Navigation of this journey called life and meeting its strenuous demands, needs a physically fit and a mentally agile human being. In fact the physical and mental health is a holistic concept incomplete without each other.
Stress is a single major factor which prevents an individual from reaching his full potential. It not only dumbs the mind but maims the body too, by manifesting in various psychosomatic symptoms. Prolonged and continuous stress can wreak havoc and be very debilitating.
The best way, therefore, would be to equip oneself sufficiently with ways and means to avoid stress and if it somehow manages to creep in, then how to manage stress. The first step in this regard will be to understand the anatomy of stress. Unless we know how it is generated, we cannot take steps for its prevention.
There is a school of thought which avers that the human spirit is blissful by its very nature and somewhere down the line it gets coated with various impurities. This can be witnessed in babies and small kids who have yet to understand the demands of the Society, in their ever smiling faces. If ever you meet an autistic child you will see divinity personified. Similarly, there are so many spiritual seekers who have calmness pervading over their entire demeanor. We should not, however, forget that like all the other creatures inhabiting this planet we are also governed by the laws of survival. Any imminent threat to our survival whether genuine or perceived will trigger the instinct to protect yourself from that situation. The limbic system of our brain, the Amygdala will light up the fear response which will further set up a chain reaction in the body. Amongst other things cortisol would be released in our blood. All this is very useful when we are surrounded by actual danger. It will help the body to fight or flight and one can thus save himself from the situation and the hormones so secreted are used up by the body.
The problem occurs when actually there is no flight or fight situation where physical energy is required, but the mind perceives it as a threat perception and releases the chemicals for physically battling that situation. By following a set of principles, modifying our thinking and by certain activities we can combat if not totally eliminate stress. Foremost, we will dwell upon the genesis of a “thought”. It is said that 60,000 thoughts occur in a day. Is it possible to regulate your thoughts. Had it been so there would have been no grief, sadness, greed, envy, hatred. One could have just switched off all the negative and disturbing thoughts and found peace. But it does not imply that it is impossible to tame the mind. It is a gradual process which requires a concerted effort on our part. It will require deep introspection and constant talks with oneself to align our thoughts in harmony with everyone. We should question every negative thought which arises in our mind. Let’s see envy with an illustration. A monkey in a controlled environment was required to give a piece of stone for every piece of cucumber given to him. He was doing it happily until he chanced to see the monkey in the adjacent cage get a grape for every stone. He fumed and fretted and very reluctantly would now give the stone. Thereafter, his performance deteriorated and he got even less of cucumber. So a wise thing would be to ignore and continue to concentrate on your task. If we continue to question “why” till the very end, every thought can disappear. As to why am I envious, as to why am I greedy, ultimately one will realize the futility in such negative thoughts and in the process may also become a noble soul, who is not only concerned with his own wellbeing but the wellbeing of all humanity.
Simultaneously, with “thought purification” exercise as stated above, we also embark on the process of “thought control”. For acquiring physical strength we enroll in a gym, do constant exercises and monitor our diet. Similarly for mental strength we will need to “exercise” our mind and monitor the quality of our thoughts. This mental exercise, is called ‘Meditation’.
There are many techniques for meditation. Their goal is one. Displace all thoughts with a neutral thought which cannot further set up a chain reaction of thoughts. The mind becomes extremely calm and this in turn reduces the breathing rate and heart rate. The body too is now at peace. A simple technique which I recommend is mindfulness or heartfulness. Gently close the eyes sitting in a comfortable position on a chair or sofa. Focus your mind’s eye on your heart area. Imagine that the entire chest area is filled up with a colourless divine light. Continue imagining it for as long as possible but a minimum of twenty minutes twice a day in the morning and before retiring for sleep.
Gradually you will feel weightlessness as if you don’t possess anybody. You will realize that you are nothing but a spirit connected to all human beings with a common thread. The impact of meditation on the mind & body has been scientifically proven beyond doubt by EEG & biofeedback techniques.
Thought ‘purification’ & ‘control’ demands a lot of determination, hard work, discipline and resolve. It would require continuous practice and awareness of the present situation. It may take months or even years for the change to manifest since the process involves a lot of ‘unlearning’. One can forget a thing but unlearning would need a constant reminder which may initially bring the thoughts from the subconscious mind getting more etched. The process, therefore, is slow.
The above is a long term solution. What happens if stress still permeates us, despite being Aware. Then we have to manage stress. The easy but harmful way out is to take drugs, alcohol and may be prescription medicines. The last can be extremely harmful in self-medication. There is no harm or stigma in seeking help if self-coping strategies fail. Some strategies which could be of help shall now be discussed.
Attaching too much importance to an ‘outcome’ can precipitate stress. The intention is to give it your best shot, putting in due diligence and with preparedness. More emphasis is to be given on performance than on result. If two people are playing, one of them has to lose. One should accept the result and may analyze it only for future strategies. Acceptance of the situation will bring peace. A conscious endeavor is to be made of moving from the stage of ‘Denial’ into that of accepting the situation. One has to ask self that whether worrying about the result will improve it. If yes, then by all means do worry. On the contrary, it will impact and deteriorate the performance. A little bit of stress before action is healthy and acceptable as it spurs the body into action. That should be accepted and will automatically go away when the body has spun into action.
Butterflies in the stomach will always be there when the comfort zone is being expanded. The satisfaction and the thrill of going beyond the comfort zone is adequate compensation for it. In fact one should gradually and slowly desensitize oneself from anticipatory stress by confronting fearful situations with slow exposure. Example, if you have stage fright, you may start telling small jokes to a couple of friends, then may be in a group of friends, then in an informal audience and so on. Preparation, practice and rehearsal is the key to avoid stress. Initial hard work pays for an entire life time.
An attitude of gratitude also goes a long way in reducing stress. Greed can trigger stress. One should count only blessings instead of whining and pining for material outcomes. An easy way to develop this attitude is to always say Grace to God, at least on getting a new day to live and while retiring to bed.
If you find it difficult to find things to be grateful, just think of all the loved ones and things you fear losing. Think of your health where trillions of cells are working in sync and perfect harmony. If you have low vision, thank God that you are not blind. If you are blind, thank God that you are alive. Life is the greatest gift given by God and everything else is secondary. If you are parted from your loved one, instead of moping, think of the good times spent together and cherish their memories. See that harmony and bliss with which the birds, animals dwell in nature. Man is also an animal in the extension of nature, entitled to the same bliss.