About twenty times last month, my six year old daughter alerted me to various scary bugs or monsters that were crawling on my back or about to jump on me. Each time I would frantically swipe at my back and then she would scream, “April Fools!” But knowing it was just a sadistic prank wasn’t enough to immediately dissipate my terror. I became constantly watchful of things moving behind me.
This is how fear and stress affect us. The visceral intensity of being on edge becomes deeply imprinted in our nervous system. Eventually, whether the object of our stress truly threatens us or not is almost irrelevant – a part of us believes our survival is at stake and responds with tension and vigilance. This feeling can become so constant that many stressed people don’t even perceive that they’re stressed. The feeling of being stressed is synonymous with the feeling of being awake.
For the past few decades we’ve been hearing about the importance of managing stress, but unless it’s overwhelming us, stress can seem like a pretty abstract issue. When people die, the cause of death is never listed as “stress” – although it’s quite likely to have played a big role. On the contrary, we see people pushing through stress, ignoring stress, even inviting stress, lest life get too boring.
But stress really is a feature of virtually every form of illness. Whether it’s physical stress, emotional stress, or mental stress, some element of strain is present whenever we are out of balance. Many scientists have suggested that if we could effectively measure a person’s total stress level and quantify their resilience to stressors, this would be our most useful indicator of health.
It naturally follows that people who are relaxed – physically, mentally, and emotionally – tend to be healthy. There are obviously exceptions to this, but relaxation is a good benchmark. You might ask, for example, “What about someone who weighs 500 pounds, but is relaxed? Are they therefore healthy?” To this, I’d respond that, first, it is demanding (i.e., stressful) to be this heavy – mentally, emotionally, and physically. So, are you sure that they’re relaxed? If the answer is truly yes, then I’d say that by one very important measure, they are healthy.
We all need, but are rarely taught, reliable methods for relaxing. In February, I wrote a series of articles on meditation, and I’d like to re-emphasize the value of meditation in releasing stress on all levels. But we shouldn’t think of relaxation as needing to be isolated from activity.
This concept became clear to me while studying tai ji quan (tai chi). My teacher, Sifu Fong, though not especially fluent in English, was adept at communicating arcane instructions for students to ponder while suffering. He would put me into some position that was immediately grueling to sustain, a posture that forced me to engage every muscle at once, and directed me to maintain one-pointed mental focus. Then he would stand in front of me, look at me fiercely, and say in his strong Chinese accent, “Now, relax! Figure it out!”
I would stand there shaking, pouring sweat, working harder than ever in my life, often in great pain, and my task was to relax. It wasn’t just that I needed to achieve relaxation as an arbitrary goal. No, no. This whole situation simply wasn’t going to work unless I got relaxed. Relaxation was the only way to pull it off. Maybe I should tell you that at my very first class he came up to me and asked, “Do you like pain?” The correct answer, should you ever attend one of his classes, is “yes.”
Sometimes the trial-by-fire method works well. In my case, learning to be relaxed while working hard and in pain actually came easier than learning to relax while sitting on a cushion, perhaps because it was a necessity.
This month, we’ll be exploring the means and meaning of relaxation. Rather than giving you a technique, I encourage you to explore the apparent paradox of work and relaxation on your own. Put yourself in situations that require intense mental focus and/or physical exertion, and relax. Notice when you start becoming tense or stressed – on any level – and relax again. As my teacher would say, “Figure it out.”
Dr. Peter Borten