We talk about stress as if it’s something “out there,” that hits us against our will. Science tells us, quite to the contrary, that it’s our reaction, a particular way we respond to certain people or events.
These people and events are things we judge negatively, so the step that leads to stress is judgment. That too isn’t objectively “out there.” A person you judge to be stressful, for example, may well be a source of comfort to his or her family.
Judgment is part of our natural defense systems. Our ancient ancestors scanned the savannahs on the lookout for danger, ready to trigger the stress response and the exceptional power of fight or flight.
Today, judgment in the safety of our secure lifestyles is often overused. We make judgments — now called “opinions” — about all sorts of things that aren’t the least bit threatening, and about things of which we know little. We judge certain politicians or celebrities to be good or bad without really knowing them or their true motivations. These are snap judgments.
The collection of snap judgments grows over the years. In our discussions with others of similar or different opinions, we form the alliances and animosities that characterize us. It becomes difficult to change opinion without good reason, else we confuse ourselves and others. Holding to these opinions becomes a matter of integrity and self-identification. It becomes who we are.
It makes no difference whether those opinions are good or bad, right or wrong, trivial or monumental, necessary or not; holding on to each one of them is holding on to a bit of stress. The point of the reflective lifestyle — what Socrates suggested to “know yourself” — is to see these opinions for what they are, with the practice of Mindful Reflection™.
What you see is invariably a good deal of baggage and dead weight. Those opinions are not who you are; just something you hold on to. This realization prompts you to want to let go, but that’s not so easy. It emerges that all that baggage is now an integral part of your stress response system. A family member has to say just the right word, or raise just an eyebrow to set in motion a chain of events that lands you with your foot in your mouth before you’ve even noticed your judgment and reaction.
Getting to the root of stress, then, is not just an intellectual exercise. Nor is it just a matter of honest reflection, although that’s certainly where it begins. You must go deeper to uproot the habits of a lifetime. Letting go is a matter of practice, trial and error, and patience. It all begins with turning your attention inwards and watching your mind at work. Once you’ve identified your own personal patterns of stress, then you can start building counter habits and dismantling costly stress patterns.
The alternative? Letting these stress patterns grow ever more deeply ingrained, leading to less and less self-restraint and a cranky old-age.