Facing Modern-day Stress With Time-tested Tools

Friends,

While in the final throes of relocating from Albuquerque to Boston, this piece (by my colleague Tony Lobl in the UK) really spoke to me.

Tony Lobl

 

Stress is not a new concept, but we live in an age which is constantly creating fresh varieties of angst to add to our mental in-tray.

Unsurprisingly, new technology and one of its central planks – the ubiquitous email – seem to be prime culprits.

Last year the curator of the TED videos, Chris Anderson, launched an Email Charter in a bid to reverse “the upward spiral” of having to download too many digital missives.

His 10 Rules to Reverse the Email Spiral make good sense. But what if the problem isn’t just the emails that litter our computers but our relationship to the machines themselves?

“Today’s digitally-dependent consumers are increasingly overwhelmed and upset with technical glitches and problems in their daily lives,” says a report called Combating Computer Stress Syndrome.

Virtually all those surveyed agreed they depend on computers. When asked about the “significant impact” computer failure had on them, number one was “increased stress levels”.

And on top of all that, of course, we still have such staples as traffic jams and other transport delays, relationship tensions, job and money issues and health concerns.

It could perhaps be said this is the Golden Age for getting stressed.

However, some of those digital gadgets (when they function properly) can also reduce stress. A simple app on my smartphone tracks London buses in real time. As a result, the angst that goes with rushing for buses, missing them and waiting or wondering whether one will arrive soon, or not at all, is now virtually a thing of the past for me.

Most of us don’t expect a totally stress-free existence, but what we do about stress matters because it is a major health hazard. The NHS Choices website urges us to recognise the symptoms early so we can figure out ways of managing stress. That will stave off “unhealthy coping methods” such as drinking or smoking. It will also “help to prevent the stress worsening and potentially causing serious complications, such as high blood pressure, anxiety and depression.”

The idea of needing to recognise and arrest stress early to avert serious problems later on was behind an innovative stress reduction approach introduced by Herbert BensonMD, over three decades ago. His early researches convinced the Harvard physician of the importance of the mind-body connection and of the need to roll out a viable mind-body medicine. He developed the relaxation response, “a physical state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress”. It is “the opposite of the fight or flight response“, an earlier Harvard discovery.

Eleven books and 175 scientific papers later, Dr Benson’s basic idea has not changed. In an interview he said that “60 to 90 percent of visits to doctors are in the mind-body, stress-related realm”. And these are “poorly treated by any drugs or surgery”.

He agreed his stress relief techniques retain “the essence of traditional methods” of prayer and meditation while “removing the religious, sectarian, and culture-specific overlays”. In that way he is “able to use the relaxation response as a therapy in health care settings for people of all backgrounds”.

Some researchers into stress have been digging a little deeper into the surrounding question of whether there is actually an advantage to believing there is a divine ear listening at the other end of those prayers.

A University of Michigan study into “Gratitude Toward God, Stress, and Health in Late Life” found positive results for that gratitude, especially for older women who are more likely to feel grateful to God than older men. “The results revealed that the effects of stress (e.g. living in a deteriorated neighborhood) on health are reduced for older people who feel more grateful to God”.

Gratitude to God can also de-stress men, young people and those who live in pleasant suburbs.

I know that, because I was all three of the above in my early twenties. Yet I went from feeling paranoid whenever I walked down a city street after dark, to one night being spotted across a two-lane highway, walking in the shadows under a railway bridge, because a friend driving past recognised my untroubled gait.

The difference between the two periods was that a spiritual approach to living had caught my attention and I was starting to practice it consistently. I found that thinking about God not only calmed me when I had time to sit quietly praying but also in the hustle and bustle of work and play in a busy city.

Since then I’ve found stress-level reduction to be a daily benefit of what I would call viewing the world through a spiritual lens. That’s true even when the emails are flooding in and the computer crashes while I am chasing a deadline. Well, at least, most of the time…

Scientific data has shown that not all religious belief is equally beneficial. Faith in a judgmental and punishing God is seen as unhelpful for health. On the other hand, faith in a loving God reduces the anxiety and stress which contribute to ill health.

That doesn’t prove there is a God. But turning to faith is the natural reaction of many in stressful times and to the degree this helps to relieve stress, for some it is also helping to prevent the more profound problems that stress can trigger.

Tagged in: