By Jamuna Rangachari
‘Nothing gives one person so much advantage over another as to remain always cool and unruffled under all circumstances.”
When my son was in the ninth standard, we were given heaps of advice by other anxious parents, well-meaning friends and relatives to take this as an important milestone, and ensure that he took up studies 24/7. Well, he was just not made of that mettle, and this only created more arguments between us. For a while, we worried that we were taking it too easy. Soon, we realised that this only created more tension and spoilt his effective use of time. We also realised that it was best not to shape things beyond our control. Our approach changed and so did his pattern of studying. He began taking ownership for his own work. To relax, he used to play the guitar, and listen to music. We let that be. Apart from a lesson in parenting, it made me realise what a crippling effect stress can have on effective thinking.
Ameeta Shah, a psychotherapist, shares the story of Mr and Mrs Y, a young couple aspiring to a high income, the best luxuries, and a good network of friends. Though Mr Y is doing well, Mrs Y is dissatisfied with his progress and pressurises him to quicken his pace. The resulting stress is eroding his self-esteem, and affecting his ability to make the right decisions. He often retreats into watching TV, and is becoming forgetful. Though both get along in many ways, this issue has created so much stress that it could break up their relationship.
During a rough period in his job, Anil (name changed), a software professional from Mumbai, was so cross with his wife and children that they actually dreaded his presence at home. The ultimate blow came when he lost his job. He became thoroughly disgruntled.
|We live in an era of multiple stresses that can either make or break us |
Here we offer a range of body-mind-spirit therapies that can give you
a toolkit to survive and even thrive in these ravaging times
The Current Scenario
Why is there so much stress today? Are increasing demands and choices taking their toll?
“Life has become far more stressful than it ever was. For one, the communication download is keeping everyone’s mind and body busy. In earlier times, an event happened, and it took time to reach the final destination. Today, an SMS tells you of a death; an email informs you of a celebration, and a phone call gives news of a terrorist attack, all at the same time. How do human beings deal with all these emotions in such a short time? The stress transfers into anxiety, anger, and other feelings which are suppressed,” says Indu Kohli, a trainer and behavioural consultant.
|An SMS tells you of a death, an email of a celebration |
and a phone call of a terrorist attack, all at the same time
Ameeta Shah agrees, “The good news for today’s world is ‘possibility’ – the possibility with friendships, careers, success, hobbies, lifestyles, travels, celebrations – the bad news about that is there is always someone who does more than you. Therefore, you do not feel significant.”
“Stress to achieve, stress to buy, stress to keep healthy, stress to manage money in today’s consumer-filled world, stress because of jobs at BPOs, which have to cater to people in another part of the world, and stress because homes are small. So even though people have more money, they also have more stress, which ultimately affects their emotional, physical, and mental health,” says Indu.
“With so many reactors (potential areas of stress creation), there is bound to be more stress,” says Dr Srinivasan, a motivational speaker and qualified doctor who helps people handle the malaise.
The demons of thought
And yet the fact remains that no matter how stressful modern living is, there is a minor but significant part of the population that does not experience stress. This segment of society lives peacefully and happily, is content with life, and joyfully tackles daily responsibilities. What’s their secret?
It’s small but very significant. Call it attitude. They recognize that no matter what life throws at them, they have the final choice on how to react. They take responsibility for their lives, and consciously choose to respond to situations in an unhurried, positive manner.
Most people do not realise that they themselves are creating the stress in their own lives. Just as a reckless driver often blames the bad traffic situation in the city for his stress, we often look outside and not within for the solutions.
When there is terror, we blame the ‘others’. When there is recession, we blame the government. When things go wrong at home, we blame the family for it, just as Anil did. Such an approach only causes anger and higher levels of stress, because it encourages victimhood and subsequent helplessness.
In fact, calamities such as the terror attacks always leave in their wake an increase in psycho-medical problems. These include PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder); depression-related mental disorders; an array of physical syndromes such as altered pain processing; cardiovascular, nervous, and gastrointestinal diseases such as fatigue, constipation, diarrhoea, nausea; problems with blood pressure and fast, slow, or irregular heartbeat. The disaster was being re-experienced repeatedly. Similarly, with the recession, there is the imagined fear of a job loss, with people dying a thousand deaths every day.
Interestingly, stress is not always negative. Hans Selye, who laid the foundations of stress science in the 1930s, believed so strongly in good stress that he coined a word, ‘eustress’, for it. He saw stress as “the salt of life”. He did his research at the time of the Great Depression, as stressful a time as any.
In his research with rats, he found that as the rat’s brain registers danger, it pumps itself up on hormones – first adrenaline, then cortisol. The surge helps mobilise energy to the muscles, and primes several parts of the brain, temporarily improving some types of memory and fine-tuning the senses.
Thus armed, the rat makes its escape – assuming that the cat, whose brain has also been flooded with stress hormones by the sight of a long-awaited potential meal, does not outrun, or outwit it. This cascade of chemicals is what we refer to as ‘stress’. For rats, the triggers are largely limited to physical threats from the likes of cats and scientists. However, in humans, almost anything can start the stress response. Battling traffic, planning a party, losing a job, even gaining a job – all may get the stress hormones flowing as freely as being attacked by a predator does. Even the prospect of future change can set off our alarm. Thus, he advocated that instead of worrying about it we could use the additional ‘eustress’ energy to think creatively and carefully.
How can we convert stress into eustress? How can we ensure that far from damaging us, stress can jumpstart us to a more joyous and successful life?
Food and lifestyle
In ancient times, Hippocrates recommended a diet, which in present biochemical terms was 80 per cent alkaline and 20 per cent acidic. This has not changed. The body naturally seeks to balance itself and restore homeostatis or equilibrium. Therefore, it is working constantly on three functions: to maintain energy, discard toxicity and finally repair and grow as cells die all the time. All the three functions are important. If we don’t give it rest, it becomes clogged with toxicity and thus causes constant stress, explains Anju Venkat, nutritionist. Kavita Mukhi too agrees and says, “If one is under stress and eats a highly acidic meal, say a big steak or tandoori chicken, then the acidity from the stress and the meal will create a bigger problem.”
Unfortunately, now, stress itself has become a constant and a disease-producing stimulant to the nervous system, which we are forced to endure on a daily basis. We take stimulants such as coffee, sugar and ‘energy-boosters’. While these may offer short-term relief, in the end they deplete our ability to handle stress naturally. Further, the thyroid is asked to increase metabolism because the body has borrowed so much energy. Perhaps the most devastating is the impact of the body’s waste removal channels. The body cannot eliminate waste effectively in an acidic environment. Further, the accelerated hormonal response to stress has a devastating impact on almost every function and system in the human body.
Thus, we must understand that all foods leave an ash residue after metabolism, which is either alkaline or acid, depending on the mineral composition of foods and the way individuals digest them. The human body needs an alkaline environment to continue proper functioning of vital organs. Once the alkaline reserves are depleted by excess acid-forming foods and mental states such as stress, the body breaks down. Hence, if the diet is largely composed of meats, fish, cheese, breads, white flour foods, white sugar foods, greasy takeaways, chocolate, coffee, wine, beer and cigarettes (all acid forming), then acidic complaints such as aches, agitation, obesity, constipation, diarrhoea, dizziness, asthma and insomnia occur.
Conversely, natural food and alkaline food such as fresh fruits and vegetables maintain the balance of the body.
Overall, one’s entire lifestyle has to change to create less stress. Rest, plenty of water, sunshine, meditation, massage, swimming, exercise, and taking up creative hobbies, help one cope better.
Sound and music therapy
Sound and music, of whatever nature, vocal or instrumental, sends out various forms of vibrating sound energy to its surrounding. People are generally attracted to the types of music appealing to their inherent body vibration. Some people may love to listen to the high and racy vibrations of jazz. For some others, the slow and lilting sound of a flute appeals the most.
Dr Rajam Shankar, a music therapist, advocates practising singing all the swaras with eyes closed. Even people with no knowledge of music can do it by saying omkara in the place of swaras. This takes about 10-12 minutes, and many have found it offering instant relief from stress.
Uma Garimella, a computer professional who practises music therapy, agrees that music is extremely therapeutic, suggesting that one relax all the muscles in the body and sing ‘aum’ in the notes of ‘sa-pa-sa’– a centring technique that is also how any music is begun. I myself have learnt a music meditation method where I sing the sapta-swaras (aarohana and avarohana) in steps of one swara per breath, two, four, and eight per breath. This takes 2-3 minutes and calms the mind.
Therefore, each day massaging one’s body, mind and spirit with a few moments of one’s favourite tunes and melodies, can go a long way in relieving stress.
Using biofeedback, patients are taught to use signals from their own bodies, recognise the anomalies, and redirect them accordingly. Mechanical sensor devices are used to pick up electrical signals from the muscles and translate the signals into a form that people can decode. This device triggers a flashing light or activates a beeper every time muscles become tense. If one wants to relax tense muscles, one must try to slow down the flashing or beeping. People learn to associate sensations from the muscle with actual levels of tension, and develop a new, healthy habit of keeping muscles only as tense as and for as long as that is necessary. After treatment, individuals are often able to reproduce this response at will without being attached to the sensors.
Despite initial scepticism, researchers proved that many individuals could really alter their involuntary responses when given either visual or audible feedback on what was occurring in their bodies. Studies have also shown that we can actually have more control over so-called involuntary bodily functions.
Laughter really can be the best medicine. The writer and editor, Norman Cousins, has amply demonstrated this by healing himself from the dreaded ankylosing spondylitis, an agonizing disease. For me, the person who epitomises the use of laughter therapy is my mother-in-law, who has suffered for years with rheumatoid arthritis, but has kept herself happy and functional with her true love of laughter and seeing the lighter side of all situations. However, as in Munnabhai MBBS, this should be natural and not forced for it to be truly effective. Laughing in the company of friends or family is the recommended route but you could also read funny books, and watch funny films and TV programmes. Playing with a pet also brings on laughter.
Something as simple and straightforward as walking can yield tremendous benefits. For me, an early morning daily walk works wonders as it helps me soak in fresh air, and connect with nature, and walk away my tensions. It has been proven that physical activity can eliminate stress.
Somatic therapy is a holistically oriented therapy, which integrates the mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical aspects of our selves. It accomplishes this by helping us to become aware of our bodies and the sensations we experience through them. When our mind is busy with worries, schedules and concerns, awareness of our body and our breathing can help us to focus on what we are experiencing in the moment. It is so easy for our mind to get lost in what has happened in the past or what will happen in the future. When we take the time to focus, we can become aware of those places where we are ‘holding’. That is, we can recognise those places where we are tight, sore, or uncomfortable. It may be our stomach, shoulders, neck or head that we realise is tight or uncomfortable. We may not have even known that we were uncomfortable until we stopped and paid attention.
Sometimes that connection may be symbolic. Perhaps we struggle with someone who is a real pain in the neck and we find that our neck becomes tight when we are around him or her. Many times, we may not be aware of what the connection is. It is not nearly as important to understand what the connection is as it is to simply be aware of what we are experiencing.
With this awareness, the associated stress vanishes.
EFT and other release techniques
EFT began when Dr Roger Callahan created TFT (Thought Freedom Technique), the forerunner of EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique). TFT was an improvised form of acupuncture – it made use of light taps instead of needles on meridian points in the body to cure diseases. About eight years ago, Dr Gary Craig simplified the elaborate disease-specific TFT routine and called it EFT to distinguish it from the original. The basic recipe consists of tapping seven meridian points on the face and upper body and five on the hands. Practising it daily is something like overhauling your entire system in a few minutes.
Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP)
NLP is based on presuppositions supporting the attitude that change in a situation is very much possible. NLP believes that flexibility in thinking will effectively release the stress factor. If what you are doing is not working, try something else. This way, you may find the answer to your problem.
“Close your eyes. Roll your eyeballs upwards. Count down from five to one. Now you are in the alpha state.” Those who are familiar with the Silva technique know this is possible. The many techniques that take you to the alpha state are helpful. Doing it once, twice, or even three times a day is beneficial.
Martin Brofman, the well-known spiritual healer (and Life Positive columnist) avers that relaxation techniques such as Silva Method or any kind of alpha training helps a lot. Visualisation and affirmations In the 1970s, Carl Simonton developed a visualisation technique that helped individuals with cancer and other tumours to contribute to their own healing.
This technique constitutes visualising nerve relaxing imagery such as beautiful and peaceful places – a beach, a placid lake, a garden full of blossoms or chirping birds in boughs. Since then, many other self-healing visualisation techniques have been developed.
Visualisations have been practised under the guidance of experts to reduce and control pain, lower blood pressure, cure phobias and even turn average athletes into good ones. Research shows that visualising yourself making a perfect golf swing or surfing successfully on high waves actually increases your ability to do what you visualise. Jack Nicholas, the champion golfer, once said that he never took a shot until he had visualised a perfect putt.
Affirmations are usually very helpful. Confirms Uma Garimella, “I find affirmations to be very useful. I use a technique suggested by Louise Hay – to affirm that I am willing to release the need for that situation by learning what needs to be learnt. I also sometimes imagine a strong magnet pulling out my stress, using Reiki symbols for earthing.”
|Dada Vaswani, ‘The root Cause of stress is the ego |
and the sense of identification with the body’
Yoga and t’ai chi
“When I was going regularly to the gym, the competitive atmosphere put pressure on me to perform. But yoga completely relaxed me and I felt much better,” says Rinku Shah (name changed).
The word yoga means union or yoke, relating in particular to the idea of connecting the body, mind, and spirit. The physical postures strengthen and purify the body while meditation, breathing and chanting focus the mind and connect us with spirit. Yoga has the ability to feed the soul on a deep level that satisfies the longing we have to merge with the Divine. The beauty of developing a personal yoga practice is that you can experiment with asana (physical postures), pranayama (breathing), meditation, and chanting, finding the practices that best suit your body type, and emotional and spiritual disposition. T’ai chi too is a noncompetitive, self-paced system of gentle physical exercise and stretching. In t’ai chi, one performs a series of postures or movements in a slow, graceful manner. Each posture flows into the next, gently and slowly. It does not really take physical prowess. Rather, t’ai chi emphasises technique over strength. Truly, being body-mind-spirit techniques, yoga and t’ai chi are calming and beneficial to the entire system, without being harsh or combative on the body.
Best of all, physical activity of any nature automatically takes care of stress.
Attitude, prayer, and belief
Ultimately, coping with stress requires us to cultivate a positive attitude. In challenging times, we need to use all our talents and explore possibilities. Panic and lack of confidence often engender hopelessness and cuts us off from possibilities.
When Anil stopped looking for scapegoats to blame his job loss on, he began looking for teaching opportunities to share his knowledge. By doing so, he advanced his skills and reputation as a professional.
Dr Srinivasan avers that the key to managing stress is to “avoid the high road or the emotive responses, but to control our responses as they are very much in our control.” Ultimately, whatever therapy one uses, one needs to develop a more resilient, healthier attitude to life. Acceptance and communication to handle relationship issues are necessary. As Ameeta Shah suggests, we need to create our own routines and structures and make holistic choices, giving equal weightage to work, success, family, and health instead of focusing exclusively on money, status, or fame. She says, “It is easier to get addicted to material goals than manage the conflict or the pain of fractured relationships. We need skills for conflict management and ways to better soothe ourselves and our emotions in the form of physical, energy and cognitive therapies or practices.”
For some, prayer works very well. “I have a deep belief in God and I submit and am taken care of,” says Sangeeta Punekar, a social worker in Mumbai. Kavita Mukhi agrees, “An ultimate belief in a divine plan is what helps me.”
Dada Vaswani, the spiritual head of the Pune-based Sadhu Vaswani Mission, points out a basic spiritual law, saying, “The root cause of stress is the ego and the sense of identification with the body. The person who is non-egoistic and who believes that the body is but a garment which he has worn, will never be stressed.”
One of my favourite prayers is, “God give 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.”
Yes, we need to realise that while some things are in our control, some are not.
With this recognition then, the oft-repeated saying, “I think, therefore I am,” which has now become, “I think, therefore I worry,” will become “I realise, therefore I am wise and calm.”
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