Recently I was interviewed about my views on stress from a Buddhist perspective for our local newspaper. Below is the interview
Q: What is stress?
A: Stress is the inability to see things as they really are which can result in physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual damage to ourselves and those around us.
Q: What causes stress?
A: Stress can result from many different situations but it all comes down to ones inability to detach from something. Often the primary culprit is our own ego. We want what we want, when we want it. We do not want things to change around us but we are powerless to stop change. We want others to see things our way without having to see it their way. We want to control everything and everyone around us so we hold tight to emotional reigns that lay guilt trips on those we love and work with. We make all situations about ourselves when they usually are not i.e. someone else is having a bad day and are curt, in response we get defensive and wonder what we did wrong to irritate them. Instead of recognizing that it is the other person that is having the problem, we let our ego make it about ourselves and thereby ruin our day too.
Q: From your perspective as a Buddhist, what are the signs and symptoms of stress?
A: The very first sign is a sense that something is boxing you in, a sense of uneasiness, sense that something is wrong even though you cannot quite put your finger on what it is. Second, blood pressure begins to rise and our heart beat quickens. The third sign is an inability to let go of a thought, compulsively replaying a scenario over in your mind. If you cannot detach from the situation to let it go, and you continue to fixate on it, eventually you will feel a knot, tightening somewhere in your body. We all carry our stress/anger/fear in the same location each time it arises, stomach, back, neck, etc. After awhile if the emotions are not resolved, we will cause physical damage to that area of our body.
Q: What are the effects of stress on a person?
A: Go to a hospital and look around – that is what stress can do to you. Studies have shown that over 98% of all physical ailments can be traced in some way to stress – even tooth decay. It lowers the immune system and allows bugs to run amuck in our bodies. (Not very scientific description but that is the essence of what happens.)
Q: How much stress is too much?
A: One nanosecond of it.
Q: Why do you think that there’s more stress in people’s lives today than 25 years ago?
A: Multitasking, cannot shut down the electronics, taking work home and on vacation with us via text messaging, email, cell phones. TVs are on in every room in our homes when we are awake and present, our ears are wired with sound so that we no longer have a quiet moment in our heads. Rarely do we even eat without doing something else too. Obnoxious pundits, politicians, newspapers, radios continuously shout about what is wrong with this or that, good news is rarely heard. On top of all that, we are told that we must be gorgeous, sexy, and popular to have any self worth and we must buy, buy, buy even though we have no money and our charge cards are maxed to the hilt. The question should be, “How is it possible for anyone NOT to have stress in their lives.”
Q: What are some specific ways that people can relieve stress.
- Take responsibility for your own stress; you caused it and you can eliminate it. Don’t think or say “You are stressing me out!” or “It is causing me stress!” How you react to an event is entirely up to you.
- Change your attitude; stop clinging to material things, image, status, sense of what is yours. Maintaining all of it drains your energy, increases your fear and causes stress.
- Stop trying to control situations and other people, all you do is hurt others, make them mad, such attempts at control increases their stress and yours. (Of course they have the option to not take the bait so their stress level will remain low but yours still goes up.)
- Realize that everything changes every minute of every day and you cannot stop it. What you can do is get comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. See it as a surprise party every day instead of danger lurking behind every door you do not control.
- Don’t prejudge situations and other people. If we do not know all of the details about something, our mind tends to fill in the blanks. Very rarely does it fill in with positive details, it typically goes negative. The result is we have just made up a story about what is going to happen that has absolutely no foundation to it; our stress level just jumped up because of our inability to live with uncertainty.
- See the positive in everything instead of the negative. Everything in life is a learning opportunity. If you see is as such and you have a desire to improve yourself, and then you cannot help but see all events as positive. Realize that everything is exactly as it should be for you to learn whatever you need to learn from the situation. Once learned, the stress disappears.
- Release your anger and forgive everyone who you feel wronged you. Release your guilt and apologize to everyone you wronged. Both guilt and anger contribute greatly to stress. You cannot eliminate stress without removing the core factors that cause it.
- Often we are stressed because we feel that we are alone, separated from the rest of the world. This is not true. We are all connected and what we do, say and think impacts others because of the connection. When we stop thinking we are alone then we will stop behaviors that push others away. Typically, we don’t even know we are doing such things.
- Stop living in the past worrying about what you did or did not do. Stop worrying about the future because it has not yet been written. The present moment is the only time that matters. If you focus on what is happening in the moment then your stress will greatly diminish.
- Instead of making everything about you, dedicate your life to helping others relieve their pain and stress. You can do this without changing your job, family or anything in your life other than your attitude. Put others first, be a giver instead of a taker. It is amazing how much stress is relieved when you take yourself out of the role of the center of the universe. You will find that you begin to like, maybe even love people more which will remove their “enemy” or “stranger” designation that makes them seem a danger to you, another stress reliever.
- Meditation will also help. The point is to quiet your mind so that you can get a break from the incessant chatter that causes stress. If you focus on your breath and linger a bit longer at that point in your breathing cycle that feels most relaxed, then you will feel calmer after a few minutes.
- Laugh. As soon as a stress provoking event occurs, laugh within 5 seconds. At first it will be forced and fake. After awhile the laugh will become genuine because you will see the silliness of getting upset at a trivial event that is unimportant in the broad scheme of life. Laughing reduces stress.
- Walking meditation. Sometimes you cannot take time to sit and meditate but you can do it while you are walking. Slow down your pace and focus on the sensation of movement. How do your muscles feel? How are you swaying and balancing? How are your joints moving? The slower you move, the more you will be able to focus. By giving your brain something else to focus on instead of the negative chatter, it will reduce your stress level.
- Finally, unplug or maybe this should be first. Stop watching TV shows that glorify the worst of humanity. Even though you know it is acting (even the “reality TV) the scenes of murder, hate, prejudice, pain, anger and fear still enter into every cell of our being. Stop reading and listening to those that make money off of talking about the pain of others and what is wrong with the world. Instead, find uplifting stations and music to listen to that inspire instead of depress. Better yet, turn it all off and be still with your mind.
Q: What else should people know about stress?
A: Often we hear people that come back from a catastrophic illness or a near-death experience say that they are grateful for the experience because it showed them what is really important in life. They adopt a “Don’t sweat the small stuff attitude.” They become people who are grateful for every moment of their lives and everyone and everything it in it. They finally “get” what makes us successful human beings and it is not accumulation of wealth, power, fame, and status which all leads to stress. If you want to change your life and your health, follow the 14 steps above and don’t wait until you have a heart attack from increased stress to start. Become a person who is truly grateful – for even the small things in life – those are what really matter.