What Causes Stress?

Stress is a mental event caused by thoughts that arise in response to external pressure.  For example, if you hear of massive layoffs at your company, you may feel stressed—nothing has actually happened yet, but the thought of being laid off creates the stress.  

Stress is an evolutionary response that perhaps helped save our ancestors in their fight to survive.  Humans were in the middle of the food chain for most of our existence—as much prey as predator.  Regarding prey, think of a deer, for example; stress triggers the flight response often crucial to their survival.  For thousands of years, this instinct served us very well; it allowed us to survive attacks and pass on our genes. Even today, short-term stressors cause no problems and can be healthy. If you see your child about to be run over by a car and you pull them away, your stress served a useful purpose, and it dissipates quickly and causes no long-term damage. The feelings of relief and accomplishment after such an action are good for your mental health!  

The problem in our complex civilization is that the stress response can become chronic.  It once served us in fleeing from dangerous predators, today it has become insidious 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 the scene; if she stopped to think about it, she could end up as a tiger’s dinner.  Once out of range, the stress response would dissipate [Research shows that deer that have escaped an attack shake themselves to release the stress; this has led to tremoring exercises for stress release[ see here].  But in today’s world, that same stress response can be triggered by very different types of provocations. Consider the rumours of layoffs at a company—a widespread 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.  Its reaction to this threatened layoff is the same: it produces cortisol and adrenaline—chemicals that, in short bursts, do no harm and can help get you into a fight or flight mode.  But if produced continuously over long periods, these chemicals can cause significant damage.  

In the legal profession, many incidents can cause stress.  For example, in our adversarial system, mistakes are never forgiven but are instead highlighted by the opposition. They are used by clients to file malpractice lawsuits, made even worse because lawyers, unlike other professionals, cannot limit their liability. We are faced with lengthy and complicated rules that we often have to interpret, apply, and explain within unreasonable deadlines.  Many clients can’t or don’t want to pay for our services, even after incurring them in full.  The increasing concentration of money at top firms shrinks the market for our services and creates brutal competition that only exacerbates our profession’s daily stresses. All of which creates chronic stress.

What can we do about this situation?  The fight or flight response, which  once served us well, is no longer adequate; it is counter-productive and perhaps the ultimate source of our unhappiness.  But evolution works very slowly and will not create an adaptation in our lifetimes. But there are practical tools and methods to solve this chronic stress problem.    

These tools have been around for a long time.  Plato taught them at his ancient academy, a free school of philosophy.  Unlike today’s theoretical and esoteric approaches, Plato’s was practical and experiential.  In the same period,  the Buddha began teaching similar tools. These were explained in the Four Noble Truths that outlined a practical toolbox in the Buddha’s Eightfold Path.  Five centuries later, Christ, whose teachings were regrettably distorted by church politics and various rulers, pointed to the same techniques. When asked, “Where is the Kingdom of Heaven,” Christ pointed to the sky and explained that it is within you. He indicated the formless universe of which we are all a part, even though our egos perceive us as separate and apart from it.   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—mainly because they contradict the human mind’s conditioning. Imagine that you are in a vast snowfield, with nothing in sight other than the open space and snow.  There are some footprints in the snow that you follow.  That is the human mind—it follows its conditioned pathways.  However, you can retrain the mind to create new pathways—new footprints in the snow that will take you to high ground.  But this path is not an easy or fast way.  It will require work.      

Remember that stress is a mental event—an external stimulus that triggers thoughts causing a bodily reaction.  Note that you do not choose these thoughts or control them. You don’t even know where they come from.  Recognizing that you are powerless to control your thoughts is the first step in the journey of living a genuinely stress-free life.  This site aims to introduce you to the practical tools that will help alleviate your stress and substantially improve your life quality.  


My hope for these pages is to be a modern-day Academy, much like Plato’s Academy, in order to reduce stress and anxiety in our individual lives and perhaps even help mankind reverse course from its current ego-driven and lethal trajectory.   

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