We have to Live with Stress

"Stress is struggle. Struggle is life. And life is progress! In society there has to be thesis, antithesis and synthesis. There has to be a tug of war in society. There has to be class conflict. Without class conflict, society does not grow."
Swami Satyananda Saraswati

Hans Selye, who was the first to look at stress as a 'syndrome', echoes the same thought non-philosophically. He says stress cannot be avoided because no matter what we do or what happens to us, there arises a demand, from our body-mind system to produce the energy needed to perform the tasks that are required to maintain life or to resist and adapt to the changing external influences. For example, even when we are asleep, we are under stress- the heart must continue to do its job of pumping blood, the enzymes must digest the food in the intestine, the muscles must move the chest for respiration to take place. Selye says that complete freedom from stress is death!

Selye defines stress as the "non-specific response of the body to any demand made upon it". For example, if it is cold, we shiver to produce more heat in the body. The blood vessels in the skin begin to constrict, thereby minimising heat loss from the body surface. On the other hand, when it is hot, we sweat and the evaporation of perspiration from the body surface takes the heat and helps to cool the body. These are normal bodily responses to adapt to changes in the environment. However, while adapting to the environmental changes, the body system has to meet an increased demand to readjust itself before the body returns to normal. This demand on the body system for 'readjustment' or to perform adaptive functions before establishing normality is independent and in addition to the specific response of shivering or sweating. This additional demand is non-specific because it is not relevant to the action of the specific agent making the demand. This non-specific demand for activity, according to Dr Hans Selye, is the essence of stress.

Stress can occur either at the physical level or on the psychological level. Physical stresses are those which affect the body directly, such as accidents, burns and even infection. Psychological stress is caused either as reaction to physical stress, or independently by emotions like fear, anxiety, tension, worry, jealousy, anger, hatred excitement - anything which causes an emotional conflict.

Thus, though stress is commonly thought of as something that creates a feeling of 'distress', Dr Selye and others classify stress into two types:

1) distress, a situation which creates an unpleasant response in the body system; and
2) eustress, a situation which is pleasant, but which nevertheless demands the body's coping abilities to adapt to the pleasant 'stress'.

Most self-induced stresses tend to be eustresses or pleasant stresses, and therefore the ingrained 'fight or flight' preparatory action of the body system does not take place.

According to yoga, "the basic tensions of the mind are ignorance of truth, egoism, attachment, aversion and fear of death". (Patanjali Yoga Sutra 2:3). In Yoga Sutra 1:2, Patanjali defines yoga as "Yogaschitta vritti nirodhah" i.e. to block the patterns of the consciousness is yoga. These two sutras make it clear that the primary aim of yoga is to eliminate the tensions in the mind, in order to make the mind suitable for higher spiritual practices. Thus, when we practise yoga, we are actually practising in effect stress management!

Normal stress, high stress

We have seen how every response by the body system to stimuli is a stress; and these may be normal stress, as in the case of the normal functions of the body system, or these can be abnormal stress and the body feels threatened. However, the same stress factor can be perceived as 'normal' or 'high' or abnormal, depending upon how the individuals brain translates the stimuli received from the sense organs. What is a normal situation to one person or type of personality may be abnormal to another. All of us are constantly coping with normal stress, however, the stressful, competitive, modern way of life forces many of us to continually operate at a high level of preparedness for fight or flight. Under these conditions, the individual is always tense, liable to large fluctuations of moods, and is in a state of dissatisfaction. Some people may think they are relaxed for most of their lives but tests will conclusively show that they are almost constantly tense, even though they are not aware of it. In reaction to various situations, even of an inconsequential nature, they tense their muscles, squint their eyes or bite their nails. This type of action is so habitual that they are not aware that they are performing these compensatory activities.

These activities are the forerunner of psychosomatic diseases, and when a person is manifesting these tensions, he is manifesting the reaction that the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal glands are designed to bring about. These actions are small and insignificant on external appearance, but they indicate that changes in heart rate, blood pressure etc. are taking place internally.

The underlying depression or stress might remain buried under the debris of other activities, and when the arousal in the brain gets high, depression may continue to be generated without it becoming obvious. However when the arousal level gets suddenly lowered, triggered off by an outside agency, the depression may be dramatically revealed. Alcohol, a sudden crisis and antidepressant drugs are all known to bring about a lowering of the arousal level. When high stress becomes acute and chronic, it may remain at the subconscious level, influencing our thoughts and behaviour. It may flare up from time to time as an acute stress or high stress or as a panic attack. In the state of chronic stress, the individual feels that he is undergoing or is about to be confronted with a calamity, and the idea gets so fixed in his mind that it is difficult or sometimes impossible to free his mind from this anxiety. During normal stress, our body system uses energy efficiently to decrease internal and external tensions. In contrast, during neurotic anxiety or high stress, our body systems generate energy which is inappropriate and wasteful.

Yoga gives us a deep insight into the different patterns of tension. According to Patanjali, "ignorance of reality is the root tension from which all other tensions arise; the tension can be dormant, slight, scattered or manifest". Unless one knows the essence of one's being there will always be tension and unhappiness in some form or another.

The dormant or prasupta tensions are rooted deep in the subconscious mind, and therefore, the individual is not aware of them unless he confronts them through yogic practices. The slight tensions or tanu are minor, insignificant tensions, while those tensions which bring about neuroses, phobias, depression, etc. are tensions which are scattered or are vichchhinna. Through yoga, we can eventually resolve these tensions when we accept ourselves as we are and harmonise our inner drives. Tensions in our daily interactions belong to the fourth group which is manifest or udara tensions. Thus yoga classifies the entire spectrum of tensions, from the gross to the subtle.

How is the ignorance cleared?

The ignorance of swaroopa, i.e. one's real nature, which causes unhappiness or stress, is slowly broken down by the light of understanding that comes from regular practise of yoga. Actually, the mind itself is a source of ignorance, since it works on the principle of separation and differences, and this ignorance is slowly dissolved by gaining more insight into the nature of the mind and, then eventually, going beyond the mind. It is the mind that results in false identification of consciousness with the mind-body. When viyoga (separation) of awareness from the mind-body is achieved, then one is moving towards breaking down the basic ignorance and in turn, all the other lesser causes of unhappiness.

Robert Linssen sums up our ignorance in the book entitled Living Zen with an analogy from modern life:

"Humanity could he compared to two and a half thousand million greyhounds rushing in pursuit of a mechanical hare on a racetrack. These human greyhounds are taut, tense, avid and violent, but Zen (yoga) tries to teach them that what they think is a real hare is only a mechanical hoax. The moment man fully realises what is implied by this truth, he 'lets go' and the bitterness of his struggles and violence are succeeded by relaxation, peace, harmony and love.
The consequences of such a release are immense, not only for the physical, nervous and mental health of man as an individual, but also for humanity as a whole".