The idea that stress is all bad is patent nonsense. As human beings we would be little more than vegetables without stress in our lives. Also, and most important, the more committed we are to the lives we are leading and the more right they are for us, the less likely we are to suffer the ravages of stress. Nevertheless we worry about stress, wonder about it, and wish it would go away. Yet seldom do we even stop to ask what it is. Little wonder. For stress is complicated even to define.
YOU NEED STRESS TO LIVE
The word stress comes from the language of engineering, meaning “any force which causes an object to change.” In engineering the specific change caused by stress is known as strain and there are four possible kinds: torsion, tensile, compression and sheering. In human terms the strain is you body's response to physical, chemical, emotional or spiritual forces, asking in some way that you adapt to them. As we learn this art, we also discover a great secret: How stress can become the spice of life, the exhilaration of challenge and excitement, the high of living with heavy demands on you and and thriving. For, like the tempering process involved in the production of a piece of good steel, once you make a friend of stress, forces which had seemed to be working against you become positive energies that define you, strengthen you and help you express your own brand of creativity and joy. This is one of the great gifts that stress has to offer.
Without physical and mental challenges your body would become feeble and you would never feel the excitement and creative energy which are such an important part of wellbeing. But too much stress can be a killer since stress, or rather the inability to cope with it, is the common denominator in all disease states. It is also a strong contributing cause in almost every illness to which we are susceptible. Develop methods for neutralizing the negative effects of stress and you can begin to thrive on its positive aspects.
TOSS OUT THE PILLS
Drug-based therapy is not the answer: the a million tons of Valium swallowed each year, as well as sleeping pills and other tranquillizers, produce unpleasant and dangerous side-effects ranging from addiction to acute rage, withdrawal, long-term worsening of anxiety symptoms, sub-clinical vitamin and mineral deficiencies, aggressiveness and even acute psychotic episodes. New evidence indicates that taking tranquillizers may also encourage the growth of tumours, impair neuromuscular coordination and make takers more prone to road accidents. Quite apart from the detrimental effects these drugs exert on mind and body, the fact that they treat only the symptoms of overload and do absolutely nothing towards eliminating the causes, means they can never make a positive contribution to wellbeing. What’s worse, relying on pills weakens your ability to cope with life and undermines your autonomy and your self-esteem.
QUICK ENERGY NOW
It is actually possible to breathe in energy whenever you feel burdened with worry and fatigue. Try this for a couple of minutes: Close your eyes. Breathe slowly and deeply from your diaphragm, so your stomach (not your chest) swells with each in breath. Imagine that you are breathing in vitality from the air to fill your whole body through your solar plexus. As you breathe in, feel that your whole body is becoming more and more relaxed. Imagine it as a centre of immense light radiating outward in all directions, as though you are taking in energy through the solar plexus itself, transforming it into light and radiating it out again everywhere.
YOUR FEELINGS MATTER
Emotional stressors in your life can take their toll. But f most emotional hurdles can be overcome. Take a look at what continues to trigger off the stress response in your own life. Ask yourself whether it is something which prevents you from turning a lot of your energy to more constructive use.
Some stressors provide challenges from which we can grow. Others are simply habitual. They lead nowhere and bring little in terms of increasing awareness or your ability to make better use of your energy. If there are any of these in your life see if you can eliminate them. For instance, take a look at the work you do and ask yourself if you find it really satisfying. Are the financial responsibilities you have taken on really necessary? Can you reduce them in any way? If so, have the courage to drop them and to accept the changes this will bring about; this too can make you stronger. We humans have a tendency to hang on to the status quo at all costs - and often the cost is in terms of lost adaptive energy - occasionally even life. Regardless of whether you learn the world's finest techniques for meditation to counteract stress, if you are in a job you hate year after year or are faced with a relationship that no longer has meaning for you, they will do little good. To make stress work you must not only face up to its demands, but also take responsibility for removing it wherever it is no longer useful and relevant to you.
GET INTO JOY
Each of us needs to develop our own personal ways of throwing off stress. A walk in the woods for clearing consciousness is something quite specifically ordered by Tibetan doctors to patients who suffer from rapid swings of mood and worry. Or you could try sailing, running, dancing, gardening, listening to music or some other form of hobby. I have a passion, verging on an addiction, for good movies. Explore them all. Find out what works best for you and make it an important part of your day-to-day life.
By eliminating unnecessary stressors from your life, practising relaxation and exercise, and becoming more and more aware of which challenges are important to you and which you are better off without, you will develop a way of being which will keep you free from unnecessary illness. You will soon be tapping the kind of vitality and enthusiasm a child has which most adults have long forgotten. A special bonus too - you will quite automatically preserve your good looks and vitality decade after decade.
THE ART OF SIGHING
When you begin to unwind and let go the muscles' tension, the release is often accompanied by a very slow deep breath - in fact, a sort of sigh. You can use sighing throughout the day to calm your nerves and prevent tensions building up. Think of a stress producing situation which occurs fairly frequently at work, e.g. the telephone ringing and each time it happens, take a deep breath and let it out again, then answer the phone. Be sure to let your shoulders drop as you inhale and breathe deeply down into your belly and lower back. Let the lower ribs expand away from your spine as much behind as in front. When you exhale, don't collapse, but think of your head and spine lengthening upwards.
THE BLISS OF BALANCE
Stress and relaxation are like two sides of a coin. Learn to move easily from one to another and you will begin to experience your life as a satisfying and enriching challenge like the ebb and flow of the tides. Then you will never again have to worry about getting stuck in a high-stressed condition which saps your vitality, distorts your perceptions and can even lead to premature ageing and chronic illness.
The secret of getting the right balance between stress and relaxation is threefold.
First, take a look at the kind of stress that is part of your life, eliminate unnecessary stressors and discover new ways of working with the others.
Second, learn one or more techniques for conscious relaxation and practise them until they become second nature.
Finally, explore ways of expanding your mind, honouring your individuality and for creating an environment that supports both.
Not only will this help your body stay in balance and increase your level of overall vitality, it can bring you a sense of control over your life that is hard to come by any other way.