Human beings have shown themselves capable of adapting to a great variety of circumstances, not all of them healthy. Do you doubt it? Think of people you know who are really stressed out, and then consider the nature of your interactions with them: do they always arrive late, speak rapidly in incomplete sentences, or frequently interrupt the conversation with, “Sorry; I’ve got to take this”? Maybe they seem to have difficulty staying on topic, and they demonstrate very little genuine interest in you.
Let’s imagine that, being a caring person, you try to point out the danger of constant stress. You may tell your friends that human beings were designed to respond effectively to intermittent stress, but that chronic stress overwhelms, and ultimately breaks down, the organism’s defense systems. Most likely you’ll get a response of, “Yes, I know. But this is what
my job demands. I plan to slow down once the kids leave home [say, in fifteen years], or when I retire [say, in thirty years]. In the meantime, I don’t really have any choice.”
You know what I mean. We all have friends like that. When they leave, you breathe a sigh of relief and tell yourself how glad you are not to be in their shoes. Guess what: there are probably people who look at you in just the same way. Don’t believe it? Try this exercise. Get yourself into a quiet place and do six or seven belly breaths--not where you fill your chest but where you start the breath down around your belly. You can see if you’re doing it right by placing your hands on your stomach. In a belly breath, your hands will go out when you breathe in, and in when you breathe out. After you’ve completed six or seven belly breaths, take stock of your thoughts, your feelings, your body sensations, and your rate of respiration. This will probably be an unfamiliar state, or one you experience only on vacation (assuming you enjoy quiet vacations, not the “seven European capitals in eight days” variety).
Now, before you rush back to work, ask yourself how you feel about this state of calm that you’ve temporarily achieved. Do you enjoy the way it feels? Wouldn’t you like to alter your life to spend more time in a state of calm? I predict that you’re likely to say, “Yes, I know. But this is what my job demands. I plan to slow down once…”
“Okay,” you may say. “I get it. You want me to take time to smell the roses.” Not really. If you give that instruction to stressed-out people, they’re likely to come back and proclaim with Type A enthusiasm, “Hey, I’ve managed to smell 147 roses and it’s not even 11 a.m. yet.” External prescriptions tend to be met by objections: jobs, spouses, families,
community responsibilities. All offer convincing arguments against change.
What’s so great about inner peace, anyway? Let’s look at what happens to the body during stress: there’s a rise in blood pressure and pulse and a flood of hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline—all appropriate responses in the face of an emergency. But the effects of chronic stress can be devastating to the body, increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke, contributing to obesity and diabetes, and hastening the aging process, including the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
Calming down may save your life, or at least extend it. But calming down also increases the quality of your life. Go back to how you felt after doing the belly breaths. If you really value that feeling, you have to change your priorities so that that experience of calm counts for more than the rewards of busy-ness. No one else can tell you what to change, but if you sufficiently value that sensation of calm, you will figure out the necessary alterations to make it possible.
Relaxation exercises such as deep breathing, yoga or meditation help to relieve stress. But becoming really conscious of the present moment—what you perceive with your senses, what you feel in your muscles, what you think about when you take your eyes off deadlines and obligations—may help you to appreciate the value of inner peace as an end in itself. Once you’ve permitted that experience to break into your life, you may want to take steps to preserve it.
Arthur Wenk holds a doctorate in musicology and masters degrees in information science, music theory, and psychology.
Art‘s client-centered approach is based on empathic listening, helping clients integrate thoughts, feelings and actions, and assisting them to revise self-stories that have kept them enmeshed in problems: all in the interest of achieving mental, emotional and spiritual wholeness.