‘Stress Hearty’

by meditative - October 5th, 2015

We are all inherently free to be aware, to choose our attitude, and to choose our own way.

As we have already discussed stressors are unavoidable, and we are continually adapting to the ever-changing demands and challenges they place upon our mind and body. On a psychological level, the general rule follows that how we ultimately see things, how we engage and relate to them makes all the difference in terms of how much stress we’ll experience. We all inherently have the power (or self-control) to affect the balance point between our internal resources for coping with stress and the stressors that are an unavoidable part of our living.  By exercising this inner capacity consciously and intelligently, we can modulate 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 lives, we can develop a way of dealing with change in general- with problems in general- with pressures in general. The first step is becoming aware and recognizing 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 perceived as taxing to us, but if we see it differently then the very same event may not be stressful at all, or a good deal less stressful.

Given a particular situation, the promise here is centered upon the many potential ways of seeing it as well as the many potential ways of handling it. It means that the way we see, appraise and evaluate our problems- the attitude we bring forward to engage will determine how we 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, etc.

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 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.

How do we then consciously cultivate a more appropriate stress response in our daily lives?…

The same way we cultivate mindfulness in our formal meditation practice that is moment by moment- grounding ourselves in our body and in our breathing. When our buttons are pushed or we find ourselves being stressed- we might try bringing our awareness to our face and shoulders as they start to tense up- to our heart beginning to pound- to our stomach beginning to feel funny- or to whatever we might notice about how our body feels at that moment. See if you can be aware of your feelings at that moment- the anger, fear, or hurt, etc.- as you feel them rise up inside of you. At this moment… you might even try saying to yourself… “Wake up & stay centered”. Use your breath as an anchor to help ride any upwelling wave of emotion.

Mindfulness creates pause and space helping us to respond more appropriately right here in the moment. The place to start is with our breathing. If we can manage to bring our attention to our breathing for even the briefest moment, it will help set the stage for facing that moment and the next one more mindfully. The breath reconnects us with calmness and awareness when we lose touch momentarily. It brings us to an awareness of our body in that moment including any increase in muscle tension. It can also remind us to check our thoughts and feelings. Perhaps we will then see how reactive they are. Perhaps we will question their accuracy.

As relaxation and peace of mind become more familiar to you through a formal meditation practice, it becomes easier to call upon these resources when you need them. When you are stressed, you can allow yourself to ride the waves of the stress. You will neither have to shut it off or run away. You still may be going up and down some emotionally, but much less than if you were always at the mercy of your own seemingly automatic and habitual 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 reactions, emotional and physical, so that they may less control us… so that we may see more clearly in what we should do and how we might respond more effectively.

When you cultivate mindfulness in your life your ability to be fully present can come through even under the most trying of circumstances. This quality of awareness will cradle and embrace the stress itself. Sometimes this will reduce your pain and sometimes it may not, but awareness brings comfort of a certain kind even in the midst of suffering. We could call it the comfort of wisdom and inner trust- the comfort of coherence and being whole.