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I'm an old man who has known
a great many problems, most of which
These are stressful times. You can see it in people's eyes and hear it in their voices. It's a feeling that seems to be ever-present, despite our best efforts to overcome it.
Living in Washington, D.C., during the Bush and Clinton administrations, I became acutely aware of the daily stress people encountered. The pulse of the nation was a constant flutter of activity, fueled by egos and paced by capitalismthinly disguised as democracy. I was quick to learn how popular hell had become in the nation's capital: lawyers from hell, security clearance from hell and politics from hell. And that's not counting traffic, parking and violenceall from hell as well. One auspicious night, I took a cab home from National Airport during an ice storm, only to hear the driver remark about the "weather from hell." It was all I could do not to think that the underworld had finally frozen over.
These truly are stressful times. The pace of life is fast, furious and becoming more so. A quick glance through the newspaper headlines, or a few minutes of television news, is enough to confirm that humans around the world are approaching a boiling point. The causes are many and varied: workplace intensity, government gridlock, AIDS, gang violence, downsizing, deforestation, ozone depletion, drug addictions, international terrorism, animal extinction and natural disasters. All of these problems put our planet and its people under immense stress.
While the nation's capital seems to epitomize the frenzy of human emotions, stressful vibrations echo across the countryand beyond. This fact has not gone unnoticed by the World Health Organization (WHO). From various surveys and studies conducted in virtually every country, WHO now cites stress as a global epidemic. The mounting tension and strife only confirm what we already know at a deeper level: Stress has become a prominent and permanent part of the human landscape. It may be hard to remember, but it wasn't always like this.
Before the 1960s, the topic of stress did not make headlines, nor was it a household word. However, the rapid rate of change, coupled with the increase of technology, has infiltrated all aspects of our lifestyles. Running right alongside it are the signs and symptoms of human stress. In essence, people are trying to keep pace with a hyper-productive society.
Sunday, once esteemed as a day of rest to honor the godliness of creation, is now merely a day to get caught up with shopping, errands and work before the deluge starts all over again on Monday.
Technology once held the promise to make our lives simpler and more efficient, and to provide additional leisure time. Yet research studies show that instead of more leisure time, we have less. Although gadgets like beepers, laptop computers, pagers, cellular phones, microwave ovens, fax machines,
e-mail and voice mail appear to make us organized and efficient, we have in truth become slaves to these technologies.
In his book Modern Man in Search of a Soul, noted psychologist Carl Jung warned that advances in technology, accompanied with increased materialism, would lead to a greater split of the conscious and unconscious mindin other words, the ego and the soul.(1)
This prophecy, made in 1933, has come to pass as we near the end of the twentieth century. The pace of life today has made us more distant from not only the elements of nature, but our divine essence as well. It is no coincidence that as technology (and the cultural values associated with it) advances to dizzying heights, we find ourselves in a period of spiritual dormancy.
I believe there is an inherent relationship between stress and human spirituality. What seemed obvious to me at the intuitive level was often dismissed in graduate school seminarsuntil I taught an undergraduate course in stress management. Then the pieces began to fit into a larger picture.
Upon assuming the role of teacher, I became aware of a number of interesting questions. The students were not so much interested in the relaxation techniques being taught as they were concerned about the issues of relationships, values and the purpose of life. On one hand I was surprised that none of these issues was found in any stress textbook; on the other hand these issues are so obvious, I wondered why they were not included. It became clear that these students were addressing matters of the heart and issues of the soul.
Detaching from my own problems and concerns, I could clearly see that stress and spirituality were not opposite ends of a continuum, but partners in the dance of life. I was delighted; one doesn't learn this in academia, especially not in graduate school. In fact, I think it's fair to say that in the mid-1980s, one didn't mention the word spirituality in the same breath as science. There was an unspoken assumption that they were mutually exclusive.
What I pieced together then, and what is coming to be better understood now, is that the spiritual dimension is not only present in the human equation; it is an integral, if not essential, part of it. In order to really understand the human journey, we must acknowledge and nurture these matters of the soul on a daily basis.
Thus began my exploration into the dynamics of mind-body-spirit integration, human consciousness and a synthesis of reflections on stress and human spirituality. This has been the focus of my own journey, both professionally and personally; I know I am not alone in this quest.
When we hear on the news about a crisis in a distant city or remote corner of the world, we can easily detach ourselves from it. But when stress and tension are in our own environmentat home and/or workit is impossible to ignore it. It is becoming increasingly difficult to cope with these overwhelming issues.
The expression "stress with a human face" reflects a sense of compassion in a tense situation. Taken literally, it means a troubled mind. Our faces clearly reflect the intensity and volume of stress in our lives. Look at photos of Jimmy Carter before and after he became president of the United States. It looks as if Carter aged 20 years during one four-year term. While the job as chief executive is extremely stressful, anybody can experience the same effects of stresseven without being president.
About two weeks after Nancy Kerrigan fell prey to the emotional insecurities of Tonya Harding, I appeared on Fox Morning News to talk about competitive anxiety. Prior to that incident, I was on the faculty of the American University in the department of health and fitness, teaching a popular course in stress management. I also counseled several nationally known athletes, actors and corporate executives in stress management therapy. This particular interview was scheduled to be five minutes in length. The focus was Kerrigan-Harding, competitive anxiety and Olympic pressure on athletes.
Toward the end of this segment, however, the questions from the news anchor became more general in nature. With 20 seconds remaining, she asked, "How does anyone deal with stress?"
Watching the seconds rapidly tick away, I realized I could not do justice to this question in the remaining few moments. With a smile I said, "I can't answer that in a sound byte."
She gave me a nasty look, thanked me and moved on to the news.
As I left, I wondered if I could have given a better answer, since that question is posed to me fairly often. These days I can distill the message of managing stress into one word: BALANCE.
Balance is the ability to achieve a sense of symmetry in our lives. This is not an innate talent but a learned skill; one that must be practiced regularly and mindful of our spiritual essence. In other words, there are no quick fixes to stress. We must look deep into the soul to answer these concerns. This can be a long, arduous process with no speedy solutions. Unfortunately, people are looking for quick answers to monumental problems.
Some of my best teachers in college were my students. One day while discussing the concept of balance in my stress management class, one student raised his hand and shared an ancient proverb from his t'ai chi course. He explained that balance is a fundamental skill in t'ai chi, as well as a principle of the Taoist philosophy.
The saying is: "Stand like mountain, move like water." Now that's a sound byte.
The message is colorful, poetic, profoundyet so simple. The vision of mountains and water is one I find very soothing, but the significance of the message is even more so. The union of opposites as a means to achieve wholeness is common in the Taoist tradition. To stand like a mountain suggests a sense of stability, resistant to the winds of change. To move like water implies the ability to go with the flow, rather than trying to change things we have no control over. To move like water is to persevere, yield where necessary to gain strength, and move on once again. What this ageless wisdom advises is to have strength and security in your own being, like a mountain, yet at the same time hold the fluidity of moving water. Here was an ancient metaphor giving life to the concept of balance. I took an immediate liking to it.
The concept of balance can be found in virtually every culture since the dawn of humanity. Americans may be familiar with the aspect of balance in life through the biblical passage in Ecclesiastes (3:2-9), also made popular in a 1960s hit song, Turn, Turn, Turn, first by Pete Seeger, then again by the rock group The Byrds. Benjamin Hoff's popular book, The Tao of Pooh, also serves as a gentle reminder that the essence of Taoism is really a universal concept. The Native Americans have a similar phrase, "walking in balance," which they use to describe this philosophy of a peaceful coexistence and harmony with all aspects of life.
To walk in balance requires steadiness. The concept of balance is universal in appeal and ageless in wisdom. It is this wisdom that helps us address the matters of the soul when we meet resistance brought on by the winds of change.
No doubt the image of balance is familiar to everyone. We learn about it early in life when we stand upright and attempt to take our first steps. From riding a bike to pulling out our checkbooks, the importance of balance cannot be understated. Indeed, it is a component of every aspect of our lives. Perhaps nowhere is the aspect of balance so evident than in the examples of nature (e.g., the seasons and oceanic tides), where stability serves as the proverbial correction factor in maintaining earthly dynamics. We, too, are a part of nature, even though the walls of a home or office can seem like an impassable barrier that denies access to the great outdoors. As one close friend told me, the closest he gets to nature is the Discovery Channel.
There are those who would strongly argue that the unparalleled stress we are facing today is a result of our separation from nature. Whether you agree with this premise or not, you can appreciate the connection made between stress and imbalance, for it seems obvious that when we are overwhelmed with responsibilities, challenged beyond our means or at the end of our wits, we feel imbalanced. We are first figuratively, and then perhaps quite literally, knocked off our feet.
Stress is the epitome of imbalance. Flat tires, delayed flights, bounced checks, phone tag, long checkout lines, flippant adolescents, cancerous tumors and backed-up traffic can all disturb our psychic equilibrium.
Episodes of stress tend to hit above our center of gravity (at the point of ego) and metaphorically speaking, knock us off our feet. This metaphor becomes reality when stressors manifest as headaches, backaches or other maladies that can literally lay us flat on our back. Perhaps in terms of effective stress management, the concept of balance is best summed up in the words of Reinhold Neibuhr, now entitled "The Serenity Prayer," and used by every self-help group grounded in the tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference."
In other words, stand like mountain, move like water!
To fully understand the dynamics of stress and how it can knock us off balance, it is best to reacquaint ourselves with the basics, starting with some definitions and progressing to the profound relationship between stress and disease. As you will see, every aspect of stress is undeniably intertwined with the essence of human spirituality.
Perhaps the word stress needs no explanation. At some instinctual level we all know what it means. Feelings of being overwhelmed, impatience, panic, anger, frustration, helplessness, anxiety, as well as boredomall are aspects of stress. Just the same, if you were to ask the first 10 people you meet on the street what their definition of stress is, most likely you would hear 10 completely different answers. Academicians are no closer to an agreed-upon definition either.
My definition of stress has changed and evolved over the past 15 years. I was first taught that stress was wear and tear on the body, much like repeated driving can produce wear on a car transmission. (2) To a large extent this is true. However, from a scientific point of viewgrounded in Western thought in which the body is compared to a machinethis definition is incomplete. We are not machines!
Stress is often defined as the inability to cope with demands placed on a person. (3) One only need think of a frazzled mother attempting to care for newborn twins, or an office manager seated behind a mound of invoices with a phone at each ear, to understand this meaning. I have also heard stress described as "any change we encounter in our lives," and although this notion has merit, this vague definition lacks soul.
What experts do agree on is that stress is a perceptionreal or imaginedthat is interpreted as a threat. If the threat is not resolved, then the effects will produce wear and tear on the bodyeither in a specific organ or body region. What begins in the mind as a perception often ends up as a symptom of disease or illness if left unresolved. In the worst-case scenario, the body becomes the battlefield for the war games of the mind.
In the past decade a new definition has emerged from the fields of transpersonal and humanistic psychology that springs from a spiritual place. From this perspective, stress is seen as a feeling of separateness from God, a feeling of being disconnected from our divine source. This perception is really an illusion, for we are never really detached from God.
Perhaps poet Maya Angelou said it best when she wrote,
I believe that Spirit is one and everywhere present. That it never leaves me. That in my ignorance I may withdraw from it, but I can realize its presence the instant I return to my senses. (4)
To say that stress is a disconnection from God holds much merit in a world where people yearn to reconnect to the divine source. While this feeling of separateness may be incorrect, the emotions generated from it are very real. Furthermore, as stress-based perceptions increase, we frequently become victims of our own attitudes and beliefs. The exposure to stress at the individual level is also occurring in society.
Matters of the soul, once left to the religious leaders, are discussed today regularly among people from all walks of life. And as the world quickly spins into the new millennium, the topic of human spirituality is taking a prominent, if not urgent, role in these discussions. A growing number of people feel the survival of the human race depends on it. It is here on the global stage where we see the dynamics of stress and human spirituality played out on a daily basis. Whether it involves environmental factors, economic issues or health-care reform, it is all related. But before we begin to understand these dynamics on a global scale, perhaps it is best to first become reacquainted with some of the basics of stress at an individual level.
Within each of us resides the means for survival, a means to confront or retreat from the dangers of physical threats. At our most primitive level, this physiological system enables us to do one of two things: to hold our ground, to defend our territory, draw blood if necessary, and ward off danger . . . or to run like hell. We see examples of the fight-or-flight response (coined by physiologist Walter Cannon in the early twentieth century) all the time: the attack of a mother bear protecting her cubs, a dog that defends its master's house or birds that fly away when a cat approaches.
In times of physical threat, our body prepares to fight or flee. In a complex series of metabolic activities, the heart pumps quicker to get oxygenated blood to the muscles in time to move. Like a symphony preparing for the crescendo, blood pressure rises, ventilation increases, neural synapses fire, muscles begin to tighten, and digestion virtually halts, as a host of hormones flood the bloodstream to provide various substances for energy production. It is all to one endto survive the threat.
The fight-or-flight response is astounding when it comes to escaping from a burning building or even hustling from one airport terminal to another to catch a tight connection. As amazing as this ability to respond is, the physiological reaction is inappropriate for non-physical threats such as sitting in traffic, playing phone tag or standing in a long checkout line. Its purpose is inadequate to deal effectively with the many stressful situations we commonly face.
Most of our threats today are not physical. Instead they are mental (being overwhelmed or bored, emotional, being worried or guilty); or spiritual (assessing relationships, values and one's purpose in life). Yet the body reacts to these threats, regardless of their nature, in the same fashionwith increases in heart rate, blood pressure, metabolic rate, ventilation and muscle tension. In effect, unresolved issues and the emotions they solicit will ultimately wreak havoc on the body.
Becoming aware of our stressors is the first step in the resolution process. Ask yourself what stresses you out, makes you feel uptight, angry, anxious, or overwhelmed. Which, if any, are physical stressors?
Stress begins with the perception of threat to our personal existence. Then the emotions join inanger, fear or both. Before long a chain reaction of neurochemical responses is triggered and released throughout the body for fight or flight.
Not all stress is bad for you. Experts in the field of stress management agree that there is both good stress and bad stress.
Good stress is anything that motivates you to accomplish a goal or influences you to get something done. Bad stressalso called distresspushes you over the edge of comfort. Distress can be acute, short-term stress or chronic, long-term stress.
Acute stress is intense but short-lived, like being pulled over for a speeding ticket or locking your keys in your car. The threat is over quickly and life soon returns to normal.
Chronic stress tends to have a much longer duration months or years, like marital or financial problems, a career rut, a boss from hell. Most stress researchers agree that chronic stressors are related to chronic disease and illness. Even at low levels, the body can only remain aroused in the stress mode for a finite time before the organs begin to show signs of dysfunction. Long-term stress also tests the strength of our inner resources such as humor, creativity, faith, patience, courage, compassion, forgiveness and willpower.
Anger and Fear
A multitude of feelings can and will surface at the first moment of distress: impatience, embarrassment, anxiety or frustration, to name a few. Anger shows itself through guilt, prejudice, envy, jealousy, hostility and rage. Fear can manifest in a host of emotionsdoubt, anxiety and paranoia. Fear can be so overpowering that it immobilizes all other thoughts and actions; it is closely linked with depression.
Do anger and fear differ? Some insist that fear and anger are the same. They say that anger is merely an expression of fear. While there may be an element of truth to this notion, in terms of the stress response there are clear lines drawn between the two. Fight is not the same thing as fright. Perhaps it is best said that anger and fear are two sides of the same stress coin. (5)
Like love and joy, anger and fear are a critical part of the human equation. While they merit their respective place on the continuum of human emotions, too often there is an abundance of negativity. The result is inadequate exposure to positive emotions. Hence there is an imbalance in one's emotional well-being. This trend toward negative thinking isn't just indicative of the younger generation; it is widespread among all age groups, professions and levels of income. In the field of psychology it is known as "victim consciousness."
When I first heard that expression, I thought it was a term used in upper-level psychology courses. Then I met a man at my neighborhood gas station while waiting for my car to be fixed. The man was sitting across from me, lowered his morning newspaper and asked me point blank, "Hey, what do you do for a living?" I briefly shared my professional background with some polite but direct eye contact, then asked him the same question.
"I'm a victim!" he said boldly.
"Of the economy?" I asked.
"No," he retorted, "just a victim!"
There you have it, victim consciousness personifieda behavior that keeps us top-heavy with negative thoughts and feelings, generated by anger or fear. It can be addicting.
This is not to say that anger and fear are bad and should be avoided. To the contrary. They are important, if not essential, to the human conditioin moderation. But not at the expense of one's emotional balance.
Both anger and fear are considered survival emotions. In times of danger, one or both of these emotions serve as a motivation to move, run, hide. They are meant to last only long enough to get out of harm's way. However, unlike all other animals, the human species has evolved to a consciousness where we allow these feelings of anger and fear to linger for days, months and even years.
¬1997 Brian Luke Seaward. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Stand Like Mountain Flow Like Water by Brian Luke Seaward. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442.