THE BLOG

Stress in the 21st Century

11/23/2011 06:43 am ET | Updated Jan 22, 2012
  • Bruce Derman, Ph.D. Bruce Derman, Ph.D. is the author of THE HOLE, a fable about the emptiness in people’s lives

Wherever I look these days at various situations in our society, I see many stressed out people who are struggling to stay afloat in their everyday lives. Many are overwhelmed by money concerns, especially as jobs become more and more scarce and the stock market heads south.

As big a concern that our financial woes present to us, it is just one piece of the pie. In fact, there is hardly an area that is absent of stress, whether it is our children acting out, partners that exhaust us, divorce that threatens our stability, work situations that leave us anxious, or family members that create roadblocks. Not only that, all this rests on top of our continuous internal struggles as we question if we are good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, thin enough, have enough, or if we have achieved enough.

In the face of all this, I am curious what you would say if I were to tell you that stress doesn't exist. You probably would say I am nuts, since stress is considered by most as a conditioned fact not to be questioned. Despite that view, I still say that what we call stress is really the rejection of experience. For example, losing a job is assumed to be enormously stressful, but in truth it exposes us to our feelings of disappointment and loss which we automatically and unconsciously reject.

In contrast, if we were to totally accept our disappointment and loss without judging it, then we would just experience this as a moment of our life and an aspect of our humanity. The degree that we don't accept this experience of loss will determine our stress level. So if our rejection level is 50%, then we will experience 50% stress. If our rejection level is only 20%, then our stress level will only be 20%.

It is a much more effective way to look at stress through a frame of accepting or rejecting the unacceptable since this will lay out a path for what we need to do to reduce our so-called stress. However, the unacceptable list is not a short one, and each item listed will present a potential for stress if we cannot learn to accept and appreciate it.

The unacceptables

Since our culture plays favorites with all aspects of our nature, there is no shortage of qualities that are regarded as unacceptable. Some of the more popular ones, in addition to disappointment and loss, are powerlessness. Scared, helpless, foolish, slowness, limits, displeasing, inadequate, weak, emptiness, imperfection and embarrassment. We won't find many people who haven't spent good portions of their life judging these as our negative parts, when they are just part of who we are.

So each of us walk through our lives hoping and praying that nothing will happen to us that will trigger one of these experiences. That alone creates stress because every step we take we are in fear that we will set off one of these minefields. And since there are so many mines that we are trying to avoid, we are intimidated by every step we take. No wonder we end up medicating ourselves constantly with alcohol, weed, cigarettes, food, stimulating distractions, porn, or prescriptions of all kinds. Since the unacceptables are part of our nature, seeking out ways to medicate is an endless, insatiable journey.

Our dual nature

What leads us to fall into this stressful trap is that despite our technological expertise and advanced knowledge, we are ignorant about our essential nature and who we are. We are not one dimensional creatures, and everything about us only exists in relationship to its opposite. There is no honesty without dishonesty. No trust without distrust. No gain without loss. And especially no power without powerlessness. Once we realise this understanding of who we are, our preoccupation with judging parts of ourselves and setting up stressful situations becomes an absurd endeavour.

But this is not an easy task because this narrow, biased thinking is ingrained in our culture and our minds, and we see examples of this every day. Why else would we spend so much time pontificating that this is good and this is bad (heterosexual marriage and gay marriage) or something is right and something else is wrong(Casey Anthony case). All of these perceptions stand in opposition to our dual nature, as we favor strong over weak, perfection over imperfection, and pleasing over displeasing among many other dualities.

The role of Intimidation

It is important to appreciate the role that intimidation plays in adding to the stress of rejecting numerous experiences that emerge every day. Intimidation occurs quite often when we encounter a situation that appears to be beyond our ability. For example, a manager at our company is constantly expressing dissatisfaction with our work no matter how hard we try.

Most of us dread showing up at work when dissatisfaction is the song that is always playing, and we will usually build various defensive walls to protect ourselves. But nothing makes a difference in stopping the unending dissatisfaction. As a result, our stress level goes up and up, and we might even end up on disability leave. All this can be averted by following the acceptance philosophy mentioned previously, and approaching the manager and owning, without judgment, the statement "I seem to be disappointing you a great deal and I'm not able to satisfy you. Is that true? And what do you want me to do given that I am not able to satisfy you?" By allowing the dissatisfaction without defending against it, we have now taken over control of the interaction and we are no longer split within ourselves.

A vote for a less stressful life

The more we can integrate and appreciate the thinking and philosophy I have described here into our lives, the more we can dance with and be receptive to all experiences that life offers us. The key word is ALL. To whatever extent we can adopt this accepting attitude, we can reduce our stress and all of the sickness and destruction that is caused by our judgmental existing view of the world. It will also enable us to take real control over our lives in a constructive way and stop merely praying, hoping, and supporting our magical thinking for life to be different than it is. "Why can't everything just be wonderful and happy."