RSS Facebook RSS

My Meditative Moments

‘Clear Seeing’: Our Daily Stressors

by meditative - November 24th, 2014.
Filed under: Insights For Mindfulness Training, Zen Henry.

Stressors are an unavoidable part of life, and we are continually adapting to the demands they place upon our entire being. On a psychological level, the general rule follows that how we see things and how we handle them makes all the difference in terms of how much stress we’ll ultimately experience. We all have the innate capacity to affect the balance point between our internal resources for coping with stress and the stressors that are an unavoidable part of living.  By skillfully exercising this capacity, we can control the degree of stress we wind up experiencing. Moreover, rather than having to invent a new way of dealing with every individual stressor that comes up in our life, we can develop a way of dealing with change in general- with problems in general- with pressures in general. The first step is to take PAUSE- to take NOTICE- and to recognize when we are under stress in the first place.

The late Dr. Richard Lazarus, a prominent stress researcher at UC- Berkeley, emphasized that perhaps the most fruitful way to look at stress from a psychological point of view is to consider it as a transaction between a person and his/her environment. Dr. Lazarus defines psychological stress as a particular relationship between the person and the environment that is appraised by the person as taxing or exceeding his/her resources and endangering his/her well-being. This means that an event can be more stressful for one person who may have fewer resources for dealing with it than for another person who has greater coping resources. It also implies that the meaning of the transaction will determine whether a situation is labeled as stressful or not. If we appraise or interpret an event as threatening our well-being then it will be taxing to us, but if we see it- or reframe it differently then the very same event may not be perceived as stressful at all, or a good deal less stressful.

Given a particular situation, the promise here is centered on the many potential ways of seeing it as well as the many potential ways of handling it. This means that the way we see, appraise and evaluate our problems will determine how we inevitably respond to them and how much distress we will experience. It also implies that we may have much more control over things that may potentially cause us stress than we might ordinarily think. While there will always be many potential stressors in our environment over which we cannot have immediate control… by changing the way we see ourselves in relationship to them, we can actually change our experience of the relationship, and therefore modify the extent to which it taxes or exceeds our resources, or endangers our well-being. The transactional view of psychological stress also implies that we can be more resistant to stress if we build up our resources and enhance our physical and psychological well-being. For example, exercise, meditation and the practice of mindfulness.

Engaging in the practice of mindfulness meditation helps us to see our life’s situation more clearly, and thereby influence the level of stress associated with our habitual reactions in difficult situations. It also frees us from the tight grip of our many unconscious beliefs that ultimately inhibit our growth. With this in mind from moment to moment, it’s not so much the stressors in our lives, but how we see them, identify with them, and what we do with them that determines how much we are at their mercy. If we can change the way we see… we can change the way we respond.

The question is… how do we skillfully cultivate adaptive stress response in our daily life? The same way we cultivate mindfulness in the formal meditation practice that is moment-by-moment grounding of ourselves in our body and in our breathing. When our buttons are pushed or if we find ourselves being stressed- we might try bringing our awareness to the face and shoulders as they tense up- to the heart as it is beginning to pound- to the stomach beginning to feel funny- or to whatever we might notice about how our body feels at that moment. Can we simply be aware of our feelings at that moment- the anger, fear, or hurt, etc.- as we feel them rise up within us? At this moment… we might even try saying to ourselves… “Wake up & stay centered”… and use our breath as an anchor to help ride the surging wave of emotion.

Mindfulness can help set the stage for how we might respond more appropriately in the present moment. A skillful place to start is with our breathing. If we can manage to bring our attention to our breathing for even the briefest moment, it has the power to transform the way we face that moment and the next one mindfully. The breath can reconnect us with calmness and awareness when we lose touch momentarily. It brings us to an awareness of our body awakening our senses in that moment to any changes in its physiology like increases in muscle tension, etc. It can also remind us to check in with our thoughts and feelings. Perhaps we can begin here to see how reactive & cyclical they are. Perhaps we will question their accuracy…

As relaxed alertness and peace of mind become more familiar to us through a formal meditation practice, it becomes easier to call upon them when we truly need them. When we are stressed, we can allow ourselves to ride out the waves of arousal. In the here & now, we will neither have to shut it off or run away. We still may be going up and down some emotionally, but much less than if we were always at the mercy of our own automatic reactivity.

Greater resilience in the face of stressors and reduced stress reactivity are characteristic of people who practice meditation regularly. However, the fact that we can learn to respond to stress with awareness does not mean that we will never react anymore, or that we will not sometimes be overwhelmed by emotions such as anger, grief, or fear, etc. We are not trying to suppress our emotions when we respond to stress rather we are learning how to work with all our emotional and physical reactions so that we may be less controlled by them and see more clearly what we should do and how we might respond more effectively in the context of the present moment.

When we cultivate mindfulness in our life, our ability to be fully present can come through even under the most trying of circumstances. This form of open and compassionate awareness will help us to cradle and embrace the stress itself. Sometimes this will reduce our pain and sometimes it may not, but mindful awareness brings comfort of a certain kind even in the midst of our suffering. We could call it the comfort of seeing clearly, and the comfort of a wise-heart.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.