What is an unhealthily stressful situation for one person is a bracing challenge for another. Stress is not so much an external set of circumstances as a response to those circumstances.
The good news about this is that those who are not so good at coping with stress can learn coping behaviors, so that they can live in a more balanced way. This isn’t a case – as many people who are good at coping with stress tend to think – of just “pulling yourself together.” Coping behaviors have to be learned, not adopted as an act of will.
One of the first useful things that can be done to cope with stress is to question the use of the word “stress”. Stress (the term, that is, not the phenomenon) wasn’t popularized until Hans Selye published his book “The Stress of Life” in 1956. When his works were translated into French and German the translators found that those languages didn’t even have a word for stress – hence “Le Stress” and “Der Stress.”
While “stress” is a very useful concept in many ways, in others it is too imprecise to be useful. One important step in beginning to manage stress is to break it down into separate component parts, which often have different causes and different solutions.
For example, you might be feeling anxious about a project at work, annoyed with a colleague who isn’t pulling his weight, feel hurt that your spouse isn’t listening to you, or feel inadequate when faced with juggling competing priorities, etc. If you don’t distinguish between these different forms of distress, you may just lump them together under the term “stress.” This isn’t helpful when it comes to dealing with them. Work at being more precise in your observations.
Another key concept to embrace when tackling stress in your life is “taking personal responsibility.” This might seem counter-intuitive. If you take on board the fact that you are responsible for generating your own stress responses, then you might imagine that it’s just another painful burden to bear. It’s so much easier (isn’t it?) to blame your stress on outside events beyond your control.
Well, no. It may seem easier to do this, but stress has been described as arising when the stressed person feels unable to control the stressing factors. If you feel helpless then you actually do make yourself helpless, because you turn down the option of changing your own response. Only by taking responsibility for our own stress (and this is most definitely not the same thing as “taking the blame”) can we alter our responses. As one of my recent students put it:
…the main thing that I have learned is that my confidence of my abilities has increased. I learned that I am in charge and am capable of doing anything that I work towards.
The whole metaphor of stress comes from engineering. A load is put on a structure, and that structure experiences stress. The structure is passive. It can’t respond any other way but by being stressed. You are not a building or a bridge. You are not a machine. When you experience anxiety (a more precise descriptor of a mental state than the term “stress”), this is a response. And that response can be changed.
But how do we make those changes? And how can meditation help?