By Chitra Jha
How Chitra Jha discovered that she was stressed, and what she did to heal herself
I have never considered myself to be stressed. After all, I was into spirituality, doing everything to relax my mind, leading an abundant life, and teaching others how to get rid of their stress… Yes, there were some challenges that I still faced, but who doesn’t face challenges? I was well equipped to handle them; or so, I thought! That was until I began a discussion with my publishers about doing a book on achieving freedom from stress.
All my books (three so far) have come through me primarily because I needed them. I have benefitted the most by their wisdom. If anyone else benefits, that is an extra bonus, but the books’ primary job is done on me. Going with the same line of thought, I joked, “This book about freedom from stress is coming to me; perhaps I need it now.” I couldn’t have been more right!
Stress is the natural and automatic response of our body to a perceived threat to our survival. The perceived threat is known as a stressor, which triggers the stress response. The moment we encounter a stressor, the body responds with a state of alarm – making us hyper alert, as though emergency has been declared. In order to handle this emergency a number of enzymes, chemicals and hormones get secreted, switching the hormonal balance from normal to hyper-vigilant states of fight or flight.
What is interesting and noteworthy is the fact that even though the physiology of a stress response remains generally the same in all sentient beings, our stressors are individual and unique. In other words, what I perceive as a stressor may not be perceived as the same by you and vice versa, but the symptoms of stress will be shared by us.
I had arrived at my diagnosis, after taking an inventory of various symptoms that assailed me every now and then. For example, a skin rash on my elbow would flare up. I would experience pain, soreness and stiffness in my limbs. There would be stiffness in my neck and shoulders, as though I was carrying the world on my shoulders. I would clumsily bang into things, as the coordination of my limbs and body would go wonky. I would lose my hair and feel spaced out. I would become extra-sensitive to everything around me. There would be a heightened sense of self-awareness or self-consciousness. I would react to situations, and the reactions would be lengthier. I would feel different, odd, and strange. There would be fear of what others thought about me. I wouldn’t feel like socialising or interacting with people; often feeling an emotional numbness and detachment from my loved ones. I would fear being in certain places, losing control, making a fool of myself, and going crazy. I would feel trapped in a place with no exit route; with a constant feeling of being overwhelmed. Stuck thoughts would keep playing over and over in my head. I would feel angry, irritated, impatient, wronged and victimised. There would be an underlying apprehension of not being able to cope. I would feel under pressure, helpless and hopeless. I would crave for sweet foods and eat more than usual. And I would gain weight.
So far, I had considered these symptoms as a part of the process called ‘cleansing of my physical, emotional and mental bodies’ but once I understood it as a ‘stress response’, various pieces of the jigsaw puzzle fell into place.
The next step was to consciously identify my stressors. A constant observation of my thoughts, emotions, feelings and sensations made me realise that my stress response was linked to my judgmental and holier-than-thou attitude. The biggest discovery was the fact that my stressors were not a threat to my physical survival, but a threat to the survival of my values – which I held dearer than my life. This discovery was a big ‘aha’ moment.
Once I understood this fact, I began to take stock of my value judgments. I noted that I stood for and valued honesty, integrity, self-empowerment, and walking my talk. While these values are indeed noble and worth striving for, they made me pass moral judgments upon anything or anyone who didn’t comply by them. Ironically, I judged myself the most as I couldn’t always pass my own stringent value test, and that caused the deepest inner turmoil; as it made me feel ‘not-good-enough’. With such perfectionist tendencies, living in this imperfect world was very stressful indeed!
The biggest culprit was my identification with pleasure and pain. I enjoyed being with like-minded people who shared the same or similar values, and shunned those who didn’t. However, my pain also came from observing that my role models too often slipped from the pedestal I had placed them upon.
Was there anyone who truly lived in honesty and integrity 24×7? Was it that difficult to be empowered to walk our talk 24×7? I couldn’t do it and was yet to meet someone who did. What was the solution? Where was my utopia? Why was I such an idealist? These questions assailed and stressed me.
The salvation came in various small steps. For the sake of clarity, I shall put them in a sequence, even though in my case, most of it happened simultaneously.
Acceptance and acknowledgment
The most important first step for me was to acknowledge and accept the fact that my stress originated in the high values I have set for myself and the world around me.
While I continue to believe in and strive for achieving these values, I choose to allow myself and others around me to be less than perfect, without any mental or emotional persecution. I also allow myself and others around me to be vulnerable to various forces and factors working in our lives at various levels. I ease the pressure on myself and others around me.
I understand that the stress response – once triggered – gets beyond my control; hence, I begin to either deep breathe, to release the tension; or simply pay attention to my breath in order to calm myself (since I remain connected with my sensations, I know the exact moment when the buttons get pressed).
Naming my emotions
I have realised that identifying and naming the underlying emotions, which come up along with moral judgments, somehow weakens the reactive mode. Over a period of time, I have identified my predominant
reactive emotions as disgust, fear, resistance, irritation, hopelessness, helplessness, sadness, and anger.
Evaluating my needs
This particular step was revealed to me during a session in Non Violent Communication. The basic understanding is that we feel happy/positive when our inner needs are being met with; and sad/negative when they are not. With this understanding in place, I identify the layer of needs underlying my emotions. In most cases, these are the need to be understood, acknowledged, accepted, and appreciated. There is also the need to have more space, and more freedom to follow my heart. However, the buck always stops at, “Do I have the right to make a choice? Do I have the right to say ‘No’?” The need to feel empowered and the need to be myself are my primary needs. When these needs get denied, I feel unfulfilled. This denial keeps me imprisoned in the victim mode. My complaints, criticism, resistance, anger, helplessness, and hopelessness are a reaction to this denial.
How was I to come out of this mode and feel fulfilled ?
Being empowered to choose
I realise that the feeling that whatever I am doing is of my own choosing helps me stop being a victim of circumstances. The NVC process helps me in this as well. As I dig deeper and look for the needs which are actually being met through every action that I undertake (even if I do it unwillingly), the needs that come up are the need to belong, the need to honour my commitments, and the need for interdependence, support, order and harmony. This is the most empowering step which has finally freed me from stress.
As I continue to walk upon my growth path, the very same situations that used to trigger my stress response make me laugh. I face the same people, whom I used to avoid, with bonhomie, camaraderie, affinity and compassion. I have become more accepting of my own frailties and those of others. I feel more fulfilled and empowered.
Does it mean that I do not get triggered at all? No, that’s not true. I still get triggered, but the reactions have lost most of their sting. Now, I choose to do everything because it meets at least one of my inner needs. While I still am aware of those needs which get denied, my focus remains on those which get fulfilled…..and that makes all the difference!