Sunday, 14 September 2008

Counteracting Stress



In our previous article about stress, we learnt some practical ways to manage our situation, alter our environment, delegate to others etc. Now let us take a more spiritual look at the same topic and learn that it is possible not just to manage our stress but in fact to counteract it.

A fundamental teaching of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidism, is that every single detail in our lives is directed by G-d and has a divine purpose. Quite a concept, and for most of us, very difficult to digest. How, for example, are we to be grateful when a difficult experience in our lives occurs?

The Mishna teaches that we are to recite a blessing to thank G-d for the bad, as much as for the good. Is this really possible? In addition to this, Rabbi Nachum Ish Gam Zu teaches that everything is for the good, and as Rabbi Akiva would say “Everything that the Merciful One does is for the good.” The above teachings are really one and the same. But how can an ordinary person apply this to his/her life? How can we teach ourselves to think like our righteous teachers?

When one confronts a difficult situation, the body experiences physiological changes that doctors call “the stress cycle” or the “fight or flight response.” When these physiological changes occur repeatedly over an extended period of time, the result is one of an array of medical problems from stomach ulcers, arthritis and skin irritations, to headaches, lowered immune response, heart attack and more. What can we do to combat this?

The stress flow chart – a medical chart demonstrating the changes that occur to the body during a stressful moment – show that at the beginning of the cycle, a stressful situation or event is perceived by the body as a potential danger that could even possibly result in death. Our subconscious mind does not discriminate as to the severity of the stressor – thinking that it could even cause death! The fact is the subconscious mind perceives a danger, and thereafter brings ones previous memories and experiences into play preparing the body to escape as best and quickly as possible.

The truth is that there is no need for the stress cycle to even begin. Included in the rehabilitation process for one who has had a heart-attack, G-d forbid, is for the person to learn various stress management techniques.

Keeping in mind the teachings of our rabbis, let us take a look at how practically in today’s time we can manage our stress and then go beyond managing stress to increasing our ability to prevent stress from affecting us. We can actually stop the body’s response to stress by perceiving the situation or life’s events differently and thereby become both healthy and happy.

As we mentioned, when in a difficult situation, the body tends to immediately perceive that you are in potential danger. When teaching stress management, an example we give is to imagine you are walking in nature and suddenly encounter a hungry lion. In this situation you have two choices, you can either, stand still and hope the lion walks past you or you can run for your life. Hence the term of the “fight or flight” response.

When we bring Torah into the picture we find an amazing thing. There is a situation of a prophet of ours, Daniel, who was thrown into a lions den, and instead of being eaten alive he survived. Excluding the possibility of a miracle, is there any way to understand how this can happen?

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi who wrote the Tanya and began Chabad Chassidus, teaches us that we have two souls, an animal soul and a G-dly soul. It is our function in this world to train the animal soul to use its desires for a divine purpose. In this way we transform the animal soul – first to nullify it, so that it has no say whatsoever, and thereafter to alter it completely and transform it into another G-dly soul.

Chassidus teaches us that when we learn to master our animal soul, then the animals of this world are no longer a threat to us. In other words, if we work on ourselves the way our rabbis request and teach us to, then confronting a lion in nature will no longer be a reason for our body to react with fright or flight.

From the Torah perspective, the best way to master our animal soul is through the study of Chassidus. However, not all of us are able to spend all our time immersed in Chassidic learning. So it is that Hashem has provided us with another practical way to increase in mastering our stress, namely through the very practical concepts taught by therapists.

If we combine both schools of thought, we find that there is a pattern or recipe that we can follow to improve the approach we take to the events of our lives.

As we know, from the time of birth, a Neshama or spark of G-dliness enters a body and traverses through a series of events and adventures in its journey to perform various tasks in this world. As the Baal Shem Tov teaches, each of these events is designed and directed specifically to enable us to achieve a specific goal. Our animal soul has a hard task trying to keep us from achieving our goal, and one of its strategies is to make us think that each event is very stressful.

So it is that our animal soul or subconscious, may make us believe that the family we were born into is wrong for us. If only our family understood us better. If only our family had more money or a bigger house or lived somewhere different. If only it was healthy. In fact, any array of reasons can be found as to why our family is causing us stress. We could also look at our schooling or our work, or any given situation and find a myriad of reasons as to why this is far too stressful for us to cope with.

Instead of stepping into the stress cycle, let us take a step back. Let us remember that Hashem has hand picked exactly who your family will be, exactly what community you will live in, how much money you have, whether you are healthy or have some kind of medical condition. Since everything has been set up for you to achieve a given goal, it automatically follows that you are exactly where you need to be.

The first step then is to acknowledge that there are no mistakes in Hashem’s creation and that there is a reason and purpose for whatever you are going through. If it is difficult to acknowledge that you are exactly where you need to be, carry out the following simple and beautiful exercise:

- Go into nature and spend some time observing the grass if there is any, the sand if there is, the plants, if there are animals, insects or birds. Just notice. Notice the sounds and the sights, the smells and the movements.

- Now think about how the bird or butterfly or bee knows when to begin to fly. We can try to come up with all sorts of biological or physiological occurrences, but the truth is that every single insect, creature and human being only moves because Hashem at that moment wills it to move and in that way via His angels, directs the animal or creature or human to move. If we look further we have to admit that every blade of grass is next to exactly the blade of grass that it needs to be. Every flower is exactly the color it needs to be and the specific shape, size and beauty. Every bee or butterfly lands on exactly the specific flower it needs to at a given moment and not another.

We can look and find so many ways in which every single detail is completely Divinely directed. By contemplating on these kinds of thoughts for just a few minutes each day, we help to train ourselves to recognize that just as every aspect of nature is directed by G-d, so too is everything in our own lives.

In addition to these practises involvement in prayer, acts of goodness, kindness, Torah learning and the fulfillment of G-d’s commands further help us to increase our faith while at the same time receive protection and assistance from Heaven.

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