Stress and the Nutshell
Stress is a mental event. It is caused by thoughts that arise in response to an external event. For example, if you hear that there are massive layoffs at your company, you may feel stress—nothing has actually happened but the thought of being laid off is what causes the stress.
Survival & Stress
Stress is an evolutionary response that perhaps saved our ancestors. For most of our existence, we humans were in the middle of the food chain—as much prey as predator. In prey—think of deer for example— stress triggers the flight response that is crucial to their survival. For thousands of years the flight response served us very well; it allowed us to survive and pass on our genes. Even today, short term stressors cause no problems; in fact can be healthy. If you see your child about to be run over by a car and you dash and save him or her, you are stressed, but the stress serves a great purpose, dissipates quickly and causes no long term damage. The feelings of relief and accomplishment after such an event actually are good for your mental health!
The modern day stress trap
The problem is that in our complicated civilization the stress response can become chronic. Where it once served us to flee dangerous predators, today it takes on a very different form and can cause severe long term damage. If one of our ancestors heard a rustling in the bushes, stress would cause her immediately to flee; if she stopped to think what could cause the rustling, she could be dinner for a tiger. Once out of range, the stress response would dissipate [In fact, some research shows that deer that have escaped an attack shake to release the stress; this has led to tremouring exercises for stress release[ see here]. The trouble is that in today’s world that same stress response is triggered by very different types of events. Consider the rumours of layoffs at a company—a very common occurrence in the current economic climate. This rumor triggers the same stress response as the rustling in the bushes. Except that you can’t flee a layoff! But your body doesn’t know that. Your body’s reaction to the threat of the layoff is the same; it produces cortisol and adrenaline—chemicals that if produced in short bursts do no harm and in fact help by getting you in fight or flight mode. But if produced over long periods of time these chemicals can cause significant damage.
Legal Professionals, the unwanted warriors?
In the legal profession there are many triggers that can cause stress. For example, in our adversarial system, mistakes are never forgiven but are instead highlighted by the opposition and used by clients to file malpractice lawsuits and made even worse by the fact that lawyers, unlike other businesses, cannot limit their liability. We are faced with prolix and complicated rules that we have to interpret, apply and explain often within unreasonable deadlines. Many clients can’t or don’t want to pay for our services, even after incurring them in full. Increasing concentration of money at the top shrinks the market for our services and creates brutal competition which in turn exacerbates the daily stresses of our profession. All of these events create chronic stress.
Success lies within ourselves and throughout periods of history!
What is to be done about this? An evolutionary response that once served us well is no longer working; in fact it is counter-productive and perhaps the ultimate source of our unhappiness. But evolution works very slowly and will not resolve this in our lifetimes. The good news is that there are practical tools and methods to solve the chronic stress problem.
These tools have been around for a long time. Plato taught them at the ancient Academy which was a free school of philosophy aimed at spreading these tools. Unlike today’s theoretical and aesoteric approach to philosophy ,Plato’s school was practical and experiential. Around the same time as Plato, on the other side of the world, the Buddha begain teaching similar tools which he explained in the Four Noble Truths and outlined a vertable practical toolbox in the form of the Eightfold path. Five centuries later, Christ, whose teachings regrettably were distorted by the politics of the Christian Church and various rulers, pointed to the same tools and techniques—When asked where is the Kingdom of Heaven, Christ pointed to the sky and explained that it is within you. He was pointing to the formless universe of which we are all a part, even though our egos perceive us as separate and apart. As we will explore elsewhere on this site, these teachings provide the practical tools to overcome the handicap of chronic stress in today’s world.
Even though these tools have been around for a long time, they have not been accessed or used by the vast majority of us. The reason perhaps is that is that it goes against the conditioning of the human mind. Imagine that you are in a vast field of snow. There is nothing in sight other than open space and snow. There are some footprints in the snow. You follow them. That is the human mind—it follows its conditioned pathways. However, you can re-train the mind to create new pathways—new footprints in the snow. But this is not easy or fast. It will require work.
Small thoughts pull you under, but smart thoughts bring you to the surface!
Remember that stress is a mental event—an external event triggers thoughts that in turn cause a bodily reaction. Note that you do not choose these thoughts. You do not control these thoughts. You do not know where they come from. Recognizing that you do not control and are in fact powerless over your thoughts is the first step in the journey of living a truly stress-free life. The aim of this site is to introduce you to the practical tools that will help alleviate your stress and substantially improve the quality of your life.