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  • H James

Distress to Eustress

The following is from a talk I gave at the Mother Bear event organized by the Brun Bear Foundation on the subject of work-life balance/stress. Many thanks to the organizers and to those who attended!

'Work-life balance' is a tricky concept to lecture about. By work here I mean paid work, employment, but not all work is paid - being a carer for somebody, a frail parent for example, or bringing up children. This kind of work is generally unpaid: unless you live in a particularly progressive country with decent welfare provision, chances are you will be simply expected to do this 'work' for free. Yet our culture does not seem to class it as work - it falls in the 'life' category. Another problem is that for most of us work is a kind of necessary evil - both financially and socially - and we often don't have much control over how much we do in any case. So, in order not to end up 'mansplaining' work-life balance to you - many of whom are bringing up young children and working, I would like to talk about stress instead, which is often what we mean when we talk about work-life balance anyway.

I became interested in stress over a number of years. First working as a youth worker/teacher with 'disengaged' young people in west London, then as a medical student, then as a doctor working in emergency medicine, and perhaps because I tend to be a natural worrier anyway it has always interested me. Stress. Like life, it is constantly changing. With young people the stress tends to be very visceral, the fear of violence or of peers. For youth workers there is the stress of trying to navigate the chaos of their lives and for teachers the impossible expectation of 'controlling the classroom'. As a mature student there is the stress of constant exams, the fear of failure. Doctors experience and see many types of distress. Then there is money stress, role stress, the endless demands on our attention from various administrators and organizations. And of course being a parent is stressful; the constant vigilance and worry, the terror that something bad might happen to our children. Of course it is 'part of the deal' of parenthood, a price we gladly pay, but it is still stressful. So, stress is different for everyone and yet, interestingly, when you boil it down to its simplest element, stress often has the same cause each time.

Firstly, we need to be clear about what we mean by stress. This is because a degree of stress is absolutely essential for existence. An organism, such as a human, or a tree, is shaped by the stresses around it. It is those stresses, and how the organism adapts to them, which give it shape. Let's take humans: Gravity keeps our bones strong, exercise keeps our cardiovascular system healthy, lifting, carrying, moving all keep our muscles firm. It is estimated that our Stone Age ancestors used to walk about 7 miles a day! Decent muscle mass and bone density in turn are important for the balance of minerals and hormones in our blood. The stress of physical activity is essential.

Then we have mental and social pressures. Learning new things can be challenging, but when we do it we strengthen our neural connections. Being around people and navigating social situations is also stressful, but again it is essential for the development for our minds. And we know that isolation very quickly leads to depression and health problems. Being in a new environment - traveling say, or work, or starting a new venture, or stepping into the unknown, or bringing up children - is likewise nerve-wracking, yet also rewarding. These type of stresses are beneficial. We can feel engaged, in the moment. We sometimes call this 'eu-stress' or positive stress, as in 'euphoria'. Eustress is what keeps us happy, alert, challenged. Exercise, meeting people, learning a skill, problem solving; all stressful but all good for us.

Then there is the other type of stress which isn't so great. This is the type that overwhelms us, makes us feel bad, tired, anxious, depressed. The worrying, the being trapped in our minds, the being dependent on things in order to help us cope - drugs, alcohol, food, relationships ...whatever. This type of stress is more chronic, often it goes under the radar of our conscious awareness, a kind of ever-present agitance. We may not be fully aware of it, but it's there. It makes us feel uncomfortable - almost on a subconscious level - and we often deal with this by constantly distracting ourselves, with smartphones for example, or constant activity. But of course all we are doing is stimulating ourselves further, stirring up the agitation. Occasionally it boils over: we might lose our temper, or get depressed, or panic, or even get ill: headaches, unexplained pain, chronic discomfort.

Distress doesn't make anything better. With eustress we are often engaged in something - a skill, exercise, whatever it is - which may be difficult, but the more we practice it the better we seem to get at it, which makes us feel even better and more motivated. A classic virtuous cycle. On the other hand with distress the only thing we are practicing is being distressed. The more we worry for example, the better we get at worrying. Distress never fixes the thing we are worrying about and usually compounds any problem we face. Yet we still do it. Why is this? Why do we seem so good at being 'distressed'? Well, the simple answer is that we do it so much. We practice it a lot, and like anything you practice a lot, it becomes second nature, we do it without thinking. But what exactly are we practicing? What are we doing when we are getting stressed? Well here we get to that cause of stress I mentioned earlier - that thing which seems to be the same whatever type of stress we talk about.

This is that with distress we are constantly being pulled out of the present moment. Mystics and sages, wise men and women throughout the ages have realized this. Our suffering and distress is usually caused by our tendency to be pulled away from the moment. We are impatient to get somewhere else, we want something we don't have, we want recognition we don't feel we are getting, we want to feel a different way from what we are feeling now. We are worrying about the future, about the things that might happen to us or our loved ones. We ruminate on the past. We compare ourselves to others instead of sitting with who we are. All of this involves our mind getting away from us. Our thinking pulls us away from our centre.

For the ancient Indians all of this thinking was called the Veil of Maya, a kind of self-perpetuating delusion that keeps us separated from reality and from each other. In Buddhism this kind of thinking and activity which constantly pulls us off centre is called karma. The Ancient Tibetans had a simple way of looking at it - for them it was just 'unskillful thinking'. In modern times we have psychology and neuroscience, which recognizes that almost all of our mental activity is based on prediction: Our brains are constantly predicting what is happening now and what might happen next (it actually it does this because it is more energy efficient! It is more efficient to be predicting what is going on around us and even what we are feeling than it is to be 'taking it all in' all the time).

So we are almost hardwired to be pulled away from the moment. But we also learn from a young age to be thinking about the future. How many times are children told 'if you do this, I'll buy you a present', 'after this we'll get an ice-cream', 'next week, we'll go see this film.' We do it all the time! It's not bad, of course - we all need a little blackmailing now and again - but each time we do it we are pulling them out of the present. We are making conditions. 'If this happens, then this will happen'. We start to anticipate the next thing. If you're anything like me I'll be enjoying a nice dinner but then already I'll be thinking about dessert! We learn to anticipate, to be thinking about the next thing, from a very young age. This is why talk of 'being in the moment' usually just makes me feel more frustrated: our entire social conditioning is based upon us being not in the moment!

So, how can we be a little more centered? Well, let's look around us. Here children can be our teachers. The Taoist masters of ancient China often looked to nature for examples of balance and health. And children in a way are far more 'natural' than grown ups. They have not yet been so 'conditioned' by culture and society. Rather than knowing about the world, about 'the way it is', they are curious. They have what the Zen masters call 'beginners mind'. Their activity is spontaneous. We tend to think of children as easily distracted, always running about, moving on from thing to thing, in need of stimulation. But really, even in the middle of activity, children are just themselves, not trying to get somewhere else. Doing activity for its own sake, not in order to achieve something else. Yes, of course they get frustrated, they get upset, they get hurt, but they also tend to get over upsets quicker. In short, they don't get stressed. Have you tried to explain stress to children? Try it, you'll realize how hard we make life for ourselves.

Yet, we're not children. We have to grown up. We have to learn the rules of the game. We have to learn stress. But at the same time we still get to choose. The advantage of being a grown up is that we have a lot more say in our lives, we have a lot more independence. It's how we use it that counts. So, stress is inevitable, it is ever present, it is necessary. But the type of stress we have some choice over. Eustress or distress? We make these choices every day. Children practice eustress all the time - climbing over things, drawing, running about, asking questions, going up to other kids and saying 'what's your name?' - and they don't even know it, they just do it for the hell of it. We have to be more conscious about it, we have to practice it - to practice being in the moment, following our breathing, re-connecting with our bodies, being curious. To practice playing. At first it might be difficult, unnatural even, but that is only because we are so out of practice. Like everything, the more you practice it, the better you get at it, until it becomes second nature.

Maybe we'll finish with a short and simple meditation. Meditation is the practice of being in the moment. Of bringing ourselves back to the present moment each time our thinking pulls us away. The simplest way is to follow our breath - very gently, we don't want to try to change our breathing in any way. Just follow it as it is. It isn't that easy, but it is a classic eustress activity, the more you do it, the more you get out of it. For me, the key is not to struggle at it. Just do a a small amount each day, until it becomes easy, then you can do a little more, until that becomes easy and so on. So, let's begin...

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