Updated: Jan 9, 2020
We have all experienced stress in our lives. It may manifest in different ways for different people. Stress may affect our sleep patterns, our irritation levels, our eating habits, our energy levels, our ability to think clearly and our immune system. We may feel our stress physically, in terms of migraines, stomach upsets, other aches and pains in the body, or frequent colds and infections. We may also notice stress in our minds and feel overwhelmed emotionally, worry constantly, experience thoughts racing uncontrollably, become forgetful or disorganised, and generally be unable to have sufficient clarity in our thinking to make sound decisions.
There may be many factors that influence the onset of stress. These may be work related, family related, health related, self-image or self-esteem issues, or related to any aspect of life; there can be a multitude of different stressors in life that trigger our body’s stress reactions.
What exactly is stress, and how can we best manage it? Stress is our body’s reaction in response to an unexpected situation. The word was coined by endocrinologist Hans Selye in 1936, who suggested two components of stress: the stress responses and the development of a pathological state from ongoing, unrelieved stress.
The stress responses occur as a result of life’s various stressors. Stressors could be that a family member is diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, we encounter a car accident, or we are retrenched from our jobs. They could be that we have a toothache, unexpectedly step on a frog that squeaks loudly, are worried about our child, get startled when we see something moving quickly in the dark of the night, or miss the last step of a flight of stairs. All these are unexpected and create a stress response.
Our bodies have mechanisms that strive to maintain equilibrium, known as homeostasis, which is its optimal condition for living. Although life is in a state of constant flux and unexpected situations arise regularly, our bodies do a good job in maintaining homeostasis without us being aware of this function. When things move too far from equilibrium, however, we notice what we call stress.
We can’t stop life from happening. And we can’t stop our body’s stress reactions from being triggered in response to an unexpected situation that arises. What we can do, however, is stop the perpetuation of these responses and prevent the development of a pathological state of ongoing, unrelieved stress. This is the part of stress that causes us to suffer.
How exactly can we do this? Let’s take a step back and see if we can review what we already know about our personal experience of stress.
Let’s say that we have had a big argument with a close friend. We are angry, feel betrayed and upset that our friend could have said and done the things that he or she did. If we notice our stress reactions at the time, we will probably notice a cacophony of bodily reactions, such as elevated heart rate, heat from the fury we feel, tension in certain areas, etc. We will also probably notice reactions of our mind, such as continually replaying the specific incident, feeling overwhelmed by our distress of the situation, ‘seeing red’ from the anger, hurt from the interaction, obsessive thinking of better retorts that could have been made, rehearsing future interactions with our friend, etc.
What we probably don’t notice is what we do to exacerbate the stress we feel. We probably don’t notice that every time we replay the scenario that played out, exaggerate details or make assumptions to prove that we are right, we feel more stressed. Even if we do notice this, we probably convince ourselves that it is necessary to replay the scenario in order to find more fault with our friend, and shoot more holes in their argument, in order to ‘clarify’ the situation in our minds. But the reality is that all this only serves to reignite the stress reactions in our bodies, thereby increasing our experience of stress and suffering.
What we probably don’t notice is what we do to exacerbate the stress we feel
The truth of the matter is that we unconsciously make ourselves feel worse, and suffer as a consequence. As if the argument with our friend was not enough, we add insult to injury and replay it for extra dramatic effect! We do this not because we are masochists and like suffering, but because we mistake our replaying of the situation for being beneficial to us, and fail to notice that it is actually resulting in the opposite effect. We are not sufficiently aware that our very actions are causing our own suffering, and unwittingly continue the vicious circle.
How do we stop this? We need to first be armed with the right information. As long as we are convinced that our actions are justified, we will continue perpetuating our harmful behavioural patterns. Simply reading this bit of information is obviously not enough. How many gems of wisdom have we read in our lives, considered it important and relevant, but not taken action to transform the information into personal knowledge and wisdom?
Although mere information is not enough, it is an important first step. Stop for a while now and recall times when you have felt stressed, and remember what you could have unconsciously done to actually make yourself feel worse, and what you engaged in that made you feel better. What can you learn from this reflection?
What we are now doing is applying the information we have read into our lives. Remembering a situation is one way to test out if the information actually rings true. A better way is to put the information to the test, in real time. In other words, the next time you feel stressed, see if you can notice what you are doing and its effects. Are you replaying the contents of the stressful situation (the stressor) and inadvertently making yourself feel unnecessarily more stressed (increasing the stress responses)? Is the replay of the situation providing clarity to the solution of the issue, or is it resulting in the clouding of your mind because it is emotionally overwhelming it or repeatedly rethinking things you already have thought of?
If you repeat this investigation every time you feel stressed, you may discover a different way of relating to life’s changes. Is it the situation (the stressor) or your reaction that is really the cause of your stress or suffering? Even if stress responses have been triggered, can you stop them in their tracks and not let them continue their snowballing path of suffering by instead changing the action you take?
The most important thing in this investigation is our awareness of the situation. I am not simply talking about awareness of the stress. This is a first step, but we need to go further. We need to notice how our actions influence the stress levels, in order to learn which actions are beneficial to us and which are not. Only in this way can we reduce our stress.
How exactly do we increase our awareness? We simply set an intention to notice as much as we can, objectively and with interest, as continuously as we can. We want to be like a scientist who is exploring an interesting phenomenon. In this case, we are exploring the phenomenon of stress, and trying to understand what increases and decreases our stress. We need to check in with ourselves regularly to gather more information to test the hypothesis that we cause our own increased stress and suffering by unconsciously engaging in certain actions.
The interesting thing about engaging in this exploration is that we start noticing other things after some time. For example, when we are convinced without a shadow of a doubt that certain actions we take increase our stress, and other actions decrease it, we automatically reduce our behaviours that cause us to suffer. Remember that our bodies tend towards equilibrium, and this is the natural tendency of our system when armed with the right information that turns into personal knowledge.
Another thing we start noticing, now that we are not spending so much time replaying situations that are harmful to our well-being, is that there are other things that we experience apart from stress. This may sound obvious that we experience stress as well as other mental states in our lives, but the reality of the situation is that when we encounter stressful situations, we often get overwhelmed by them and fail to even register that other experiences are present.
One of our mind states that we start noticing, when we learn to not get inundated with feelings of stress, is joy. I guess it is not surprising that our joy is masked when we are overcome by stress. However, I have worked with many people who have expressed a lot of surprise when joy becomes their main mind state after they have learnt to transcend stress. Other mind states, such as love, compassion or equanimity, may also dominate, but for today, I will talk about joy.
Joy is such a contrasting mind state to stress that it often takes people by surprise when they start noticing this in their lives. When our minds are no longer preoccupied by stress, we can be more open to other, more subtle experiences. Once we learn to tune in to feelings of joy, something else happens. Because our minds like this mind state (it is pleasant!), it is easy to tune into it more. The more we tune into our joy, the more it grows. Joy now moves from being a subtle mind state that is only noticed when we have finally managed to sufficiently reduce our stress, to an obvious state of mind that is accessible most of the time. Our lives change dramatically, for the better, from here onward.
I would encourage you to explore this as much as you can, and see if you can find immediate relief from the stress you may encounter in your life. Don’t worry if you cannot tap into joy yet; that will all happen with time. Even if the relief from stress is only for a few seconds, this is a very good start. Any temporary reprieve will encourage our mind systems to try this again in the future. As we continually apply these principles, we will start to feel a more lasting effect.
The next time you feel a bit stressed, notice how this is affecting you physically and mentally. Then notice what you are doing, and if the stress levels are increasing, staying the same or decreasing. See if you can gather more information about the process of stress, such that you can learn from it. If you would like to explore your life more in this way, click here to sign up for our self-paced, one-month course on Mindfulness for Inner Peace that aims to build your awareness and change your life for the better.