By Ed Staskus
It is hardly surprising that most lists of the toughest jobs in the United States routinely list flying planes, fighting fires, and fighting crime as the most stressful occupations. They are life-and death tasks, like being a paramedic or atomic energy repairman, jobs with tension built in. Some livelihoods mean there are no do-overs when getting it wrong or blowing it up.
What is surprising is that many lists routinely flag numerous other professions, such as teacher, social worker, and corporate executive. The corner office has gotten so nerve-racking, apparently, some executives need to take a year off to sail their yachts to Greece and back. Teachers and social workers get to take a sick day-or-two.
Even event coordinators get into the act.
They cracked the Forbes Top 10 list in 2017. The magazine’s stress score for airline pilots was 60.5 and for police officers 51.6. The stress score for event coordinators was 50.1.
Who knew planning the scope of weddings and conferences and conferring with on-site staff could be such a hassle? It points out that stress can be more real than the real jaws of death, like when bullets are whizzing by your head, and can simply be in the eye of the beholder.
Sometimes hell is a foxhole. Other times hell is other people.
Even though stress is primarily a physical response, more often than not what we are responding to in the modern world is what we make it. For millions of years it was see the predator in the wild, there’s the potential danger, fight or flight. Adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine flooded the body to focus one’s attention on the fangs of danger. It was beat the bully or beat the feet to get away.
The Napoleonic Wars and the two World Wars were extremely stressful, especially if you were involved in them, which hundreds of millions of people were. More than fifty million alone died during the Second World War.
Today armed conflicts are more in the line of skirmishes. Unlike the World Wars when everyone was all in, relatively few people in terms of sheer numbers are on the firing lines of the War on Terror. It doesn’t make it any less stressful for those involved, but most of us aren’t involved.
Nowadays it’s the kids won’t stop screaming, the boss won’t stop screaming, and the bill collectors won’t stop screaming. Not to mention losing your job, getting divorced, moving, and, worst of all, making a speech. Many people claim to fear getting up at a lectern in front of a group and talking more than they fear death.
There are many ways of coping with stress. Eat healthy, exercise regularly, and get plenty of sleep. Avoid drugs and drink, take a break, and share your problems, although taking a break and listening to all of someone else’s problems without a stiff drink at hand is problematic, at best.
Or have a drink, after all. Like W. C. Fields said, “I never worry about being driven to drink. I just worry about being driven home.”
Some of the most popular 21st century techniques for reducing stress are meditation, stretching, physical movement, mental imagery, and controlled breathing. When those techniques are rolled into one package, presto change-o, you get 16thcentury yoga.
Aside from its other benefits, yoga is tailor made for dealing with stress.
Cat cow stretches, down dogs, lunges, bends, twists, inversions, and whatever else you’re tuning into are all good for you. They’re good for you every day, even if it’s only happy baby pose when you’re tired and winding down. Seven out of ten adults in the United States say they are stressed daily. That’s why ten out of ten should probably get on a yoga mat. Nobody stressed out left behind.
There are physical benefits to the physical side of yoga. It keeps you active. It keeps you fit. It keeps you healthy. Besides the physical fitness benefits, it keeps you mentally fit. Yoga makes you more alert, less fatigued, and revs up cognitive function. It produces endorphins. You feel better in spite of yourself.
When your brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters get bumped up it puts pep in your step.
Yoga exercise practiced regularly increases self-confidence and reduces the symptoms of anxiety and depression. It helps you sleep better, too. Tossing and turning aren’t what you want to be doing in bed, at least not that kind of tossing and turning.
Guided imagery is a stress management technique that has been shown to reduce blood pressure, symptoms of PTSD, and relieve physical tension. It’s a simple technique, simply using your imagination to take you to a calm place. It involves getting comfortable, closing your eyes, and Imagining yourself in a peaceful setting – like a tropical beach, bright blue water, surf and sand – which helps you relax and relieves stress.
Yoga teachers do it all the time.
All yoga classes end with savasana, or corpse pose. It’s a relaxation pose, done flat on your back. What’s more relaxing than being flat on your back? Teachers methodically annotate the experience. “Soften your face, your shoulders, arms. Breathe. Soften your abdomen as it rises and falls. Breathe. Soften your thighs down to the tips of your toes. Breathe.” Or they script the experience, leading the class in a systematic relaxation, images like a leaf floating down a stream or walking through a sunlit forest being the narrative.
No one can avoid stress completely, not cavemen in tooth and claw days nor up-to-the-minutemen. It’s not even certain doing so would be a good idea. But, how we react to stress is up there. Stress is a common trigger for headaches, from the tension kind to the migraine kind. Fighting it all day leads to high blood pressure, a risk factor for heart disease. It suppresses the immune response. It can make you literally sick of it.
Take a breath.
Controlled breathing, also called diaphragmatic breathing and paced respiration, is a tried and true stress reduction technique. It is the cornerstone of the relaxation response, first developed in the 1970s at Harvard Medical School by cardiologist Dr. Herbert Benson. It encourages full oxygen exchange, slowing down the beat of the heart and stabilizing blood pressure.
Take a deep breath.
Deep abdominal breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting calm. It’s easy to do whenever you want, at a scheduled time every day, any time you have a time out, or waiting during your appointment with your tax preparer. “It’s the fastest way to calm down,” said Time Magazine. It’s a stress eraser.
Breath control is one of the eight limbs of yoga. It has been since the beginning of the practice, long before worry, anxiety, and stress became the bugaboos of modern life. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 10 percent of Americans suffer from anxiety disorders. If they went to a yoga class they would hear from the word go to breathe consciously, control the breath, and connect to your breath.
If we all breathe 10 to 15 times a minute, that’s about how many times yoga teachers use the breath word.
Unconscious shallow breathing is part and parcel of the primitive part of the brain. Conscious breathing comes from the cerebral cortex. Conscious breathing is about controlling the mind. Connecting with the breath, since we breathe all the time, is connecting with the present. It’s a way of being in the present, not in the past where something has already happened, nor in the future where something might or might not happen.
Whatever bad thing might or might not happen today, time spent concerning yourself with it is a waste of time, since it’s already tomorrow on the other side of the world. Besides, what most people worry about never happens, anyway. Don’t worry about the horse going blind. Just get the wagon loaded up.
A big part of the practice of yoga is controlling prana – which can be referred to as energy, life force, or breath – through pranayama, or various methods of controlling the breath. The goal is to raise one’s energy, or prana. It’s an essential pert of meditation, another of the eight limbs of yoga.
When it comes to breathwork, yoga is soup to nuts : bellows breath, breath of fire, and lion’s breath. Going all out, if you are especially stressed, is skull cleanser. It’s a cleansing breath to raise your energy level. It also involves a fun hand sign, which is making your hands look like a dog’s head by resting your ring and middle fingers on your thumb while sticking your pointer fingers and pinkies up like ears.
The last tool in the toolbox of stress busters is meditation. “Anyone can practice meditation,” says the Mayo Clinic, “It’s simple and inexpensive. It can wipe away the day’s stresses, bringing with it inner peace.” The relaxed breathing and focused attention of meditation clear away the overload of contemporary life, from eight-lane highways to information superhighways. Meditation helps you be self-aware, not simply aware of your surroundings.
Meditation is the penultimate port of call on the eight-fold path of yoga. It isn’t just a monkey wrench for solving problems, be it stress, or anything else. It’s about getting into a state of consciousness different than either the waking or sleeping states. It’s about pivoting the mind inward. The mind often has a mind of its own. Meditation is designed for it to find stillness.
If you can find it, there’s no stress there.
Meditation is a practical way of calming yourself down, slowing down the endless sturm und drang, leaving distractions behind and focusing all your attention on one thing, be it your breath or an object. Or you can hum along. It’s not about thinking about nothing. It’s about paying attention.
It is practiced in the space between the nothing that isn’t there and the nothing that is.
When you’re stressed out, get on a yoga mat. It will zero you in.
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.