Taking charge of your stress means taking a holistic view of your health.
Jane, a 45-year-old holistic health worker from Rhode Island, was having trouble dealing with stress—stress about deadlines, stress about her workload, stress about being newly single after the end of a long-term relationship. She also carried a weightier worry about the innumerable things she felt she couldn’t control. “My sense of not knowing—of not having answers to some of my questions about my future—was especially stressful, because I wasn’t sure how to address something that intangible,” Jane says.
She’s hardly alone. Susan B. Lord, MD, who teaches Kripalu’s popular Healthy Living immersion program called Transforming Stress, sees dozens of men and women who come to her program with concerns about their levels of stress. Some people, like Jane, are looking for ways to free themselves from anxieties, while others are seeking solutions to stress that causes emotional anguish as well as serious physical health concerns.
Susan attributes the high rate of stress and stress-related illness to a combination of factors that make modern life especially fragmented and harried. She boils them down into two categories. The first is a problem of excess: We eat too much poor-quality food and we multitask to fulfill all the demands made of us. The pace of life is often too fast and we’re inundated with images of violence and consumerism. “We work full time or overtime and still expect to have good relationships and to be able to raise our children well,” Susan says.
On the flip side is the problem of having too little of what nourishes us: not enough wholesome food, enjoyment from moving our bodies, fulfilling work or tools and resources to deal with stress in a healthy way. Susan also sees a dearth in enough time spent in nature and in opportunities to be creative and to connect with one another.
Is the very idea of being stressed making you more stressed? Susan offers some direction.
According to Susan, most of us are asking ourselves to perform at a very high level all the time. In order to do this, we need to take good care of ourselves: eat well, get plenty of sleep and exercise, and feel supported by colleagues, family, and friends. “If we don’t meet the basic needs of mind, body, and spirit, we are ill-equipped to stay healthy,” she says.
Self-care means practicing small changes every day. Susan recommends integrating mind-body techniques such as yoga, meditation, imagery, journaling, and deep breathing into your day. But the first step is addressing our reluctance to make these changes.
“Until you can identify and deal with issues that are on your mind, it’s hard to make intelligent, healthy lifestyle choices,” she says. “It’s crucial to understand the situations that stress you out.” Instead of relying on willpower to make healthy decisions, the heart of Susan’s approach is the notion that self-awareness and mindful living gradually bring balance, energy, and commitment to living a fulfilled life. Over time, awareness leads us to prefer a balanced diet over junk food or practicing yoga over watching TV. Life becomes more peaceful and meaningful—which, in turn, affects our ability to deal with stress.
For Jane, adopting this approach had both immediate and long-ranging results. She has honed techniques she learned from the program, like dialoging with her “obstacles,” and doing walking meditation. “I’ve learned that how I am, during the present moment, is what creates my future,” she says. “When resistance or fear arises, I welcome it and notice that it disappears as the spaciousness I crave returns. I learned that I have all the answers I need, and they’re readily available for me to draw on.”
Susan highlights five reasons too much stress is bad for us:
- It takes the joy out of life.
- It makes us feel disconnected, isolated, anxious, depressed, overwhelmed.
- It limits our vision of ourselves and what life has to offer.
- It makes us judgmental of ourselves and others, which keeps us small and focused on negative aspects of people and situations.
- Eventually, long term stress triggers and/or exacerbates illness.
Do you struggle with stress? What stresses you out, and what are ways you can share for managing stress?