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How to Deal with Stress

By Matthieu Ricard on July 17, 2012

Two hundred young scientists working on research on ‟the embodied mind” attended the recent Mind and Life Summer Institute in Garrison, New York. Professor George Chrousos, a world specialist on stress, outlined the main characteristics of stress.

Quoting Pythagoras, who wrote about the forces that disturb the balance and harmony of the universe, Pr. Chrousos defined stress as ‟something that threatens the equilibrium of mental balance.” This ailment is a major problem in our modern world, but it has been identified since time immemorial. Hippocrates said, ‟Disharmony in the balance of the elements is disease.” The Stoics considered that ‟ataraxia,” the imperturbability and tranquility of mind, was a desirable state. The physiologist Walter Cannon spoke of stress as the bodily response to emotion, while Hans Seyle differentiated good and bad stress.

Stress can occur because of daily problems, life transitions (puberty, menopause, for example), catastrophes, starvation, addictions, not enough or too much physical exercise, low economic status, or not being treated with dignity. It can also be caused by having to take care of people in great difficulty. Three possibilities can occur after a stressful occurrence: 1) we come back to our normal state, 2) we may never come back to normal, or 3) our mental state may improve after been exposed to stress and difficulties.

Stress inhibits growth factors, minimizes the release of energy, and affects the inflammatory response and the immune system. It also stimulates pain, or a feeling of being unwell, and chronic fatigue. Acute stress can aggravate asthma, eczema, migraine, gastrointestinal problems, osteoporosis, sleep disturbances, and premature aging. It can lead to anxiety and depression, lost of weight in some and obesity in others. Chronically stressed people are more succeptible to infection and autoimmune diseases.

What are the antidotes to stress? Mostly adopting a healthy way of life with regular periods of working, eating, and sleeping. We need to feel secure and integrated in society, and confident that we are doing something well, no matter what it is.  Periodically, we need to experience a state of ‟flow” in what we are doing, and to feel optimistic.

The study of wisdom and doing contemplative practices such as meditation are also beneficial to reduce stress. Aristotle said in his Eulogy of Plato that to be happy is to be good, so perhaps the best way to both be happy and reduce stress is to do something that is experienced as a service to humanity and to maintain it over time.