How am I going to make the next payment on my mortgage? Is this upset stomach a virus, or something more serious? Is the state of today’s world sustainable? Should I get the generic shampoo or the brand-name stuff? Every single day, we all worry on small and large scales. It’s a fact of life. It’s also a fact that over time, the stress that this worry causes can be detrimental to your mental and physical health, in sometimes irreparable ways. It’s widely known that ulcers and high blood pressure can arise from constant stress, but did you know that correlations have also been found between over-stressed people and incidences of diabetes, obesity, tooth and gum disease, and possibly even cancer?
We know stress and worry can rob us happiness and years of our lives, but how do we go about fighting it? Perhaps fighting is the wrong term to use. Maybe we need to learn to live with worry, not against it. As counter-intuitive as this sounds, it’s an idea that is gaining some traction in the psychological community, especially with practitioners of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. The idea hearkens from Eastern traditional practices, particularly Buddhist meditation, and can offer some insight into why we feel the way we do and why we worry.
Most of the time, we don’t need to put worry into perspective. Clouds gather in the sky causing us to worry that it might rain. This is a light example, but it is an example of how daily worries came and go, without being particularly harmful. Anxiety, though, is a different beast, and can lead to the kind of stress that causes significant damage to our lives. How do we separate the two? A mathematical analogy could be used. Healthy worry could be thought of as: “if x happens, then y will happen, and I would rather not have y happen.” If it rains, then I might get wet. If my son goes base jumping, he might seriously injure himself. These are examples of worries that come and go. They’re specific, focused, and, most importantly, rational. Anxiety, on the other hand, could be thought of as: “I just couldn’t bear it if x happened!” or “If x happens, I don’t know what I’m going to do!” The y variable is missing, and that’s the problem.
Anxiety, particularly the kind that crops up in diagnosable anxiety disorders, is unfocused and pervasive. “What if” worries tend to dominate: “What if I get into a car accident today,” “What if my co-workers don’t like my outfit today,” or “What if my spouse leaves me?” are all examples of cognitive distortion: cognitions that have no definite endpoint, and can be expanded and warped to no end, until they flow into other worries, and the anxiety becomes an impairment.
The purpose of meditation, or breathing exercises, in the context of mental health, is metacognition. Metacognition just means being aware of your thoughts; basically, being aware of each thought as a thought, and being able to evaluate it for what it is: only a thought. Buddhist meditation teaches you not to suppress thoughts to empty your mind, but to let thoughts come and go, without attaching yourself to them, in time leading to a more serene mental state. When we let the “what ifs” that cause anxiety come and go, we prevent them from taking root, and growing into monstrous forests of stress and self-doubt. We see them for what they are: irrational, unsubstantiated fears. The best part about the practice of meditation is that it is a practice; the more you do it, the better you get at it, and the more positive effects you will feel, even when you aren’t meditating.
During those times you aren’t meditating, mindfulness can be developed. Mindfulness is the art of living in the present, without worrying about the past or the future. Essentially, it is the same idea as meditation, with moments instead of thoughts. There’s only one way to practice it, but the applications are limitless. Pick an everyday task (any one will do; vacuuming, cooking, driving, the list goes on), and focus on doing just that task. Focus on each step, and don’t move on until that one step is completed. Just like with meditation, practicing this one or two times a day can have a far-reaching impact on your worldview, particularly with how you view your own stress and anxiety.
Stress is always going to be a part of every life; that doesn’t mean there is nothing we can do to make sure it doesn’t get blown out of proportion.