Responding Rather Than Reacting to Life
Stress is caused by
the demands placed upon us. Stress, however, is not
necessarily bad. Life would be boring without some stress,
which is a common experience for retirees who suddenly find themselves
with few challenges. Some become so bored they seek out new demands by volunteering or returning to work. Others sink into depression
or self-destructive behaviors, and a
few even seem to die
from boredom and lack of challenges.
then, is to find a healthy balance
between the demands placed upon us and the resources we possess
for dealing with these demands. For most of us, the problem isn't too
few demands but too many. When demands consistently outweigh our resources,
we become "stressed out," which affects our emotional and
physical health over time.
Visualize a playground seesaw. If the
end of the seesaw that holds our resources is sitting on the ground,
then we are most likely bored. But if the end holding the demands sits on
the ground (as in the cartoon on
the left), we become
stressed out. Ideally, we want both ends of the seesaw
to be off the ground and at similar heights so our resources
are sufficient to meet the demands we face.
Stress comes from external and internal
sources. A common source of external stress for all of us is
the acceleration of change in our times. A recent
article stated that mankind's knowledge base - the sum total of all
human knowledge - is now doubling
every 1 to 2 years. Compare this with the estimate that mankind's
knowledge base at the birth of Christ required 1,500 years to be doubled.
Thus, life around us is speeding up geometrically, like a merry-go-round accelerating
out of control, leaving many of us feeling like we are barely hanging
Other sources of external stress include family, work,
the weather, finances, the environment, and
major life events, such as births, deaths, marriages, and divorces.
Change is stressful, even good change such as having a baby. After all,
raising children is often
a major source of stress for parents. In addition, globalization has
caused mounting pressure at work for greater productivity, causing worker burnout as exhausted employees work longer hours and even refuse
vacation time out of fear of losing their competitive edge.
Droughts, floods, tornados, earthquakes, hurricanes,
and extreme temperatures add stress to our already busy lives. Many of
us struggle to keep up with our bills as Madison Avenue
bombards us with messages that we must continually buy
more to be happy. Some of us live in neighborhoods riddled with poverty,
and crime, while most of us must deal with the ups and downs of
the economy, global warming, terrorism, and war. One wonders why
we aren't all stressed out by the world in which we live.
Individual sources of internal stress can be
even more demanding. They include
physical and mental illness, feelings of worthlessness and shame,
beliefs of perfectionism and/or inadequacy, compulsive behaviors and obsessive worries, pessimism and hopelessness, addiction and
substance abuse, chronic anger and resentment, and ungrieved losses and unhealed emotional wounds from
childhood. Spiritual emptiness is another painful
source of internal stress, such as feeling like one's life has no
meaning or purpose, or feeling alienated from others. And we must all
face the reality of our own mortality and that of everyone around us.
Being human is demanding; without good stress management skills, our health
So, how does stress actually affect our health?
When stressed out, we feel as if the world is attacking us from inside
and out, thus the "fight or flight" alarm system is triggered, causing
significant physical changes. For
example, blood and oxygen are diverted from our organs into our arms and
legs giving us a
power surge to deal with danger. Our bodies, however, were not designed
to be in a chronic, internalized state of fight or flight - such as
when we feel edgy all the time and are unable to relax - because our
organs will eventually become weakened and more susceptible to disease from lack of blood and oxygen.
This is why good stress management is vital for
Stress management involves
rearranging our lives to decrease the demands on us and, more
importantly, learning new coping skills to increase the resources
available to us.
Mindfulness is recognized as a vital component in successful stress management. Jon Kabat-Zinn,
an expert in stress reduction, defines mindfulness as "paying attention in a
particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally." Kabat-Zinn
describes the stress reaction cycle in his superb book, Full Catastrophe Living,
and suggests a healthier alternative:
“This cycle of a stressor triggering a
stress reaction of some kind, often accompanied by an internalizing of
the stress reaction, leading to inadequate or maladaptive attempts to
keep things under control, leading to more stressors, more stress
reactions, and ultimately to an acute breakdown in health, perhaps even
to death, is a way of life for many of us. When you are caught up in
this vicious cycle, it seems that is just the way life is, that there is
no other way. You might think to yourself that this is just part of
getting older, a normal decline in health, a normal loss of energy or
enthusiasm or feelings of control.
“But getting stuck in the stress-reaction
cycle is neither normal nor inevitable . . . we have far more options
and resources for facing our problems than we usually know we have. The
healthy alternative to being caught up in this self-destructive pattern
is to stop reacting to stress and to start responding to it.”
Most of us go through life on "automatic pilot,"
ignoring what our bodies and emotions are telling us when
we are stressed out. We react with behaviors of denial and avoidance such as workaholism,
substance abuse, hyperactivity, over-eating, excessive partying, or by becoming
numbed-out couch potatoes. These maladaptive and self-destructive reactions only add more stress to our bodies and minds,
thus affecting our
health, productivity, and relationships, and eventually leading to
physical and emotional breakdown when our bodies and minds finally scream out:
"Stop! You can't do this anymore. You need to pay attention to
what is happening to you! You need to pay attention now!"
Mindfulness means "paying attention in a
particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally."
Mindfulness means intentionally paying attention to our bodies,
emotions, and thoughts in order to monitor our stress levels so we can
respond on a regular basis to reduce stress by employing healthy
strategies such as meditation, relaxation exercises, emotional
regulation skills, relationship skills, and problem-solving skills.
Mindfulness means practicing self-care instead of denial and avoidance.
Mindfulness means responding to life rather than reacting to it.
Mindfulness and stress management skills
allow us to maintain our equilibrium and good mental health in the face
of an ever-changing and demanding world. For related topics, see
meditation, spam of the mind, and taming the mind.
If you want to learn to manage
stress more effectively, then click on the photo below and see if online
therapy might be right for you.