Stress and the Mind

Gautam Jain


Medscape Internal Medicine 

In This Article


Stress is a widely prevalent phenomenon that exacts a heavy toll on the quality of human life. Most people who try to alleviate stress have a fundamental misunderstanding of its origin, its cause. This misunderstanding causes them to try solutions -- like taking breaks and vacations -- that only submerge the symptoms temporarily, with their stress returning sooner or later. These solutions are like spraying a room with perfume to make it smell better, when the real problem is a dead rat that is emanating a foul odor. Therefore, to tackle this problem, one has to get into the root cause of stress and understand its origin and mechanism.

The following discussion on stress is based on the works of Swami Parthasarathy, who founded the Vedanta Cultural Foundation, an organization that provides seminars on self-management to professional and corporate groups. Such seminars are designed to translate certain philosophic ideas into practical techniques that Western professionals can use for stress reduction and increased productivity. The book Vedanta Treatise: The Eternities contains the gist of these ancient philosophical materials written in contemporary thought and language and is designed to develop the intellect of the modern human being.[1]

People are prone to believe that stress lies in the external world -- that their situation, environment, relationships cause stress. One person smokes a cigarette and enjoys it; another detests it. One wants to divorce his wife; another waits desperately to marry the same woman. The external environment in these cases is the same. It can produce stress to one, happiness to another. But remember: "It is not the world that distresses you but how you relate to it." Stress is internal; it is within you. Thus, the solution to stress lies not in management of external events and situations, but in self-management. "It is difficult to find happiness in oneself," Arthur Schopenhauer said, "but it is impossible to find it anywhere else."

Life consists of experiences. An experience consists of 2 factors: you and the world.

The efforts of science are directed toward discovering laws relating to the external world. This understanding is then used to create superior amenities and facilities for human leisure and comfort. However, a close examination of human progress reveals that an increase in these luxuries corresponds with a rise in stress levels. This happens when the individual -- you -- has been neglected.

Remember, an experience consists of both you and the world, and both need to be improved in order to improve the quality of life. For example, you need both a good appetite and good food to enjoy a meal. Science can improve the quality of food, but if you have lost your appetite -- for example because of nausea -- then the meal is not pleasurable. This is what has happened: We have focused so much on improving the world around us that the individual has been neglected to a point where he or she experiences the nausea of stress.

Self-management starts with you -- the individual. It defines your constitution and relationship with the world. With this understanding, you can be empowered to handle the various situations you face in life and manage your stress effectively.

According to the philosophy upon which this article is based, the human being consists of the physical body, mind, and intellect.[1] The body is the equipment for physical action. What drives the body to act is either the mind, the intellect, or a combination of both. The mind comprises emotions, feelings, likes, and dislikes. The intellect is the faculty of reason, analysis, and judgment. The mind has no direction or dimension, and if uncontrolled by the intellect produces stress. Examples, for instance, might be a diabetic patient who succumbs to the mind's demand for candy, a person losing his temper, or an alcoholic who cannot resist the temptation for another drink.

One cannot afford to let the mind govern the body. Only the intellect, as described here, can direct, govern, and control the mind. If the intellect is not available for guiding it, or not powerful enough to control it, the mind can go berserk and devastate the personality. If you can imagine the mind as water flowing in a river, the intellect, then, is the bank of the river. Banks control and direct the flow of water. The land on either side remains fertile as long as water flows within the banks. But when the banks are weak and they yield to the pressure of water, the field becomes inundated. A blessing turns into a curse. Similarly, the desires of the mind overpowering a weak intellect can destroy the individual.

Modern education strives to make a person intelligent but does not develop the intellect as described here. Education worldwide is confined to the acquisition of information in schools and universities from teachers and textbooks. Such an education provides students with the intelligence adequate to make a living, but does not equip them to face life's challenges and to function with equanimity and efficiency. Thus, the world is replete with intelligent and knowledgeable personalities who are vulnerable to the incessant demands of the mind. A simple example of this problem is a brilliant physician who becomes stressed and turns to alcohol as a form of self-medication.

Stress is a state of agitation produced by unfulfilled desires in a mind that is not controlled by the intellect. When unattended, it is always the mind that plays havoc in the human personality.

First, the mind has a natural tendency to ramble, to stray away from a fixed point of concentration. It is prone to worry over past memories or to become anxious about future results. It seldom remains in the present. Most adults, then, squander their lives pondering over their past or anticipating their future. Their minds remain ever agitated, and so they suffer from stress throughout their life. They lack energy and enthusiasm and fail to function effectively, even in their chosen fields of activity. In striking contrast, little children, bubbling with energy, act ceaselessly the whole day. It seems paradoxical that adults, who have far greater strength than children, have much less energy. This paradox stems from the fact that children have no worries about the past or anxieties for the future. They live in the present. Adults torment themselves with past thoughts and future desires, which constantly fatigues them.

Second, the mind is replete with powerful likes and dislikes, and the ever-changing world is not designed to cater to the likes and dislikes of a single human being. The inevitable clash produces constant stress and strain. For example, most people like warm weather, but since the weather is always changing, they become stressed when the weather becomes cold or rainy. The world presents innumerable situations like this, which accumulate and generate constant stress in human beings who cannot accept the inevitability of change.

Third, the mind is infested with insatiable demands, which increase with age. No amount of external acquisitions can appease these cravings, which also generate stress.

Thus, unless a human being develops an intellect strong enough to control and regulate the vagaries of the mind, he or she will remain under stress.

It is true that development of the intellect is a long-term process that takes consistent effort and application. However, to help one reduce everyday stress, there are 2 practical, powerful tools:

Assess the World Properly. People everywhere experience severe stress because they wrongly assess the world around them -- or do not assess it at all. If you do not care to properly assess the environment that touches you, the climate that you live in, the nature of the people you relate to, and so on, then you develop unreasonable expectations from these contacts. Your mind makes demands and you believe your world should cater to those specific demands and serve the whims and fancies of your mind. You expect everything to fit into your preconceived mental pattern. It is, of course, most unreasonable to expect the entire world to bow down to your personal likes and dislikes, and such unreasonable expectations cause disappointments, which, in turn, create stress.

The solution lies in correctly observing, analyzing, and assessing the people, environment, and situations that you face daily. Begin with the people who are closest to you -- both at home and at work. Observe their outer conduct closely, and then try to ascertain their inner nature. Remember -- like you, they are helpless victims of their own natures and will manifest them, regardless of your expectations. The winter will be cold; the summer will be hot. Similarly, family, government policies, traffic congestion, colleagues, and the myriad of situations you encounter daily will change, regardless of what you expect.

Take the example of your relationships with others. Having observed their nature and understanding that they will express it -- no matter what you desire -- the next step is to decide whether you want to relate, work, or live with these individuals. If you decide to continue on with these relationships, you should then accept their nature and behavior. It is then foolish and futile to grumble and complain. How can you expect them to be different from what they are? How can you expect a hysterical boss at the office to be calm and composed? How can you expect a nagging wife to be sweet and docile? How can you expect a bubbling teenager to be mature and calm? How can a mother-in-law be your mother? Whom do you fault -- the individuals themselves, who, like you, are helplessly expressing their own nature? Or should you fault yourself for expecting the impossible -- that they can separate themselves from their basic nature? When things and people do not go your way and disappoint you, don't grumble your life away. All these erroneous expectations add to your stress. Let people live their own lives!

Remember, all grumbling is tantamount to: Oh! why is a lily not an oak?

Take an Inward Rather than Outward View. People are stressed because they constantly have an outward view of their lives. They are always looking at what they don't have. Instead, go inward. Observe what you have without focusing on what you do not have, and you will experience an immediate reduction in stress levels. Remember the well-known saying: "I complained I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet!" If you observe yourself and your life closely, you can discover the great benefactions constantly showered upon you. You have 2 eyes to see; there are people who don't have eyes. You live in a place of peace, while people elsewhere are oppressed by war, famine, and genocide. There are so many things to be grateful for; why be stressed about things you do not possess? That is not to say you should not endeavor to achieve deeper satisfaction with life, but at any time, be grateful for where you are at the moment.


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