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Can stress ever be good for wellbeing?

18 Nov 2014 | Maureen Cooper

Compassionate Mind

We all want to live happy and fulfilling lives - it's a natural part of being human. The question is how do we cope with all the times when happiness seems out of reach and life is just downright difficult?

Our society tends to equate happiness with success, so it can be hard to admit when things are not going as well as we would wish. This is particularly true when we are dealing with stress. Who wants to admit that they are feeling overwhelmed and under pressure, or that sometimes they feel so anxious and worried that they don't know how to get up in the morning?

To try and keep ourselves on track we tend to push ourselves to keep going and act as if everything is fine, even when it is not. However, in order to do that we need to do a lot of pretending - starting with ourselves - and the easiest way to keep up the pretence is to distract ourselves from whatever it is that is causing us all the stress in the first place.

So we go shopping, open a bottle of wine, eat a big meal, or check out Facebook - we each have our own particular way of comforting ourselves when we are hurting.

Try recognizing your stress

What if we did the opposite? What if we allowed ourselves to lean into the places where it hurts, where things are uncomfortable? Not to lean in so far that we fall into despair but just far enough that we get a clear idea about what is going on.

Then maybe we see that the row we had with our partner only sprung up when it did because we were completely over-tired and stretched. Or the boss we feel is tormenting us is actually completely panicked at the thought of being demoted at the next management overhaul.

In other words, when we try and protect ourselves from stress we can actually make things worse by avoiding taking a clear, realistic look at what is happening and getting stuck on what we think is happening. When we do this we are working from habit, rather than looking at each situation freshly with awareness and compassion.

Get to the root of the problem

Let's take a look at four of our habits that get in the way of awareness and compassion:

1. Distraction
Distraction is a fundamental habit that is so ingrained that we hardly notice it. We keep our minds so full and busy that we are rarely simply present and awake to what is going on around us. Recent research has shown that for 46.9% of our waking hours we are thinking of something different from what we are doing. This means we are not fully there for almost half of our lives! This certainly makes it hard to get a clear picture of what is going on with us.

2. Wanting things to stay the same
In order to survive and pass on our genes to future generations our brain evolved to favour certain behaviours. One of these is the wish to keep everything stable and constant. However, life shows us that everything is changing all the time - our bodies, our circumstances, the seasons - and everything that is created eventually falls apart. Resisting change can cause us a lot of stress.

3. Trying to keep safe
When we were hunter-gatherers, we needed to know what was safe to eat and what was not and to ignore what was not immediately useful. However, in the modern world this has come to mean that we divide the world up into things that we want, things we think are bad for us, and things we don't care about. We can get very stressed trying to keep the things we want and avoiding the things we don't want.

4. Overlooking how connected we all are
We often miss the extent to which everyone sharing this planet is connected. For example, how often do we stop and reflect on the number of people involved in bringing our breakfast on to our table in the mornings? When we overlook this interdependence it becomes easier to see our own interests more clearly than those of other people. So, we tend to think that our own happiness is more important than the happiness of other people. Sometimes we do not even notice what is going on with people around us, let alone the world at large.

Changing perspective

It is not easy to change habits. The brain likes habits because they save a lot of energy, so it does not seek out new ways of doing things unless it is forced to. This is where the importance of developing awareness come in - we need to be able to see how our old habits are causing us stress and to realize that we need to develop some news ones to help us work with it.

Meditation training is the most effective way to help us to take a step back and to see more clearly what is going on with us, and those around us. When we can do this, then we are more likely to be inspired to take on the work of trying to change so we can manage our stress more effectively.

As meditation helps the mind to settle and become more workable, it enables us to see that we have a choice in how we react to stress and we start to look for new, more effective tools to help us. So by looking into our stress rather than trying to avoid it, we can actually use our experience of stress to inspire us to replace our unhelpful habits with new, healthy ones.

How increasing compassion helps

One of the most helpful ways of dealing with stress involves developing a compassionate approach. We all carry compassion within us, but the word is often misunderstood. For me, developing compassion is a question of starting with what we have, attempting to learn from our mistakes and pain and then relating our struggle to the struggles that every other human being faces.

Stress tends to make us tighten up and narrow our focus, whereas compassion helps us to ease up and broaden our perspective. Starting with having compassion for our own suffering and difficulties, we can gradually extend these feelings of kindness and concern to people we know, then people we do not know so well and eventually, even to people we find challenging.

Surprising as it may seem, applying compassion to our experience of stress can help to improve our wellbeing.


Maureen Cooper   Reducing Stress

Maureen Cooper has been developing workshops on how to integrate meditation and compassion training into the workplace for the last fifteen years. You can find out more about her work on www.awarenessinaction.org or follow her blog here.

Her book, The Compassionate Mind Guide to Reducing Stress shows how meditation training can help with stress. As well as referring to many scientific studies in this field, the book has a varied collection of stories from the workshops that Maureen runs, detailing how people have put these methods into practice in their lives. All the techniques and meditations are included, along with advice on how to integrate them into a busy life. The main purpose of the book is to provide a practical guide to helping people work with stress in a creative and sustainable way. 


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