08/03/2011 08:21 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What's True, and Not, About Stress

This is one of those posts where it's tempting to add "keep reading" to the title. Stress is the gray little monster in the corner that keeps out of sight. Everyone promises themselves to reduce the stress in their lives, yet "I'm stressed out" is said every day, and the pressures of modern life mount. Banks undergo stress tests, as do our hearts when the doctor wants to test for cardiac disease. What more is there to say about a subject that has become so well worn?

Actually, it's worthwhile to go back and revisit the basic facts about stress, and then look at the deeper, more mysterious issues that are involved, some of which lead us into unexpected territory. The term stress was coined by the Hungarian researcher Hans Selye, who injected irritating substances into mice and discovered, to his surprise, that all of them produced the same symptoms (swelling of the adrenal cortex, atrophy of the thymus gland, gastric and duodenal ulcers). Selye observed that sick patients with various illnesses exhibited much the same symptoms.

It was due to Selye's medical approach that stress is seen as a physical response rooted in the endocrine system. In fact, the term "stress hormones" is still applied, and blood levels of cortisol are a key indicator of someone being under stress. In the grand scheme, stress hormones were incredibly useful ways to explain such diverse things as battle fatigue, the fight-or-flight response, and the death of salmon after they swim upstream to spawn. People were taught to think of stress as being the equivalent of pressure being put on the body, which then gets stressed out.

In this scheme, more pressure equals more stress, less pressure equals less stress. Therefore, it must be good to live with less pressure. However, the picture isn't nearly so simple. Selye recognized two types of stress. The first, which he called distress, occurs from bad events like being in battle or losing your job. The second, which he called eustress, occurs from happy events, such as a surprise birthday party or going on vacation -- the latter is considered one of everyday life's biggest stressors, even though the purpose of a vacation is supposedly to relax. The body reacts the same to eustress and distress so far as raising its levels of stress hormones, and this poses a dilemma.

Human beings are not jellyfish, passively floating through a uniform medium like the ocean. We live in a constantly changing environment, to which the body responds by going out of balance and then back into balance. Its natural set point is balanced, and the complex way that this balance is maintained -- known as homeostasis -- crosses all boundaries. A physical event can throw the body out of balance, but so can a mental event. Thus, being afraid that you might lose your job is just as stressful as actually losing it.

If everything is potentially a stress, and if the body is so well adapted to restoring balance, then the concept of stress becomes vague and perhaps useless. There are people who claim to thrive on pressure. Is this possible, or are they ignoring signs of stress that will catch up with them one day? Is running a marathon, which puts enormous stress on the body physically, a hidden health risk despite the satisfaction gained by the runner? A hundred similar questions can be asked, and the medical answer, though very complex and detailed, amounts to a shrug of the shoulders. To understand stress completely, one would have to understand the whole of life, it seems.

What if we step outside the medical model, or better yet, incorporate it into a larger perspective? That is what the world's wisdom traditions have done, without using our modern terminology. Contrary to popular belief, which would label spirituality as other-worldly, the purpose of wisdom is to adapt better to this world. The same issues that lead to stress in the modern world -- how to be happy, how to calm the restless mind, how to escape nervous anxiety and so on -- confronted human beings at the time of Buddha and Christ. So let's step back and rethink stress in spiritual terms first, rather than setting the soul aside as something to pay attention to much further down the road.

Here, I must speak very generally. In spirituality of every kind, the non-physical domain contains our source. We are the products of consciousness, whether you call it the mind of God or universal Brahman. This consciousness was responsible for creating the body and mind we experience every day. The good life therefore depends upon the following:

  1. Being at peace with yourself.
  2. Connecting to your source in consciousness.
  3. Growing in self-awareness.
  4. Feeling loved and worthy.
  5. Experiencing the presence of God or the soul.

People struggle simply to attain the first thing on this list and yet much more is implied by the other items. An entire worldview is based on which allegiance you hold, to the physical first and foremost or to the spiritual first and foremost. This isn't an intellectual or emotional decision made according to various beliefs, it is a conception of reality itself. In our time, which is dominated by materialism, stress is the enemy that impairs health. In the spiritual worldview, stress is the distraction that keeps you from knowing God or the soul.

The two sound radically different, and they are. But again speaking in vast generalities, the body is crucial in both cases. Homeostasis, the body's ability to balance itself, has both a gross level and a subtle level. The gross level is needed for physical survival. When you run a mile and raise your blood pressure and heart rate, it's vital for these to come back down again or you will die. The subtle level of homeostasis is far more mystifying. But we might say that true balance is a state of clear, calm self-awareness in which you return to the higher self. Thus, a moment of excitement that throws your awareness out of balance, whether for pleasure or pain, shouldn't be sustained, because if you lose the connection with your soul your true self, life will be harmed.

Stress, it turns out, does spiritual damage before it does physical damage. Selye didn't talk in those terms, naturally, but quickly upon the spread of his research findings in the 60s and 70s, it was widely reported that meditation reduces stress. That's not a casual observation. Meditation's ability to reduce blood pressure, for example, is secondary to the fact that the whole person is being rebalanced, not just the body. Yet the body is crucial in the process. No more profound finding has emerged in modern spirituality. One famous guru was asked what was necessary in order to reach enlightenment, and he replied, "Relax."

Behind this simple and seemingly frivolous answer lies a wealth of knowledge about health, wisdom, well-being and the purpose of life. In the next post I'd like to explore those avenues. Stress will be our constant companion, the little gray monster trying to be overlooked, until we root out its effects as deeply as possible.