‘The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.’
Stress is something that is a part of our daily lives. In some way, we convince ourselves that we need it to get things done. A bit of stress is good for us, people might say. Andrew Bernstein famously said that ‘all we need to get things done is a plan and not enough time to do it in!’ While we know the effects of stress generally, what is unknown is just how it affects us physically or mentally over a long period. Those who say they thrive on stress are perhaps creating a health time bomb for themselves.
Many people who suffer from stress regularly are usually completely unaware of the fact that constant exposure to negative stress can lead to serious and chronic fatal diseases. Stress generally impairs your immune system. Without this system functioning well, you are likely to get sick with certain illnesses. Such common complaints as colds could affect you more often and in greater degree than usual. Weight can also become affected by stress. When under a lot of pressure, our bodies tend to consume our energy sources faster. These means you may feel the urge to eat more and in greater amounts. On the other hand, stressed out individuals who do not have time to eat may lose a lot of weight and endanger their health further due to a lack of essential nutrients. Many people also suffer from „comfort-eating” while under stress with the obvious consequences to follow. A stressed out individual may experience more stomach complaints when under stress. Loose bowels are also a natural reaction to stress due to chemical reactions that cause the stomach to digest food improperly.
On the other hand, many of us do not realise that some forms of stress, known as eustress, can have a positive effect on our performance, and instead refer to those experiences which cause us negative distress as stressful. So it does prove that some forms of stress are useful. The stress response also helps you rise to meet challenges. Stress is what keeps you on your toes during a presentation at work, sharpens your concentration when you’re attempting the game-winning free throw, or drives you to study for an exam when you’d rather be watching TV but beyond a certain point, stress stops being helpful and starts causing major damage to your health, your mood, your productivity, your relationships, and your quality of life.
Stress, its origins, and our physiological response to stress have been the topic of several psychological studies in recent decades. Today, stressful events typically fall into one of the following three categories:
Acute – Occurrences of short duration that, if traumatic, can have a lasting effect on us such as an accident or the loss of a loved one or financial meltdown.
Episodic Stress – Situations that are both short-term and recurrent, such as rushing to work or other reoccurring stressful encounters in the job and in life generally.
Chronic – Stresses that are ongoing and long-lasting. Among these are the stress of illness and the friction of a strained relationship.
The most common forms of stress are not always what one might think. The fear of death, financial difficulty, being immobile and disabled, falling ill will always be a source of fear and subsequent stress, that could lead to other more chronic conditions such as anxiety and depression. However, what might be seen as more mundane, everyday stressors can have a similar effect. We can be equally stressed about the following:
- The workplace. One of the most difficult aspects of life is the expectations placed on people in the workplace and their inability to separate professional and private life.
- Personal appearance. Might seem superficial but studies suggest that stress is often caused by our feelings about our weight and how we feel the outside world sees us. According to a study of middle-aged participants published in the International Journal of Sport Psychology, engaging in activities such as exercise can help boost self-esteem (Alfermann and Stoll, 2000).
- Health. Concerns for one’s own or a loved one’s health and safety are a typical source of stress. Illness can cause chronic anxiety about the present and the future because of the sense of helplessness one experiences as a result of losing one’s grip on the situation.
- Life Changes. When it comes to moving, most people will tell you that it is one of the most stressful events in their lives. More broadly, any situation requiring change, whether positive or negative, requires us to adapt to new circumstances and can be stressful. Such events can include moving away from home, starting a new job, and starting a family.The Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS) was developed by Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe as an inventory of life-changing events, and it ranks the act of moving home as the 28th most stressful life change. Changes in relationships are far more severe, such as the death or separation of a partner (Holmes and Rahe, 1967).
- Aging. Never an easy process when we are flooded with images of young, beautiful people by social media and movies. Reaching certain age milestones can be extremely stressful even if health is maintained.
- Finance. Worries about money can affect anyone, recession or not, and cause undue stress that is harmful to both the worry-wart and his or her loved ones. Our capacity to pay off debt, maintain a comfortable standard of living and retire when we choose, the rising cost of living, and the prospect of taking out loans all contribute to a nagging feeling of financial insecurity. Although better financial management might help reduce financial stress, there is no universal solution because everyone’s financial situation is different. The stress of unresolved financial issues, however, can have far-reaching consequences, including strain on relationships with loved ones.
- Relationships. Every relationship, no matter how happy it may seem on the surface, has the potential to cause stress for its participants. There are a number of drawbacks associated with cohabitation, including not having enough “personal breathing space” and having to accommodate your partner’s peculiar routine. These pressures have a cumulative effect, straining relationships and increasing the likelihood of tense arguments and, ultimately, breakups. However, according to the Hassles and Uplifts Scales (Kanner et al, 1981), positive social relationships are the single most important way to boost happiness and resilience in the face of daily challenges. Although compromise is essential to the health of any relationship, it is not always easy to implement and is sometimes even the source of contention between partners.
- The Past. Reminiscing about traumatic experiences from the past can be very taxing. Although the immediate threat may no longer exist, the aftereffects of trauma can linger for years. According to research conducted by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, approximately 50% of women will suffer from a traumatic event at some point in their lives, and women are more likely to be victims of sexual violence than men. Men are more likely to be in accidents, which may explain why 60% of men report having experienced trauma.
We are often in a battle for our attention. The Thinking Mind is one part that analyses, thinks, makes judgment and makes decisions about our next steps. It also contains aspects of our childhood protection measures that jump in quickly to have an effect. This is our conceptualised self that tells us stories, builds up drama and tries to pull us towards avoidance. Other features of the “thinking self” are logic, planning and our “monkey mind” full of mental chatter that keeps up occupied with feelings and thoughts. Worse though, this part of our mind is often concentrated on the past and the future. Obviously a complication if one wants to stay in the present and avoid stress.
In contrast, the Observing Self is constantly in the present and able to take in all the information from the present moment. It is based on self-awareness and self-knowledge and is innately non-judgmental. It does not think, it merely observes. To illustrate this with an example, have you ever encountered a magnificent sunset (or other natural wonder) and for a moment your mind goes quiet? There are no thoughts. You’re just silently observing and appreciating this amazing event. That’s your Observing Self in action, silently noticing. But the silence doesn’t last long. Within seconds, the Thinking Self pops up: “Oh look at the lovely colors … I wish I had my camera … it reminds me of my trip to…” as you get more and more caught up in your thoughts and you start to disconnect from the sunset. In Western Society, we tend to believe that the Thinking Self is the pinnacle of human development, and accordingly, our education system focuses on rational & analytical thinking, logic, enhancing memory, planning… etc.
There is nothing wrong with this as such, but the other aspect of our mind, the Observing Self tends to be neglected in the process. If we don’t utilize our Observing Self, we tend to have limited self-awareness, self-reflection and self-knowledge. Both aspects of mind are equally necessary for a productive, meaningful and fulfilled life. Through the practice of mindfulness exercises, we can learn to access our Observing Self, which is otherwise largely obscured by our chattering thoughts and emotions.
Your Observing Self can replace thoughts such as “I am a loser” to the thought that “I am having the thought that I am a loser”. This type of thinking helps us be more objective and identify less with the disturbing thoughts from our skewed perceptions. We observe ourselves thinking a certain way rather than just thinking that way. We mentally note our toxic thoughts rather than embrace them as true.