(excerpted from When the Last Straw Falls: 30 Ways to Keep Stress from Breaking Your Back – by Julie Christiansen, now available at www.angersolution.com)
February 19th, 2008 marked the 1st anniversary of my mother’s passing. She died in her sleep, suddenly and unexpectedly in my home, and it was, as you might imagine, a very shocking, sad, and traumatic experience for our family.
Looking back at that time last year, I wonder how I managed to get through the shock of finding her, calling 911, notifying my father and my siblings, dealing with the coroner, the funeral home, taking care of my kids, and all the rest. It seems that my crisis training served me well, and I was able to go handle the extreme stress of that situation despite my grief.
Almost one year later, as I continued to deal with the ongoing fallout of losing my mom, I realized that other issues that had remained latent while she was alive were beginning to surface. And with those issues, came feelings of intense anxiety and panic that I had not experienced for decades.
As I battled with this rise in anxiety, I often found myself feeling as if I had lost my bearings and was flailing around frantically for something to hold on to. And I found that stability in the most unexpected places. Good friends. Faith. And in my office.
Let me explain that last one... several years ago I recorded the audio program, “Getting Past Your Past”. It occurred to me as I was rifling through my files, looking for something that would help me through this crisis, that perhaps if I expect people to listen to my advice that I should listen to it as well. So I grabbed the CDs and plugged them into my car, feeling a little sheepish and wondering if listening to my own recording made me a narcissist...
To my surprise, the woman on the CD sounded bright, confident, and sure of herself (not the same person who was listening at that moment)! She had some rather profound things to say, which were coincidentally strangely relevant to my current situation. I thought... “why not pay attention to her? She sounds like she might have something there...” I took it one step further on the advice of a good friend, and printed myself a workbook – and went through the exercises detailed in the “LET GO” section of the program.
As bizarre as that sounds, it was what I needed at the time. I was reminded that I need to forget my past, remembering only what it taught me. That I have much to be grateful for and that the events of my past have contributed to the person that I am today. That I am still that strong, confident, bright woman I heard on the CD, and that vulnerability is not the same as weakness.
Through the process I was reminded that strength is fluid, and often dependent on your circumstances and the resources you have available at the time that those difficult circumstances arise. I was reminded too of the resources that have helped me through other past trials, and that all I need to do is to rely on them rather than ignoring them – and my strength can be restored.
The whole concept of getting past one’s past is one that is so worthwhile in the quest for less stress. If you have read my book, Anger Solutions! Proven Strategies for Effectively Resolving Anger, you will recall the story of Everett Worthington, whose mother was murdered in her home by a group of teens who broke in while she slept. Dr. Worthington is now recognized as one of the pioneers in forgiveness research.
Another leader in the area of forgiveness research is Dr. Frederic Luskin, author of the book, Forgive for Good. One of the things I noted from Dr. Frederic Luskin’s work is that when you recall the events of the past that caused you hurt and pain, and you have not yet learned to forgive and let go, you will experience the hurt just as if it were happening for the first time. That is to say that the anxiety, stress, sadness, anger – and all the other negative emotions that may be associated with that event, create just as powerful a physiological response in the body as when it happened the first time. So each time you recall a hurtful event, you are inducing the stress/anger response at full strength in your body.
Both the research of Dr. Luskin and Dr. Worthington has scientifically proven that through forgiveness, you can boost your immune systems, have healthier platonic and intimate relationships, significantly reduce your stress, and effectively prolong your life expectancy. There are two mental/emotional tasks that I believe we must undertake if we are to begin the process of getting past the past.
Acknowledgement and Acceptance
Now, no one said that putting the past behind you would be an easy thing to accomplish; but it is not impossible. One of the most difficult things I have found to do is to acknowledge and accept what happened. It is human nature, I think, to want to dwell on events of the past; to ask why; to try to figure out the motivation of the person who hurt you; and to understand the feelings of pain, anxiety, anger, guilt, shame, etc. that accompany acknowledgement of the hurt. Certainly, acknowledging that you were hurt, wronged, betrayed is the first step in getting over what happened in your past. But acknowledgement alone will not help you move forward.
In my own process, I came to the realization that the more I tried to figure out why I had been hurt or wronged, the more anxious and hurt I felt. That is because I was spending too much time trying to answer questions that I cannot answer. It was not until I came to the point where I could say like an old client of mine, “It is what it is…” that I began to emerge from the fog of disillusionment and all-consuming pain.
By accepting that my past is what it is, and realizing that I cannot go back and change it, I can begin to focus on how I want to live my life in light of what happened before. Will I choose to forgive those who hurt me? Will I live the life of a victim, or will I seek to learn from the experience, and find ways to grow and increase my personal strength? Do I want to spend all my time looking backward and feeling helpless, or do I want to move forward with an attitude of optimism and expectancy for better things to come?
Let me ask you the same questions. Now that you have acknowledged your past, are you ready to accept it for what it is? Then, are you willing to do what it takes to move forward through forgiveness? Everett Worthington would never have become a pioneer in the field of forgiveness had he not chosen to forge ahead despite his pain. Because of his willingness to forgive and to learn from his traumatic past, humanity has a greater understanding of the value of forgiveness both for our emotional, mental, and physical health.
Who knows what great legacy you and I may create for future generations once we learn to leave the past where it belongs – in the past.
Want to know more about Getting Past the Past? Niagara Residents call 1-866-754-6169 to reserve your tickets to the Love Your Life Seminar Series at White Oaks Conference Resort and Spa, January 26, 2011 to hear Julie Christiansen speak on this topic. More information at http://www.barbaragrumme.com/. Watch this clip:
http://www.ctstv.com/reallife/wellness.php?vidID=20613 to hear more from Julie.