Can you control and manage your stress? The answer to that question is both yes and no. Stress is the effects of powerful forces and tensions that allow life to exist and propagate. In the West, stress is a concept used to describe a whole host of phenomenon. All too often we use the term “stress” to describe and define aspects of life that in truth do not belong in the same category. There are three definitions of stress which I will identify and differentiate: Physical Stress, Lifestyle Stress, and Emotional Stress
Physical stress is the force created in the maintenance of life; from the circulation of blood, counteraction of gravity, movement, compensation for atmospheric pressure, etc. This stress is the very physical and entropy-based deterioration that results from the creation and maintenance of life. This is stress in its most basic form. Physical stress comes in many forms: heat, cold, oxidation, mechanical, pressure, among many others. This type of stress is constant and inescapable. Stress at this level is an inherent part of life.
The second category of stress is related to the regulation of the hustle and bustle of life in the 21st century. This is the added stress of everyday life; the comings and goings that are required to maintain our lifestyle. The biological design of our fight or flight sympathetic nervous is system simple, it provides the necessary hormone response needed to remove ourselves from immediate danger or exert enough energy to track down our sustenance. At the end of the day, however, in design we were able to return home and down-regulate and rejuvenate. In the industrial era the ability to survive and avoid danger becomes a seemingly never-ending occurrence. The cumulative effect can become exhaustion and the weakening of the bodies resources. This can open the door for more complex disease pathologies to occur.
Lifestyle regulation such as rest, diet, exercise and seasonal adjustments become an essential counterbalance to the ongoing nature of this type of stress in the modern era. Without disciplined rest, relaxation and regulation over one’s schedule, failure is certain.
The last and all-powerful is emotional stress. If one gives into habitually negative emotions one can consider oneself of having lost the war on stress. When we allow thought to slip into worry, righteousness into sadness, wisdom to manifest into fear, growth to give birth to stagnation and anger, and joy and contentment to spill out in mania and anxiety we have lost our ability to regulate life and we are certain to make poor choices.
Can negative thoughts actually cause damage to your health? In reality, the thoughts themselves are neither good nor bad; it is how we react to them that cause problems. Particularly when we physiologically react to the thoughts. If you’re angry does your blood pressure go up? If you’re anxious does your heart rate elevate? If you’re worried does your digestive function deteriorate? This is the area where we become our own worst enemies. Our physiological system acts and reacts upon the mind’s perception of the world. So, if the mind is burdened with negative emotions the physiological system responds. If we allow our mind to develop lazy and habitual negative reactions to stimuli we lose our virtues. In the ancient east this was seen as the very root of disease.
Some aspects of stress are inherent but many are controllable. Our only hope for health is to regulate lifestyle and our mental outlook so we do not enhance the inherent stressors of life. The solutions begin with awareness and acceptance.
"Every stress leaves an indelible scar, and the organism pays for its survival after a stressful situation by becoming a little older," - Hans Selye, Biologist
As we discussed some stress in life is inescapable; it is simply inherent to life. However the majority of stress is self-created by an endless string of negative thinking. Take a moment to think of your stressors in your life, how many are real and how many are self-created? The truth is so many of our problems are created by our own mind’s negative habit patterns.
As we encounter stress either from an external source or an internal source the body engages the fight-or-flight nervous system to mount a physiological response to the perceived danger. If the danger is real this system is a lifesaver, but if we are responding to self-created stress than this response is over-kill and will only exhaust us. As our mind engages in negative thinking it exaggerates the problem and the body escalates its response to these negative emotions. The body’s endocrine system creates a response: muscle tension, shallow breathing, increased heart rate…etc. Once this has happened the mind reacts to these sensations, which are often uncomfortable, by increasing its perception of danger. These negative sensations are like blank checks for the mind to fabricate stress! Soon a vicious cycle has begun.
As the mind reacts to a stressor, the body fires a hormonal response which elevates heart rate creating an uncomfortable sensation in the chest, which escalates the perception of danger into panic, which elevates the heart rate even more, and on and on it goes. These physiological responses to stressors are the roots of inflammation and chronic disease.
From this place our lives simply snowball. Coupled with the mechanical aspects of stress created by physical stressors and lifestyle stressors we allow negative emotions to compound stress until it sets our very lives ablaze. Until we learn to control and balance these negative emotional reactions to stressors we are doomed to exhaust ourselves. Awareness of our thoughts and the sensations, and developing equanimity instead of blind reactions are essential tools for breaking the mind free of the prison of negative thoughts.
Remember to be kind and forgiving to yourself when managing stress as we are hard wired to freak-out! We must get out of our own way so we can face life with calm confidence.
The first step in creating emotional health is to be aware of your emotions. All too often we fill our lives with activities so that we never have to sit with our emotions. While it is understandable that life is busy, never touching base with your emotions can lead to detachment and suppression of emotions, which can lead you down a very destructive road. Next time you experience a storm of negative emotions take a moment and be aware of how your body feels, pay attention to the sensation in your body from head to toe, pay special attention to your heart rate, your abdomen, muscle tension, breathing patterns…etc. Do not let sensations on your body feed the mind negatively. This can be very difficult and will take some practice.
Do not allow yourself to become frustrated with your mind’s wandering and lack of focus, it is the untrained nature of the mind. Stay alert, be aware of the reality of this moment as it exists, and do not attach thought or meaning to it, simply let it rise and pass away with acceptance and equanimity, from moment to moment. "Awareness and equanimity are the two wings of the bird needed to fly." S.N. Goenka
~Seek peace, and contentment and happiness~