Stress is one of the most common problems that people face in life, but the good news is that it is something which can be handled quite effectively by anyone who is willing to adopt a more spiritual approach to life. Some people realise this quite intuitively, and many are happy to admit that it was their desire to regain some calm, tranquillity and peace of mind in a time of particularly high stress which motivated them to embark on their spiritual path in the first place.
Given that the problem is so prevalent, and that at least a few who reach this website will be searching for a spiritual solution to it, in this post I will take a look at stress and why it occurs. I will also provide a workable action plan that can be followed by anyone to bring about speedy relief from tension and anxiety, as well as develop a greater sense of emotional peace and stability.
The Stress Response
Stress is a psychological and physical response to any event which contradicts our hopes or expectations. The exact stress response that is experienced by an individual will largely depend on their personality, earlier life conditioning and the perceived seriousness of the situation being faced. That said, the stress response may be experienced as anything from a mild but uncomfortable sense of general tension and anxiety to increased heart rate, higher blood pressure, nausea and insomnia. Often referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ mode of being, stress can make different people react in different ways.
– Some people have a tendency to go directly into ‘fight’ mode by getting irritable, angry and confrontational. If these types can’t vent their feelings of aggression at someone they view as being responsible for the situation which has triggered their stress response, they will often lash out quite arbitrarily at the people around them, or even blame themselves for getting into the situation in the first place. This often happens even if the triggering event had no human or preventable cause, which is why many people get snappy when their car breaks down or the weather decides to rain on their parade.
– Other people have a tendency to go into ‘flight’ mode when they experience a stressful event or situation. These types become nervous, quiet and withdrawn, and would much rather run away from the situation than fight it. Indeed, many will get the urge to crawl into a dark corner and hide until the situation changes of its own accord or their feelings of stress fade away.
These are tendencies, rather than fixed reactions, so most of us have experienced both fighting in some situations and taking flight in others.
This fight or flight response has evolutionary roots, and it is sometimes extremely valuable. For example, if you encounter a bear in the woods, fighting or running away are probably the two best courses of action you can take. However, in situations that are less than life-threatening, fighting or fleeing can do a lot more harm than good, and so a big part of effectively handling stress in the modern world involves identifying and learning to respond in a way which is more appropriate to the situation at hand.
What Causes Stress?
As stated earlier, stress is a psychological and physical response to any event which contradicts our hopes or expectations. In the previous section I focused on the response itself, but now we must look at the second part of the statement, which involves our hopes and expectations.
If you were to ask 100 people to describe the kind of events and situations which cause them to feel stress in life, they would come back with all kinds of answers, ranging from the minor to the major.
At the minor end of the spectrum, they might talk about getting caught in traffic, being late for an appointment or burning the dinner. At the opposite end of the spectrum, they might talk about losing their job or business, breaking up with a long-term partner, receiving a negative medical diagnosis or the death of a loved one. And in between those two extremes there are literally millions of other things that could be mentioned.
Whilst the number of ‘potential stress events’ that we might encounter in daily life is quite enormous, all such events can be placed into one of just two broad categories, as follows:
– Events, situations or circumstances which, although we desire them, do not currently exist.
– Events, situations or circumstances which, although we do not desire them, do currently exist.
In both cases, the stress is caused because our current reality does not match our expectations.
– Individuals who get delayed in traffic may experience stress because they want to be on time for their appointments, whilst individuals who burn the dinner may experience stress because they want to cook a perfect meal.
– Individuals who get sick may experience stress because they don’t want to be in poor health, whilst individuals who lose their jobs or businesses may experience stress because they don’t want to be in financial difficulty.
This may sound like a huge simplification, but if you take an honest look at the events, situations and circumstances which cause you stress in your own life, you too will find that your experience of stress is all due to you wanting things to be different than they currently are.
Handling Stress – An Action Plan
It is unrealistic to think that we can eliminate all potentially stressful events from our lives, but it is perfectly realistic to think that we can learn to handle events in a way that dramatically reduces or even eliminates the experience of stress. That being the case, I would now like to offer a simple yet effective action plan for your consideration. This action plan takes a multi-faceted approach to stress, using concepts and ideas from various traditions, so try it yourself and please feel free to report back on how effective you find it to be.
Step #1 – Accept the Moment
The first thing you should do when you encounter an event that you are not happy with is simply pause and accept it as the reality of the moment. Realise that the event has occurred (or has not occurred, if you are desiring something which you do not have in your life) and that your view of the situation will not change that fact.
What you can change is your response to the fact. If you choose to respond by resisting reality, by moaning, grumbling, kicking and screaming, you will experience a heightened level of stress and discomfort. If you choose to respond by accepting reality, by simply sitting with it for a moment, you will experience far less stress.
You should note that accepting the reality of the moment does not mean that you are resigning yourself to living with things as they are for the rest of your life. Nor does it mean that you cannot plan to make changes or improve conditions in your life. All it means is that right now, in the moment of the event, you accept things as they are, without resistance.
Step #2 – Evaluate the Situation
Having paused to accept the moment, you can evaluate the situation from a quiet and objective viewpoint. Leaving your emotional responses out of the equation as far as possible, take a good look at the situation as it is, and ask yourself whether anything can be done about it.
For example, if you are stuck in traffic, is it possible to take an exit and get to your destination via an alternative route? If you have lost a job, can you do anything to get a new one? If you have been diagnosed with an illness, are there things that you can do to improve your health?
This evaluation of the situation will often reveal that there is some type of action that can be taken to change it, in which case you can focus on deciding which actions are most appropriate and start taking them.
If there are no actions that can be taken at the current time (perhaps because you are caught in heavy traffic and there are no alternative exits to take) then at least you can feel good about the fact that you have evaluated the situation in a balanced and objective manner.
Step #3 – Practice Gratitude
No matter what potentially stressful event you are facing, there are still plenty of things in your life to be grateful for, so pause to identify some of those things. Take another look at my post on Practicing Gratitude to remind yourself of the various approaches that are available to you, and start working with one or more of them to generate gratitude for all the good things in your life.
I would also suggest that you specifically look for things to be grateful for in the situation itself. This isn’t always easy, especially when you are facing a major life event, but give it a try. Maybe losing your job presents you with an opportunity to start over, and create a career which is even more rewarding and fulfilling. Or maybe getting caught in traffic gives you a little more time to take a few deep breaths, or to listen to your favourite audiobook or podcast.
By practicing gratitude in the heat of the moment, you are bringing your focus back to what is working in your life, rather than dwelling on the event itself.
Step #4 – Embrace Impermanence
One of the most important truths to learn in life is that nothing is permanent, but everything is subject to change. By embracing this fact, you will find it easier to be less attached to the things you enjoy in life, and less averse to the things that you don’t particularly enjoy in life.
Jobs can last a long time or a short time, but they never last forever, and the same can be said about relationships, possessions and all other external conditions. Sitting with this observation, and really taking it to heart, can make dealing with a potentially stressful event a lot more bearable, because you know that the situations which you may view as negative are also subject to change.
It doesn’t matter how bad you may feel, how bleak the outlook appears, or how precarious the situation may seem, remind yourself that – thanks to impermanence – it won’t be like that forever. Every year has four seasons, and every winter is followed by a spring and then a summer and an autumn. Similarly, when you find yourself in a ‘winter’ situation, be mindful of the fact that your feelings will eventually lift, the outlook will improve and the situation will stabilise and prosper.
Step #5 – Look for the Lesson
Next, look for the lesson which the universe may be trying to teach you through the event you are facing. The more experiences you have as a Seeker, the more you will come to realise that the universe is always communicating something to you, so pause and ask yourself what it could be saying through the event you face right now.
It could be that the traffic jam is teaching you to be more patient, or to avoid attributing so much importance to relatively trivial things. It could be that the job loss or the end of the relationship is teaching you to stop looking for security in anything or anyone outside yourself. There are as many lessons to be learned as there are events to be experienced, so look for the lesson you are being taught today.
Step #6 – Trust
Last, but by no means least, make a deliberate effort to trust the process of life itself. How you do this will of course depend on your own spiritual perspective, so some of you will want to trust that God is looking out for you, whilst others will want to trust that the universe at large is with you, rather than against you. Whatever terminology you use to describe such things, relax and let go a little, and trust that your life is unfolding exactly as it is meant to unfold.
According to your intuition, you can view this as a simple shift in perspective which serves to ease the stress of the moment, or you can view it as a position of literal belief. The important thing is that you make the deliberate decision to trust, and allow your life to unfold exactly as it should.
Facing events, situations and circumstances which can potentially cause us to experience stress is a natural part of life, but the experience of stress itself is largely a choice. Choose to resist reality and stress will follow, but choose instead to respond with this simple action plan and your experience will be very different. In fact, in many cases you will find that you can handle stress quite effectively, and that your experience of the event can be transformed into one which is positive and sometimes even helpful.