress is different at different times and in different ways. The term is used for all sorts of unpleasant sensations. The question that ultimately matters the most is: What are the specifics of your own personal experience?
B. inquires more deeply within himself. First of all, I feel sad, he reports. And anxious. And reluctant, unwilling.
We explore each of these in the body/mind, making our way through restlessness, emptiness, and defensiveness, a burning gut and a tight throat, to — eventually — a loosening and resting in the bones, a sense of calm deep in the skeletal structure.
All this rich specificity of experience was hidden by the blanket term stress. My objection is not so much to the word itself as the wholesale adaptation of it.
It’s similar to the word depression. Whenever a new client reports to me s/he’s depressed, I immediately want to know: What does that mean to you? How do you experience that, exactly? Are you feeling sad, or lonely, or angry; anxious, or disconnected, or confused?
Amazingly, I have yet to meet a person who sticks with the generic term depressed. On inquiry, this apparently blank facade dissolves into richly textured layers of nuanced emotion. Painful emotion, perhaps, but emotion nonetheless. And voila – we are no longer in the blank territory of ‘depression’, but in sadness, or fear, or anxiety – painful but real, and in substance much closer to the heart of the matter.
B. and I spend a moment pondering this all at the end of our session. It seems easy to define it with that word single word ‘stress,’ he says, but that’s an illusion. Really, the feelings are just sitting there, needing to be explored. And it’s such a relief to do that.
Yes, it’s kind of indigestible, isn’t it, I say. Stress can’t really go anywhere on its own terms – it needs to be unpacked.