Stress Management Stress is the illness of the era. In a world in which increasingly more menand woman can become almost anything they dream of, and in which they aresurrounded by people making demands regarding who they should become, it isnot all that surprising that stress is a commonplace condition. For some, thegoal of reducing stress becomes yet another stress factor, piling one moreobligation on top of an already too-tall heap! Worse, for every person who realizes that stress is a problem, there is atleast one more who thinks stress is a sign of virtue. I am sure you know peoplewho feel that way. There is a very good chance you are one of them! Our worldconnects stress with high-achievement, with success, and with exceptionalsocial involvement. There is hardly anyone who does not have a secret respect for the harriedwoman who is rising in her career, serving on five charity committees, winningtrophies for her dahlias, and raising three over-achieving kids just like her. Orthe man, who has built his own electronics company from scratch, is an activemember of the Rotary, takes his children camping and coaches them in soccer,and whose “fun time” is spent restoring his antique 17th century farm houseusing only authentic tools and materials. The moans of overwork and stressful days seem like badges of victorysometimes, do they not? Our culture seems to admit it: being stressed meansyou must be doing something right. Only – we know that is not true. We know from our own lives that stressis a sign that something is not quite right, and we know that stress itself issomething decidedly wrong. Stress is a fear-response. Living in stress is another way of saying you areliving in fear – and, reasonably enough, living in fear carries a high price. The Adrenaline Rush In biology, stress is defined as the physical response to a period ofperceived threat over which you have little or no control. That definition can beexpanded to include emotional reactions under similar circumstances, as thesethen feed into physical responses, often creating continuous loops of reaction.When a person is stressed, the body manufactures fear-related endocrines,intended to help you in life and death situations. Adrenaline, cortisol, and other
endocrines are released which increase alertness and sensitivity to stimulus –sights, sounds, flavours, and more. Blood pressure increases, reflexes becomequicker. A state of “nervousness” is reached. In nature, this would usually be ashort-term reaction intended to prepare your body for fight-or-flight reactions toimmediate danger. Think about it. It is fairly good to have sensitive hearing, intenseawareness, high blood pressure, and a pounding heart to supply oxygen to yourmuscles, and so on, if you have just seen a tiger and may need to run away orfight. Within half an hour or so, the entire event will be over, and you will eitherbe alive somewhere, catching your breath and bandaging your wounds, or youwill be an intimate part of the inner life of a tiger. Either way, you and yourbody will not be dealing with corticosteroids crashing around your metabolism. Unfortunately, our body does not differentiate between tigers and beinglate for a child’s T-ball practice. On some level, we tend to interpret “threats” as“serious” even when they are not. Similarly, the body does not recognize thatsome threats are constant. Many people face daily concerns: tension in theworkplace, life in high crime areas, debts, social conflict, or, most devastatingof all, interior demands we place on ourselves. Fear can take many forms, andtoo often our greatest fear is of our own imperfection. I know many of my own worst stress rises from my own awareness of myshortcomings. I am, on the one hand, a perfectionist and ambitious, while beingat the same time not naturally organized and easily led into procrastination.Those two pairs of attributes form a perfect stress-generator. If I do somethingthat falls short of my own standards I am angry and distressed, because at heartI tend to feel that, in the words of the proverb, “anything worth doing is worthdoing well.” In truth, not all things need to be done well, and no life containsthe time to address all activities with equal attention to detail. A sloppily madebed is hardly a catastrophe. But my inner self, seeing I have mitred a cornerbadly, is stricken with a sense of treat: I have failed! Unfortunately, our bodies often treat a sense of failure as a sense ofdanger. “I am a failure” is as disruptive to the body as, “Oh, look! A tiger!”Therefore my body, seeing that uneven mitred bed sheet, responds with thesame set of chemicals as if I saw a flash of orange slipping behind a hedge –with a little shot of bio-chemicals to handle the “danger.” But that is unpleasant. I become anxious. The next time I see a bed thatneeds to be made, I may fall into procrastination, muttering “I will do it later,”rather than risk finding I have once again failed to master a perfect hospitalcorner.
But I am a perfectionist; perfectionists are threatened by undone chores.Undone chores mean failure and, unfortunately, more endocrines to keep meedgy. Now imagine that cycle being acted out dozens and dozens of times aday, over dozens and dozens of issues – few of them severe enough to reallyjustify a tiger reaction. The end result is stress. Our bodies have no natural sense of perspective,and no understanding of duration. As long as our subconscious perceives athreat, our bodies will prepare us to cope with that threat in the old, adrenaline-rush fight-or-flight pattern of the wild; and our bodies, and our mind will paythe price for that. Even if there were no drawbacks but the obvious nervous,twitchy sense of always being under threat, it would be desirable to break thecycle of stress. Knowing the physical cost over time, it becomes vital. Stress Defies Philosophy: What Doesn’t Make You Stronger, Kills You The great modern philosopher, Nietzsche, is widely known for the quote,“What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” It is a questionable position in anycase, but when it comes to stress, it is an outright lie. Stress is a killer – it robsyour body of strength, resilience, weakens the immune system, raises bloodpressure, damages the heart, has been associated with such diverse conditions asbackache, gingivitis, and rashes. Stress is a factor in depression, in self-destructive conditions like anorexiaand cutting, and influences suicide levels. Stress increases the odds ofaggressive behavior. In other words, while short-term stress may save you in an emergency,prolonged, chronic stress is bad for you. It is also often bad for the peoplearound you. “Stress management” is not a fad movement – it is a response to areal problem. And, of course, since stress is a real, life-threatening problem, dealingwith it can be yet another stress factor. Approached the wrong way, an attemptto end the fear cycle can have a reverse effect, and add more stress, not less. How to do it right? Look to both ancient wisdom and modern exploration,take your time, and start out with the assumption that there is no failure.
Remember, stress rises out of a sense of threat. The more you can trainyourself to think of failure properly – as just a step on the path to success, or asa necessary badge of greatness – the less stress you will experience in yourefforts at stress management. So, that is rule one: so long as you are using goodsense and making an honest effort, there is no failure, only ordinaryexperimentation as you search for the best answer. Failures are good: they helpyou narrow down your options and point you in the right direction. Determining Your Strategies It is time to go back and think about the definition of stress: reactionsyou experience when you feel that you are threatened and have insufficientcontrol over the situation. There are a lot of points in that definition, and they all matter when itcomes to stress management strategies. Let us consider them: Stress is reactive: It is a response to a perceived threat. Stress is something you experience: Physical and emotional response, not logical response. The trigger is perceived threat: Your body and inner self do not easily distinguish between real threats and imagined ones; physical threats and abstract ones; important threats or unimportant. If you perceive threat, your mind and body respond, often without any sense of proportion. Stress is a response to not just threat, but insufficient control: The more you feel you control a situation, the less threat it presents and the more confidence you feel.Knowing these things can help you begin to get some mastery over stress. Let us begin at the beginning: stress is reactive. It is contained withinyou. Stress is the result of your mind and body responding to possible danger incertain ways – some out of your control, others within your control. It isimportant to realize that regardless of where or what the apparent danger orthreat is, the stress response is inside you, and is created by your mind andbody. We commonly blame people, things, or events for our feelings. “Youmade me jealous.” “The stupid computer made me so angry.” “The earthquaketerrified me.” That type of cause-and-effect statement is dangerous, because itdenies the ways we can control our own response, and choose our reactions –and entirely misses the point that things outside us do not control our responses
and feelings in the first place. Your partner may or may not want you to bejealous, but only you can control whether you become jealous or not. Thecomputer, perverse imp of technology though it may appear to be, is incapableof “making” you feel anything at all. It is an inanimate object and is completelyunaware of you – unless you are living in a fairly exciting science fiction story,in which case all bets are off. An earthquake is a real threat, but it is not in anyway controlling your body or mind: if you are terrified, the terror is your own. Understanding that is very important – not so that you can blame yourselfor feel guilt, but because knowing allows you to take back control of your stresslevels. Your partner may be a manipulative, cruel person who wants you to feeljealous; your computer may be packed rock solid with balky chips, failingcircuits, dubious RAM cards, and dozens of glitchy software programs andimported viruses; an earthquake may indeed threaten to kill you. But you alonecan decide how you want to deal with that. Your only opponent is what liesinside you, not outside, and much, if not all of that, is within your control. However, before you even start to work on internal control, you can workon external control. The first strategic move in stress management is to controlthe outside things that trigger your stress. You must make choices about yourenvironment. These outside triggering agents are called “stress factors.” Stress factors can be extremely varied. The most common in modern lifehave to do with how we have chosen to live. In the average daily life, we exposeourselves constantly to spaces that are not our own home territory. We deal withpeople who are not our family or close friends. Many of us are employed inpositions that involve intense human contact, extremely high focus and attentionto detail; work that keeps us in a state of hyper-alertness for hours at a time,much like warriors in a siege. We are almost all deeply dependent on the goodwill of superiors; more of us, quite possibly, than at any previous time inhistory. Day after day we are on display to our supervisors, co-workers,neighbours, customers, friends and family – and most of us absolutely musthave at least some degree of peace with all these people to be sure of an incomeand a stable home-life. We have, in short, chosen lives that offer great rewards, but at very highstakes. We then complicate that by adding in obligations, expectations, anddreams, filling our lives with an onslaught of pressures and demands. The first move to make in stress management is to simplify our lives, andreduce as much pressure as we can. That involves making some hard choices,and setting some priorities.
The Ideal of the Simple Life Finding a simple life, a non-stressed life, is not simple at all. It takes greatdiscipline and careful choices. To accomplish the feat, you must accept thenecessity of making decisions about what is important, and what is not. Youmust set priorities, and then abide by them. Many of us find that almost unendurably difficult. Faced with a choicebetween hamburger and salad, we choose both. Considering a movie or afavorite TV show, we go to the movie – but then make sure to watch the showon TiVo. Considering the question of career or family, we try to have both, andfind some way to have both full-time, 24/7, ignoring the fact that this istechnically impossible. We often over-commit. We extend ourselves too far.We take on too much. Why? Often because we feel we have to. How can we choose between work andfamily? We work for our families, but often can afford families only because wework. How can we choose between sleep and relaxation (good for our healthand sanity, but “selfish” and “non-productive”), and taking the children to asports practice, or collecting funds for a charity (both admirable actionsbenefiting others – but time consuming, exhausting, and often far less rewardingthan we like to pretend). Faced with a necessary act of selfish rest and anunnecessary act of generous giving, we attempt both, and end up neither entirelyrested, nor living up to very high standards of giving. The soul of simplicity is found in resisting non-essentials. “Just say no,”is a central mantra. Preserving the integrity of your own time and rest is aninviolable requirement. To live without stress, we must first say “no” to a few things. You alone can determine which things: in finding the answers you willlearn much about who you really are. Will you leave the world and become amonk in a religious order? Will you spend a year or so as Thoreau did atWalden Pond, considering the basics of life? Maybe. Most people cannot affordthat choice, though: their own personal necessities forbid such completerenunciation of worldly stress factors. Your choice may be as simple as deciding that there will be no moretelevision to babble at you in the evening, no more talk radio to pump youranger levels on the drives to and from work, nothing but a good book, or apleasing CD, or an hour or two drawing, at the end of the day. For you, a major
stress factor may just be the feelings provoked by loud dramas, bullying talk-show hosts, hot-topic debates, and the sense that, somehow, you cannot livewithout all that. You may decide you simply have no time to give to charity at themoment, in spite of the certainty that charity is worthwhile. Or you may beforced to admit that your social circle is too large or too turbulent for youractual endurance levels. Do you have friends coming in or calling at all hours tocry on your shoulder, rant about the villainy of their lovers, pace the floor whilediscussing their evil boss? Maybe, for you, a primary means of stress management is to stop beingthe stress-manager for everyone else. When you sort out your priorities, and decide what stressful things tokeep, and what to throw away, consider throwing out all stress that is notrightfully your own. It is hard enough to manage one person’s stress. It isimpossible to manage if you are carrying stress for yourself and many others.Let it go... A Clear View of the Problem When you have stripped out the stress factors in your life which are notnecessary, you will be left with a set of stressors you decided you could not livewithout. Most of us seem to want to keep our children, though they can drive uscrazy, put up with our friends, though they, too, can worry us more than a bit,and retain our jobs. We continue to live in a world filled with taxes, housepayments, insurance premiums, postal deliveries, meals to make, eat, and cleanup after, laundry and garbage and chores, noisy neighbors, contagious diseases,economic downturns… The Bible instructs us that we are “in the world, but not of it.”Unfortunately, we often seem to be “in the world” up to our armpits, with thewater rising fast and the sharks circling in for the first bite. It can be verydifficult to cope with the bombardment. We are now, clearly, moving from simplifying your life – stripping awayneedless stressors – to considering how to deal with the stressors we are stuckwith regardless. After all, even hermits and monks experience stressors –irksome squirrels chattering at them during meditation periods, fellow monkswith peculiar voices, abbots who are entirely unreasonable about the daily rosterof chores…
Stress is, ultimately fear; but the fear can be tied to many things. Angercan trigger fear, because it promises conflict and even possible combat.Similarly, it can trigger fear because it threatens our social bonds: familyrelationships, work relationships, all are put at risk when anger is present.Submission to authority can trigger fear, because it demands trust – a trustwhich may be betrayed. Tolerance can trigger fear, because living with thosewho are different from us demands we accept change and the unknown –always a potential threat. Love can trigger fear, because it poses the possibilityof loss and rejection. Living life is a fearful thing: great and fearful. Why, then, should anyone bother with the stripping away andsimplification discussed previously? And what can one do when the fear andstress remains afterward? Well, the simplification and stripping away does help in stressmanagement, by reducing the sheer volume of stressors in your life. That is nosmall thing. Indeed, for many people that single strategy is sufficient to shiftstress levels from “too high,” to “not so bad.” It is a sensible first step to a lessstressful life. As for what to do when stress remains? Move on to strategies that involveinterior stress management. Remember the point that stress is a reaction inside you, not somethingthat is caused by factors outside you? Exterior factors may function as triggers,but the actual process of stress is internal. Because of this, much of stress isunder our own control, using three basic classes of strategy. Two have to do with mental processing. The third has to do with physicalmanagement, and I will reserve that for later. Stress is fear, and fear grows from perceived threat and danger. The moreintensely you believe something to be dangerous or threatening, the moreseriously you take it, the more stress it will generate. The more you fear, themore you are stressed; the more you are stressed, the more easily you fear. Youcan trap yourself in an endless loop of round-and-round self-defeating terrorvery easily. The first mental trick of stress management is to learn to properly assessour fears: to know the true shape, weight, value, and danger implied in anythingthat trips off your fear response. Most of us, fearing, look away. We are all
cowards in our minds, if we are not very determined to be courageous. So if weare worried about whether we have cancer, far from choosing to go see thedoctor, we ignore it, pretending we are not worried at all. If we think our spouseis cheating, we do not ask, and do not investigate. If we are worried we cannotafford to pay a debt, we avoid calling to find out what it is, hoping it will just goaway. Similarly, we may avoid flying, because we might crash. Or we avoid alldogs, because we are afraid they may bite. The trouble with this approach is that, far from freeing us from our fears,it keeps them there, and makes them worse than they may really be; in mostcases, far worse. We tend to imagine the very worst, and then some. Things we cannot clearly see are our bed monsters – the stressors ourminds make in the shadow. Things we will not clearly see, though, are themonsters we raise up ourselves, knowingly, refusing to send them away with thelight knowledge shines. Every time you refuse to look at a stress factor clearly,study it, and strip the mystery away, you sabotage yourself. Most stressors ofthe mind, we create ourselves. Most that we do not create, we exaggerate. Cancer, for example, is a fearful thing. I know of no one who desires adiagnosis of cancer. But I have known many people who either died, or sufferedmuch more severely than they needed to because they dreaded going to thedoctor to learn about their condition more than they actually feared pain anddeath. They chose lethal ignorance over a potentially saving discovery.Tragically, in the end, they suffered both the staggering fear of ignorance andthe fear of a revealed cancer. So: mental strategy number, one to manage your stress is to develop thediscipline to always, always find out what is really there. Do you have a pimple,or cancer? A staggering debt or an unexpected return? Is that a monster in thecorner, or a rocking chair with pretty pink roses? Deal with stress by turning on the light, and seeing what is really there,not what your mind can imagine in the darkness of ignorance. A Matter of Perspective When you have courageously committed to seeing the true nature of yourfears, there is another little bit of mental jiu-jitsu to perform, if you want tomaintain an upper hand on stress. You must not only know the truth, but know
how to properly value it. Learning to judge the real importance of problems canmake all the difference in life. “Poor little rich girl” is a common stereotype: we imagine a lucky childfrom a good family, born with every advantage, pampered from birth, whopouts and whines over trivial issues because she has never experienced truehardship and pain. Unfortunately, most of us have a share of that failing. Asplinter in our finger is more devastating than another person’s amputation. Webecome more worked up over our own parking tickets than over anotherperson’s hydroplaning accident. Or we throw a major tantrum over a child’s“D” in math, while ignoring his repeated “A+” grades in history. Remember the notion of stress being a fear response to a possible tiger?We fear many things, and are angered – and thus fearful, about many things.We feel superstitious dread of being somehow fated or doomed to odd andunfair losses. We fear being neglected or deprived of pleasure and joys we’dplanned for – of being shoved to the back of life’s bus by poor service inrestaurants and crying babies whose mothers are indifferent to our ruinedevening. We look at a child’s “D” and imagine a nightmare of dysfunctionsuffered in years to come, as little Davie fails to become the superman we fearhe must be to survive a threatening world. We react to the imagined tigers in ourlives. But those tigers are often really no more than alley cats, or even merelymischievous hearth-cats – or nothing more than shadows on the wall. Our instincts treat all shadows as tigers. But we can alter our instinctivereactions, and release out stress by giving our fears their proper weight. Again, remember, stress is a matter of perceived threat, and perceivedlack of control. If our minds imagine a threat as far worse than we fear, it also,at the same time, imagines us as far less able to control things as we are. A tigercan eat you. You, however, could, if you had to, eat a hearth-cat; and further,you could pick it up and cuddle it and make it purr. Give your fears and your stressors their true faces, and then evaluate themwith realism and calm. Dismiss the ones that are unworthy of your fears. If youhave looked at them squarely, and judged them fairly, you will be amazed howmany of them “swiftly and silently vanish away,” like the Snark in LewisCarol’s nonsense poem, “The Hunting of the Snark.”
Body Over Mind, Mind Over Body We have now talked about a wide range of stress managementtechniques; some dealing with how we behave, others having to do with how wethink. There is an important third approach to stress management: how wemanage our bodies. Remember that there is a purely physical element to stress. Your mindperceiving a threat – rightly or wrongly, whether you are aware of it or not –starts a physical response. Dozens of automatic chair reactions begin, that willalter your mood, your reasoning, and certainly your emotional reactions longafter the first fear response may have passed. To avoid or reduce the stress problems caused by this pattern, you need toplay to your body’s strengths, and use positive reactions to counter negativeelements in your life. What can you do to improve the physical aspects of stress? To begin with, it is to your advantage to exercise daily. Thisaccomplishes any number of things. Some are rather hard to pin down. Doesexercise make us less easily frightened? Or does it make us deal more easilywith fear-chemicals when our bodies produce them? Does the body produceanti-fear chemicals as a “reward” for behavior that satisfies the flight-or-fightreflexes in our instinct? It is hard to say. What is clear is that regular, vigorous exercise improves mentalcondition. Exercise reduces depression, fear, and anxiety. Stress levels fall,blood pressure goes down, sleep improves, and relaxation is more easilyaccomplished. Regular exercise makes people happier, healthier, more relaxed,and less nervous and fearful. Much of the physical and mental damage done by stress has been shownto be reduced or eliminated by exercise. There are many ways you can incorporate exercise into your life.Whether you are a home-body who finds even a trip to the gym too much of aventure from your own home turf, or an adventurer; a brawny type or a putterer,there are forms of exercise that can be fit into your daily life. Depending onyour needs and pleasures, exercise can occur indoors or out, be social orintensely private, involve teams or be solitary. Exercise can be as simple as youand your dog taking a walk every morning and evening, or as complex aspreparing for competitive team sports.
Whatever you choose, you give yourself an enormous gift when youcommit to exercise. Your health and your happiness are both likely to improve,and your stress levels are likely to fall in direct response. After exercise? Food – but food chosen with care and sense, and anawareness that small amounts of humble, good food often serve both health andhappiness better than luxurious volume. There’s probably a good reason thatproverbs pair happiness and contentment with simple eating of the most frugaland spare sort. Herbs, dates, a handful of rice. The Jewish saying “Give a poorman a whole chicken and both of them are sick,” says a lot about the complexityof our relationships with food and with eating. Serious adjustment of your diet can help improve your stress levels, butthey need to be made with a nutritionist’s input, and they need to be undertakenin ways that don’t add to stress in their own right. That said, a simple diet basedon vegetable products first, and possible entirely, can promote a lot of positivechanges while keeping you healthy and happy. After food: meditation and/or prayer. How you sort these out is entirelyup to you, but the act of taking a time for deep mental and spiritual focus isproven to lower blood pressure, reduce tension and anxiety, help control panicattacks, and generally promote good stress management. The act of stilling themind and body, and coming to a state of mental buoyancy seems to help derailthe entire process of stressful thinking and stressful physical response, and thebenefits linger beyond the time of meditation or prayer. Do not fool yourself:one hour a week will not immunize you against all a week’s stressors. But dailymeditation can provide you with a reliable mechanism for dealing with stressyou cannot manage or eliminate through other techniques. Finally: joy, rest, and recreation. That is not a frivolous suggestion, it is entirely serious. The right andobligation to give yourself time for play, lazing about, fishing off a pier, dozingin a hammock in the shade, reading a good book, going to a movie, laughingwith a friend – this right and obligation can save you more grief, and protectyou from more stress damage than a year of medical insurance could cope with.That also includes really good medical insurance, such as most of us cannotafford. Do not skimp yourself. Our culture tells us that pure pleasure-filled lazyactivity, done only because it makes us happy, is somehow wrong. The valuesof our stress-creating, anxiety provoking culture insist that there is alwayssomething more important to be doing than just lolling about being at ease.
The trouble is that thinking like this is exactly what puts most of us inline for stress in the first place. “Should,” and “ought to” replace thecommonsense realization that we are not made to drag our lives as eternalburdens, in service to the world, or to our chosen God, or to duty, or to charity.We are earthly creatures, as earthy and simple as the lion dozing in the sun witha full belly, or the donkey the Bible insists should be allowed to eat some of thegrain it grinds. If stress is fear, pure relaxation and recreation is the direct experience oflife without fear. To refuse yourself or deny yourself the guilt-free experience ofpeace and contentment when it is possible is a crime against both truth andhealth. It is a crime against health for obvious reasons – the insistence onstressing yourself further and further will do damage in the long run. The crimeagainst truth is less immediately obvious. But stress and fear grow out of a fear that life is never safe, success neverpossible, joy never in reach, and gratification always just over the horizon. Tolive in stress is to live in a constant state of self-denial, and denial of thepossibility of contentment. There is no better or more sure way to kick stress in the teeth, refute thebleak pessimism of inner fear, than to refuse to sacrifice joy and content. In the tradition of the Abrahamic religions, there is a Sabbath that must becelebrated: a set-aside sacred time for enjoyment of the world we experience,the blessings we receive, and the bounty found in even the simplest and mostcarefully limited living. A Sabbath of heart and soul and mind is no crime orsin, but an obligation. Think about that the next time you feel guilty at the thought of givingyourself some time for celebration of your own life’s blessings, for appreciationof the safety, happiness, and recreation available to you. By at least one set ofrules, a minimum of one seventh of your life should, by rights, be set aside for aSabbath in which you turn away from stress. That is an obligation, not simply asuggestion. Have you met that obligation lately? Have you demanded it ofyourself? Defended that Sabbath from any who would steal it from you? For your own happiness and well-being, defend your time of peace andjoy. It is yours by right, and by necessity, and when you hold to it, it will payyou back in still more joy and peace.