Craig Valency, CSCS

Stress is a fact of life for all of us. Our culture is fast-paced and competitive. Even in the best of circumstances, we all have to deal with some combination of traffic jams, demanding jobs, maintaining relationships, raising a family, and dealing with the inevitable loss of our loved ones. To survive and thrive, especially in this economic downturn, we have to somehow wade through this steady stream of stressors without losing our minds. So why is it that some people handle stress so well and are a sea of calm in a raging storm, but others manifest the stress in their bodies and invite physical pain and disease?

Are You Stress-Hardy?
Stressors are all around us, but it is how we perceive them and what we do about them that determines if that stress leads to worse problems. In his excellent book, Full Catastrophe Living, Jon Kabat-Zin writes, “Stress-hardy individuals have greater coping resources than other people under similar circumstances, because they view life as a challenge and assume an active role in attempting to exert meaningful control.” He goes on to talk about how the feeling of helplessness is a trademark of those who don’t handle stress well. This learned helplessness, however, can be unlearned.

Build Your Physical and Emotional Armor Against Stress
The way to build up your intrinsic armor against stress is to build a supply of resources that kick in when stress hits. The resources are physical and emotional; put another way, they are external and internal. It begins with building supportive relationships, including a solid network of friends and family. This also includes participation in social functions and organizations that support your values. You then build your physical resources by eating right, sleeping, and exercising. Stress manifests itself in your body, and anything you do to build up your body’s defenses will help keep you in check when stressors arise.

Human Being or Human Doing?
There are many internal tools you can cultivate to help you better tolerate stress. Meditation is a way to consciously connect with yourself as a human being, not a human “doing.” Yes, this is corny! But think about your life and how much of your waking day is spent running around doing things, whether for you, your family, or work. Do you ever just sit for a few moments without thinking about what you have to do next or what happened yesterday? You are actually missing your life when you never exist in the moment. When you live in your head, everything is magnified, whether it is good or bad.

Just 10 minutes a day of sitting and meditating will make a huge difference in your ability to be present and relaxed in the moment, with what really is! Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, says that in just 3 weeks of doing this, it will become a habit. He suggests sitting quietly for 10 minutes with good, tall posture. Follow your breath and pay attention to each in-breath as your belly expands and each out-breath as the belly flattens. When your mind wanders, gently “tug” it back to your breath and continue on without judgment.

Sitting Meditation
Regular practice of meditation is another way to fortify your soul for those times when you are under stress. I practiced basic sitting meditation as a way to deal with stress. I learned how to clear my mind, focus on being present in the moment, and to follow my breath, focusing on each inhale and exhale.

Moving Meditation
Here are three other ways to quiet your mind and reduce stress while moving your body:

  • Yoga is an Indian form of moving meditation that will strengthen and lengthen your body and center your mind.
  • Qi Gong is a more gentle form of moving meditation from China. It helps move your energy, life force, or “Qi” in slow, circular movement patterns.
  • Tai Chi, a martial art from China, is done slowly, and will improve balance and keep your mind focused on the task of coordinating flowing movements into a long, continuous form.

Take Your Meditation Tool Kit on the Road
The key to stress management is to put all these resources into play early, before you are under maximal stress. Once you build up this reservoir of coping tools, your skills will be tuned and ready for action when needed. When I had to undergo major dental work, for example, I was able to call upon this skill and relax enough to get through the procedure without having a nervous breakdown. Meditation is a great tool, but it is important to take it on the road so you can relate it to more real life scenarios.

  • One way to do that is to practice a walking meditation, in which each step is deliberate and you pay attention to everything around you, taking it in with all your senses. Yes, this is where “Stop and smell the roses” is an appropriate cliché!
  • Another effective integrative method is the Three Breath technique. Periodically, throughout your day, whether stressed or not, stop long enough to empty your mind and track three breathes. Follow each inhale and exhale three times, then continue on with your day.
  • In the book, Turn Stress into Bliss the author, Michael Lee suggests taking 20 second awareness breaks a few times during your day, both at home and at work. This is simply stopping what you are saying, doing, and thinking and just noticing what is happening around you and to you. You may be surprised – happy or upset – with how you are handling your day and your life.

Don’t Stress About Stress Relief!
Finally, remember that in your quest to reduce stress, you do not need to stress out over making sure you get in your daily meditation or yoga class! This would defeat the purpose. I often see people who are so health conscious that they are in a state of heightened stress just trying to eat perfectly, avoid everything bad, and exercise compulsively. Step back and see the big picture. Stress always trumps an otherwise healthy lifestyle. Create balance in your life.

Fortify yourself with the tools to handle stress. Make the shift from a helpless mindset to one of empowerment, in which life is a challenge that you accept and roll with. See things in a new light by looking for the opportunity hidden in every crisis. Respond to stress; never react to it. Exert control with the tools at your disposal such as meditation, yoga, and awareness breaks throughout your day.

Sufi Wisdom
I want to leave you with an ancient Sufi poem that poignantly summarizes the way to effortlessly and optimistically flow with life’s twists and turns:

This being human is a guest
house. Every morning
a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and attend them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture, still,
treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.