A caveman out on a hunt or a soldier on the front line needs the stress response in his body to have the energy to fight; the anticipation of the life-or-death experience puts his whole body into a state of red alert. Stress enables us to meet challenges, to push ourselves into new areas of experience or understanding, through heightening our awareness and focusing concentration.
All of this would be fine if we had a bear to hunt or a war to wage. But the stress most of us have is not from life-or-death situations, but arises from an accumulation of much smaller issues.
Does your mother-in-law make you want to bite your nails? Does your work make you feel overwhelmed and unable to cope? What do you do when you just want to scream and stop the world?
Stress is a derivation of the Latin word meaning ‘to be drawn tight.’ Which is exactly what happens when too many bills come at once and your breathing gets fast and shallow.
If our response becomes increasingly stressful and we can no longer keep our equilibrium, then the body will put out the red alert. The stress response is activated when we can’t adjust our behavior; when we feel like a steam cooker coming to full pressure. We are the only one who can turn down the heat, but we usually feel powerless to do so.
What happens to the urge to scream, to lash out, or to find release from the stress? Is it surprising that marriages suffer, or that alcohol and food addiction is rising? Is it difficult to believe that we might get constipation, diarrhea or lose our appetite?
But the idea that it’s our work, family, or lifestyle that’s causing our stress and that if we changed these then we’d be fine is seeing the situation from the wrong perspective. Rather, the belief that something is causing us stress is what’s actually causing the stress!
There is no medical cure that can alleviate stress; prescription drugs can’t lighten our workload or change our life conditions.
We may have little or no control over the circumstances or stressors we are dealing with, but we do have control over our response. No matter where we go or what we do, the change that’s the most effective is the one within ourselves.
Stress is about not being in the present moment—we are anywhere but here. The real cause is about our perception of our circumstances as being overwhelming, and our perception of our ability to cope when we feel stretched. If we believe we cannot cope, then we’ll begin to lose ground; if we believe we can cope, then we’ll be able to ride over any obstacles.
So it’s a change within our perception of our capabilities that will make the biggest difference. In turn, this will help develop the relaxation response and begin to normalize everything the stress response has put out of balance.
Luckily, we can transform our beliefs and our perceptions. The words medication and meditation are both derived from the Latin word medicus, meaning to care or to cure, indicating that both mindfulness and meditation are the most appropriate medicines or antidotes for stress. The ability to keep our peace and maintain an even-balanced state is one of the greatest gifts that we can give ourselves.
“Usually, when we feel the pressure of life then we can become very tense and close our heart. We go onto autopilot mode, a state of self-protection and self-preservation. When our mind can relax a little and become calm and more spacious, then we see there is nothing to fear,” says meditation teacher Ponlop Rinpoche.
“It is like a warrior. The greatest warrior in history is the one who is calm—if he freaked out, then he would easily lose the battle. In the same way, when our mind is stressed and tense, then we think everyone is attacking us or taking advantage of us, and we can’t see anyone or anything objectively or lovingly.
“Meditation really helps us not to panic or freak out; it brings us back to this calm ground, where we can see ourselves clearly.”