Stress: is there any feeling that’s better at finding a way in, no matter where you are or what you’re doing? As human conditions go, it’s like the sand that somehow gets into everything at your otherwise-perfect beach picnic. If only, like that sand, the effects of stress were no more than a bit irritating. As we all know, stress can leave us desperate, broken, or worse.
Long, long ago, I lived in idyllic Zambia with my first husband. Almost every day, we woke up to sunshine and immaculate blue skies. My husband loved the job he had at a large mining company. We had a lovely house.
Our two wonderful young children lacked nothing, and I had ample time to spend with them. I had lots of friends, and a busy life, though not an overburdened one. It was all a world away from the sunless skies and rain and rationing of my early years, spent in and around Glasgow, Scotland, between the 1930s and 1950s.
That stress could rear its head in this setting may seem unimaginable. Yet it did. And I lived with it, every day, in the pit of my stomach and at the top of my mind, for years.
What was the problem? I’m not sure how consciously aware of it I was at the time, but I now know that what caused my stress was an absence – specifically, an absence of the feeling that I belonged to a community. I wasn’t doing enough things with other people.
As I say, my life kept me busy. Aside from raising the children, I did all the cooking, and I grew lots of what we ate. There were no dress shops, so I learned how to fashion patterns and make clothes for me and my little daughter. I also had an active social life: my friends and I did tea parties so the children could socialize with each other, and we held dinner parties so that we adults could get together.
Yet there was no deeper sense of belonging – that kind of bond with the people around us that many of us find at church, or in living in a community defined by a common higher purpose. The feeling I am talking about almost defies description – but when it is missing, you sure know it. In my case, the vacuum created by its absence was filled by a constant sense of stress.
The key point is that it only takes a small amount of imbalance or imperfection in your life to let stress in. And once it’s in, it steadily chips away at your spirit. Almost none of us has the fortune to lead a life that is perfect in every sense, so we’re all susceptible to stress. And while fixing the circumstances that harbour our stressors is the ideal solution to eliminating stress, that’s not always possible.
So what we all need is a way to face down stress in spite of our stressors. I found that way in 1968. From afar, I saw how meditation was in vogue in the United States: the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was making a fortune teaching people transcendental meditation, and Americans were watching the Beatles’ every move just as they were discovering it for themselves out in India.
Back in Zambia, I found a wonderful book explaining how straightforward meditation is. So I tried it. There are many books written on the subject, from many different angles, but this particular book stressed its simplicity. Unfortunately, when I “shared my books with the world” upon downsizing my home, I let that one go, and I don’t remember its name, or the author.
Applying the basics that the book whose name I don’t remember taught me, I discovered within myself the ability to deal with my stress naturally. The simple meditation routine I developed let me learn to cultivate the innate capacity which we all have to turn back the tide of stress.
I learned that meditation simply involves slowing down, taking deep breaths, and becoming aware of your body – simple but powerful acts that, if we give them a chance, unlock internal rhythms designed to make us relax.
I retreated to my bedroom, where I wouldn’t be disturbed. I lay on my bed, propped up with pillows. Breathing in deeply, holding the breath, and letting it out, then repeating this twice more, I let my body sink into deep relaxation.
I let go of all thoughts, and if any returned, I simply chased them away by repeating a mantra of my own invention: “At one!” All this I did, as instructed, for the recommended 20 minutes, once a day. It worked for me. The learned habit of relaxation remained with me, and I gained more control over my body, mind and emotions than I had ever had before.
Meditation practices, as I discovered, can help to increase our ability to regulate emotions and decrease stress, anxiety and depression. They can also train us to focus our attention. They have been scientifically demonstrated to benefit us.
Research shows that after practising meditation, the gray matter in our brain’s amygdala, a region known for its role in stress, can become smaller. The prefrontal cortex, the area of our brain responsible for things like planning, problem solving and controlling our emotions, can become larger.
Of course, meditation can’t magic away the situations in life that make us feel stressed. There have been many times when I have wondered how to survive a crisis. No doubt you have lived through such moments, too. But for me, meditation has been a wonderful tool in helping me calm down and deal with stressors large and small.
Life can be exciting, stimulating and fun. But it can also be challenging. Perhaps your life at present is stressful. You may be at a crossroads and hardly know where to go next. My experience with meditation helped me control my stress; it may also work for you. It’s certainly worth trying.
It doesn’t cost anything; it’s a pleasant 20 minutes taken out of your busy day for yourself; and the benefits stay with you. It can be done by anyone, of any age.
If you haven’t already found the benefits of meditation, why not give it a try? You have nothing to lose but 20 minutes of your time.
Have you tried meditation? If you have, what made you start? Has there been a particular stressor in your life? If you haven’t, what is stopping you?
Tags Reducing Stress