A Buddhist approach to stress management

Posted by on Oct 30, 2013 in Buddhism | 10 Comments
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Last weekend was a tough one. I got a call from my kidney specialist on Friday saying I needed an urgent scan as the previous scan suggested my kidney may have a dodgy artery in it that was in danger of bursting.

If it burst and I wasn’t in hospital already, that was pretty much it for me.

Then at 5pm on the Friday he phoned to say they couldn’t fit me in, but it would ‘probably be alright’ until Monday morning when he’d managed to get me an appointment. If anything happened over the weekend I should go straight to A&E (what us Brits call ER).

I therefore had a weekend of trying to stay calm to keep my blood pressure down so as to minimise the chances of bleeding to death in the 48 hours before my scan.

What is stress?

This situation is what you might call ‘stressful’. We often have stressful things to deal with in our lives. We often don’t do a great job of dealing with it.

Stress kills. In my case that could’ve been imminent, but generally, stress is dangerous.

When I trained as a massage therapist many years ago, we had to do a lot of training in anatomy and physiology. When it came close to exam time, the tutor said, “If you’re asked what causes a condition and you don’t know, say stress. That causes everything.”

Stress takes whatever the weak link is in your body and makes it weaker.

Stress isn’t just a way you feel. It isn’t just a mental state. All mental and emotional states have a bio-chemical counterpart in the body. Mind and body are fundamentally interconnected.

(Hardcore scientists would say that there is no mind. Only brain and hormones. I don’t see it quite like that, but that’s for another post.)

Buddhism and stress

The fact that mind and body are so interconnected is good news. It means you can affect the body with the mind.

When applied to stress, this means you can use Buddhist psychological tools and approaches to keep you relaxed and healthy.

One thing I’ve found incredibly useful over the years is something that the Mahayana teacher¬†Shantideva¬†said. He said that the anticipation of pain is often much worse than the pain itself.

What this means to me is when faced with anxiety, it’s really helpful to stay in the present moment. Everything else doesn’t exist. Kidneys bursting, massive internal bleeding, rushing to the hospital, death, fear, crying, pain – all that stuff only exists in your mind whilever it doesn’t exist in the present moment.

That is, it’s a fiction that you’ve created. That fiction is causing you stress. The present moment itself is perfectly peaceful and everything’s fine.

So I try to bring myself back to the present moment, staying with what’s real, right now.

Buddhist meditation can be great for that – particularly mindfulness practice. But this weekend I mostly used distraction.

I hung out with my niece and nephew and played X-box. I’ve never really played one before. I played for a little while, but man, they’re quite intense! Far more involved than Space Invaders. I’m gonna have to get one though. The graphics are amazing!

But I digress.

Teenage kids take your focus away from your own stuff. They have their dramas and insecurities that are REALLY IMPORTANT and fashion and the latest X-Box game is far more significant than silly old people’s kidneys.

Our personal story is very easy to get caught up in and take too seriously. When you’re an adult with a health problem this is easy to do. When you’re a teenage kid you can multiply that by at least ten. So I decided to forget my story while I couldn’t do anything about it and enjoy theirs instead.

The result

The fact that I’m writing this may give you a clue.

I made it until Monday, got to the hospital, was injected with dye and stuck in a radiation machine. It turned out I didn’t need surgery and they sent me home.

Once I’d got the official ‘OK’ I felt exausted and spent a whole bunch of time in bed. So I was definitely holding a lot of stress in my body even though I wasn’t focusing on it. Perhaps meditation is better than X-box after all?

I don’t know what’s happening in my body, only that I didn’t need immediate surgery. I guess I’ll find out the details in the fullness of time. For now, I’m not going to stress about it.

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