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How to deal with stress?


A few days back a dear friend of mine asked me how I deal with stress? It took me a while to gather my thoughts and put them together and I thought it would be helpful to others as well if I write them down in detail.


Before I go into how to deal with stress, it is important to understand why it happens.


There are two things that we need to understand:


1. We have a limited amount of attention we can utilize.

2. Our minds are tools [1] that consistently try to take our attention. The more attention we give to our minds, the more attention it asks for. They can be considered like wood burning stoves, the more firewood you add, the hotter it burns, the bigger it gets and the more wood it demands.


Our minds consistently generate thoughts: these thoughts can be anything, they can be fantasies about future or regrets about the past. They are excellent in generating analytical solutions to problems and coming up with various alternate scenarios. Here's an example to understand it well:


Suppose you need to reach the top shelf of a cabinet and you don't have anything to reach up. At that moment there are multiple things you can do to solve it, you can ask for help or maybe even borrow a ladder. But at that precise moment there is something that you can do. You will not feel stressed or anxious as long as you are acting.

Now suppose, you are moving into a new place where you realize that you will need a ladder to reach up. The event is in future. There is nothing, no action that you can do right now to solve that, because you don't need a ladder at this moment. Since there is no action you can do, your mind starts running and evaluating different scenarios how it can go wrong. Once it targets a scenario that can go wrong, it start to generate a solution for that. And as I said above in my example, it starts generating more and more scenarios, each more difficult and more unlikely than the first one, feeding off each other till it results in stress and -if left unchecked- a breakdown.


Ladder is a very crude example, but we run into such scenarios all the time: our healths, our jobs, the well-being of our parents. There are a hundreds of things that can go wrong at any time in our lives. So how do we deal with it?


By treating our mind as an instrument and utilizing it as so. By wielding our attention wisely and not feeding the stove. By realizing that our minds are just instruments that help us generate solutions. By realizing that beside our minds, our bodies are also instruments that can also take up our attention. And the solution to stress management is just that: Choosing to put our attention on our bodies and acting in the present moment.


You can use different ways to activate your body: you can run, do any physical exercise, stretching is really good against stress and my personal favorite. You can do a cold shower or a hot sauna.


All of these can work, but with one caveat, sometimes our minds are so entrenched in the circular loop of hell that even though we are doing physical activities our minds are still running scenarios and getting agitated about the same things. When you are so worried about something that you spent the whole day in a blur, not remembering where you were or anything about your surroundings, as if you were on autopilot.


The solution to this case is simple, double down on what you are doing and make it harder. If you are stretching, then stretch till you cannot feel anything but the burn. If you are running then run faster till all thoughts go out of your head. In certain cases, adventure sports like bungee jumping or skydiving can be also an effective way. But I would advise against them because they cannot be made into a habit. I remember that a few times I started to run barefoot outside to force attention away from mind.


While these activities can help you in the short term, it is extremely important to cultivate daily habits that help us wield our attention effectively and shut down our analytical minds when we choose. Meditation, yoga, praying and exercising are all activities that we should incorporate into our daily routines. But make sure that whatever activity you chose, you are not using your analytical mind, if you are then either make the activity harder or choose another.



[1] The realization that our minds are not us is probably one of the first steps to enlightenment

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