We live in an immense Universe dancing with life, glittering stars, roaming galaxies, black holes, brilliant suns and mysterious moons. Everywhere and for all time, people have looked up in amazement and awe, contemplating the beauty and seeming infinitude of the ever-expanding heavens. Our imaginations run wild with us as well they should. Beauty and mystery are everywhere. Whatever stress may have been present by being chased down by a tiger, enjoying the stellar canopy, has melted away.
Back on Earth again, we find ourselves surrounded by even more kinds of beauty, from sandy deserts to lush, green fields, savannahs, mountains oceans and forests. So, with such beauty everywhere, why all the strife in living, why all the stress?
Let’s parse the idea of stress into component parts: physical, emotional/psychological, spiritual.
Turning the clock back to earlier times when Nature reigned, we were surrounded by beauty and by thousands of other species, some of which would have probably enjoyed having us for lunch. We were challenged by the existential reality moment by moment in addition to weather and seasonal conditions by the day and sometimes by the minute. We were—and are—also surrounded by other humans, perhaps our biggest stress challenge of them all.
In other words, this thing we call “stress” is not just a function of modern life and urban living but an inherent part of living and in fact our biology requires it. Requires? I thought it was a bad thing!
By exerting pressure, pulling, pushing, lifting, moving, these physically stressful movements are what keeps us alive. Exercise physiology teaches that stressing the skeleton, tearing down muscle fiber is what makes us strong. In sum, physical stress is good for us and actually required for health and survival. We call good stress “eustress”, thanks to the father of stress research, Hans Selye. In short, physical stress makes us stronger.
Does the same hold true for emotional and psychological stress? Yes and no.
We say that we “feel the weight of the world on our shoulders”, and depending on the situation, we may well truly feel that way. If we feel this way day by day, week by week or longer, we can then feel nothing short of bedraggled and possibly depressed. Our physical disposition gets commensurately challenged. Mind and body are not separate despite seeming appearances and conventional thinking in modern, allopathic medicine in which bodies are considered machines and treated accordingly whereas emotions seem to live in their own, non quantifiable realm. Ironically, most doctor visits are a result of emotional stress. Go figure!
The idea of mind or spirit is foreign to mechanical thinking and skews this paradigm. Yet our own experience shows us that these are not separate. Think of a beautiful beach and one naturally smiles and breathes more deeply. If we examine the blood chemistry at that moment of imagining that beach, we would see that adrenalin and cortisol are reduced. We would see ease and fluidity in cellular respiration and a cascade of endorphins and other “feel-good” chemicals in the circulatory and nervous systems. Mind-body, mind-body.
Today, we have scientific studies that explicitly demonstrate this intimate relationship between mind and body so why is “modern medicine” chopping off the head, really the spirit and mind, out of the picture, especially because these can be so instrumental in healing the physical end of the mind-body spectrum? Is it that we have more control over our health and wellness with less need for medical intervention at its typically high cost? Our being disempowered is an industry’s gain?
This will be addressed “head-on” if you will, in future articles, but for now, let’s return to the subject of emotional and psychological stress as these are not unrelated.
Emotional stress has virtually everything to do with the way we represent reality to ourselves. How we do that is through our particular and unique psychological lens beginning to get formed as early as “fetal times”. The way we processed information somatically, cellularly in our mother’s womb was largely through the vibration of sound: our mother’s speaking, those around her, typically husband, her parents and in-laws, as well as the mother’s own bodily sounds.
The fetus absorbs these auditory vibrations which may be pleasant and harmonious, or unpleasant and dissonant. The fetus either expands to welcome more good feeling/sensation or contracts to protect itself from “not good” feeling/sensation. Our lives begin a process of expansion and contraction in response to our environment like our breath, and later, to what’s going on inside our own minds.
What happens in the womb and the way we exit it may influence our answer to Einstein’s foundational question: “Is the Universe friendly?”
Emotional stress then has everything to do with our perception. If we perceive something to be threatening, we contract and protect or even hide, engaging the fight-flight-freeze response of the reptilian brain. When we perceive something to be good for us, fun, pleasurable, healthy, we open to it and expand, seeking more.
If we remember just this simple principle of contracting and expanding and that this also aligns with our breath, and remember that we can alter our perception with a blink of an eye we exert greater control over the state. Or liken it to changing channels. Because we are able to alter our perception of something, we exert leverage over our perception of that “something”.
In neuro-linguistic programming, one of the ways we describe this phenomenon is what we call reframing: we look for the silver lining, along with the humor in virtually every situation. It’s not always easy, and other times it’s very easy, even if we’ve been taught otherwise.
In many, if not most cases, emotional and psychological stress can weigh us down and tear us apart. It can seriously compromise and degenerate our body because we are usually not resilient or dexterous with reframing our experience or even fully experiencing our experience.
Instead, we experience it at “face value”, superficially, react to circumstances and are then feel weighed down. It is understandable because this is a role many feel familiar with: the put-upon victim of circumstances, of life—always “in reaction to” instead of “mastery over”.
This is the Rabin Method: Experience the experience whatever it is: pain, upset or disappointment as waves of energy and sensation moving through you. No judgment, no taking it personally. Watch like you were watching a movie, you’re in it, aware but bearing witness to it. You know the film is going to come to an end, so be patient! Or think of it as an upsetting dream. When you wake up, it ends!
And then you’re positioned to go from reactive to proactive. Then reframe, find that silver-lining, connect with your deeper, more authentic self, and be ready for “mastery over”. Most visits to the doctor are a result of stress-induced illness as said. Sometimes this can be from not being able to digest an incident that happened and one feels sick, or from simply being lonely. So stress is nothing one wants to mess around with. Because of the mind-body relationship, unmanaged stress can lead to serious illness, so what I am offering here is a real way to manage it and to resolve the conflict beneath it.
The more dexterous we become at mastering these steps, the more resilient we are at increasingly maturely adapting to life’s ever-changing reality. Having leverage over emotional stress can actually be the difference between health and illness or even life and death.
Getting mastery over our emotions by respecting them, experiencing them and then letting them go is high art and a cornerstone of maturity and wisdom. This is why I write on it and take the time to teach clients and students about it.
You could say that it is the key to happiness and well-being.
Bearing down on emotions and to define them, is to see that they are initially a mindset, in a sense, a view, which triggers the body into a certain kind of what we call ‘psycho-emotional behavior’. This need to ‘move through’ the body or risk getting stuck.
Even if emotions on some deep level originate in the mind, they do have somewhat a ‘mind of their own’ and one needs to patiently love and respect them to do “their thing”. Emotional intelligence can make us wiser, more sensitive and more tuned-in to life itself.
As said above the next step is to let them go. The mind steps in and sets the stage for a new phase in emotional and personal development. It leads the way to another thought, image, word, taking the body-mind a next step in the adventure. We step in. We make sure it happens. At the end of the day, we are responsible for what happens. Through this process, we are rearranging our neuro-circuitry, expanding it and repatterning ourselves. This makes our next experience of stressors a step easier to handle.
Human beings are story-tellers. We tell ourselves stories to enrich, enhance and improve our and other’s lives and understanding. This is an example of ‘functional storytelling’, a story that serves a valuable purpose.
As one gains strength physically by exerting oneself with pressure and building muscle, so too, going through an emotional, rather psycho-emotional experience breeds compassion, understanding, more love and ultimately a greater sense of peace and well-being. It’s a maturation process.
In 1888, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche first stated: “What doesn't kill me, makes me stronger.” From the point of view of stress management, while this is true I prefer to say: “What doesn’t kill you, builds character”.
While the reframe is a technique to move from one perceptual frame to another, it doesn’t address what might be behind what is experienced as a stressful time. For that, we ask “why”. We want to understand what it’s about, what’s behind it. This can, in itself, resolve the stress, and lead to the resolution of what might be an emotional conflict between yourself and family, boss, circumstance, or someone else. The two aspects of dealing with stress work in complement with each other.
Reverting back to the very first point of being surrounded by beauty, in the sky and here on earth, we see that such contemplation itself launches cascades of pleasurable chemicals right through the body. Contemplating beauty itself, which is all around us, is one of the best ways to neutralize excess stress as well.
Natural beauty calms, the grass and trees even provide the most luscious oxygen, connecting us again to breathing. Nature keeps us alive and so we need to keep Her alive. One sees the interconnectedness of all things: our own health and peace of mind are inherently part of keeping Nature healthy and alive. Personal and planetary health are really but a continuum of the same alignment with wellness and healthy living.
When we contemplate beauty, we are naturally, organically inclined to feel grateful for the opportunity to experience it. Neuroscience has shown us that the daily experience of gratitude, or better, as a living presence with your breath, has an astounding effect on healthy hormones being released such as oxytocin (the Love hormone), endorphins and the inhibition of the fight-flight-freeze chemicals. It empowers our body-mind to be strong, resilient and vital. By all means, this is an organic part of The Rabin Method.
What we see then is that stress is not the problem at all, it is not the foe but a friend. Problems, somatic and otherwise, arise when the stress goes unmanaged and seeking an understanding of it is ignored. This part of The Rabin Method I use in coaching my clients and thankfully many have found it very effective.
In closing, managing stress well, even seeming overwhelming stress and getting to “the why”, makes us more empathetic thoughtful, stronger, wiser and better human beings.