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When did sadness become stress?

In the labyrinth of human emotions, there’s a subtle art to recognising what we truly feel beneath the surface buzz of our daily lives. Our society, with our propensity to put on a brave face and solider on, often miscasts the deep-seated ache of sadness as mere stress, a more socially palatable label that diverts us from confronting what we genuinely feel. People understand stress, they can relate to it and empathise with you when you share that you are feeling this way. Yet sharing sadness and grief tends to make (some) others uncomfortable. They don’t know what to say or do and this in turn makes them feel awkward and so you’d rather not go there with them.

Sadness can also be daunting for us to feel – overwhelming, even – and in response, many find it easier to recast this discomfort as ‘stress’. This rebranding starts innocuously; we shift focus from the sting of loss – be it a departed loved one or a dissolved relationship – to the logistical aftermath and the sudden voids in our day-to-day lives because we know how to handle a ‘to-do’ list and it spares us from facing the full intensity of our grief.

We do this because we’re not usually taught how to handle discomfort. From childhood, we’re subtly taught to sidestep it. A scoop of ice cream to soothe a scraped knee, or the well-meaning friends who insist there are plenty more fish in the sea post-breakup. These moments instil a pattern: uncomfortable emotions are best avoided, suppressed, or replaced.

When we mislabel our sadness as stress, we miss the opportunity to engage with our emotions authentically. The result is a backlog of unaddressed feelings, each adding weight to our emotional burden. This avoidance strategy not only prolongs the pain but may also contribute to a host of psychological and physiological issues. We might numb out with food, alcohol or other drugs, medications, brief sexual encounters or at times create drama or stresses to focus on, to divert our attention and focus away from our grief, or other strong, uncomfortable emotions. Of course, there may be real stress to deal with as well, but quite often we add to our own burden by not allowing ourselves to feel the sadness.

I encourage you to initiate an internal dialogue next time you label something as ‘stressful’. Ask yourself, “What am I really feeling?” Is there sadness, grief, disappointment, anger or another emotion lurking beneath that convenient label? Allow yourself the space to feel these emotions without judgement. Moreover, integrate moments of introspection into your daily routines. Whether it’s while gardening or doing chores, use these opportunities to connect with your inner landscape. Sometimes, a simple acknowledgment of your feelings can lead to profound relief and transformation.

It’s crucial too, to develop a true vernacular for your feelings. By naming your emotions accurately, you empower yourself to address them head-on. This isn’t merely a semantic exercise; it’s about realigning our emotional responses to reflect reality. When we acknowledge sadness, we allow ourselves to experience vulnerability, a necessary state for genuine healing and growth. Jamie Anderson eloquently captured the essence of grief when she described it as “love with no place to go.” This perspective shifts our understanding and invites a softer engagement with our emotions.

As you navigate your complex emotional terrains, strive for authenticity in how you articulate and confront your feelings. It’s not just about reducing stress; it’s about enriching your life with a deeper understanding and compassion for yourself and others. And this is a pathway to a lighter, more authentic existence. Be so kind and gentle with yourself.

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