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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Dealing with Stress and Crisis

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi and Ariana,…… and friends,

This entire “virtual school “project is mainly to share ideas on thinking and life-long learning. Till now, I wrote about specific thinking “tools” for specific situations. Now I wish to share several ideas on various aspects of life. Some will be specific to people with roots in various heritages of India. Others will be of interest to everyone, I hope.

Let me start with stress.

I have had my share of crises in my life. Nothing can beat the crisis Ramaa went through and the way she suffered. I suffered with her. How did I manage during these periods? What were the sources of my strength? What did I learn? What suggestions do I have for you, grandchildren, if you have to face a crisis?

The most important lesson I learnt is that one does not know when the calamity will strike and therefore, cannot become ready all of a sudden. Therefore, all of us will have to prepare throughout our lives for potential crisis. I am not a pessimist and am not asking you to live in fear of an impending disaster all the time. That is no way to lead a life. What I am saying is that you will not have time or energy to go for consult in the middle of a crisis. You certainly cannot learn meditation in the midst of a crisis. So, what are some of the things you can do which may help if and when there is a crisis?

I do not know what will work for you. But here are some of the things that helped me.

First is faith in something larger than us and the Universe. For me it was not religious faith. It was spiritual faith that came from many years of meditation. This gave me the strength to know that this too will pass. I got my inner strength by “connecting” to the ultimate dimension. In Buddhist terms, I consider myself to be a wave. As long as I consider myself to be a wave, I will be lonely and suffer. Once I connect with the ocean, of which I am a part, there will be peace and stability. Why am I looking for water, when I am water myself? Hopefully your parents gave you faith in yourself and in a primordial force of which we are parts. You have to develop it within yourself, by reflecting.

You cannot alter all situations in life. But you can change your attitude. Indeed, Buddhist psychology talks about how the external experience is like a passing cloud. It will pass. But it is our response to it, the fear or anger it evokes and the way our mind concocts internal stories that cause suffering.

Buddhist psychology also teaches how to be mindful of what we are doing and how we are feeling at the moment. The idea is to acknowledge the sadness or suffering and not bury it. By reflecting deeply, you can touch its source, realize the causes and conditions that brought this stress about. Hopefully this will show you the way out of the suffering and stress. May be you have to change your ways. May be you have to approach the other person with a different attitude. May be you have to seek external help. May be this is the way it is going to be and you just have to deal with it.

Self pity will lead to frustration and stress. When disaster strikes a common question that comes to our mind is : “why me?”. The best answer was given by Tolstoy in his book on The Death of Ivan Ilyich. There is no answer; there will never be one. Do not dwell on self pity. But how?

In Buddhist psychology, vitarka is the word for the first time a thought occurs. Vichara is when this thought persists. (Ramana Maharishi also uses the word vichara, but defines it differently) It is said that there are five more stages before vitarka becomes vichara. The idea is to catch the self-pity as soon as you sense it. Then acknowledge it and tell yourself that it will pass too. Also, realize that you have several other strengths and replace self-pity with one of your strong points. May be you have a strong support in your mother or brother. May be you have a great sense of humor. Think about those strengths. Build on them.

Trusting relationship with someone will help. This has to be someone whom you respect and in whom you can confide. Talk to them. Ask for suggestions. I am fortunate with two such great souls – my brother and Dr.Coriell.

Meditation every day for the past 35 years helped me deal with crisis better. I am able to completely silence my mind for at least 5 to 10 minutes a day. I do not know whether it has helped me in the spiritual path. But it has certainly helped me think clearly during periods of stress.

If you do not know meditation, you may wish to attend meditation courses. I am sure one is available in your community. If possible, you may even want to arrange for someone to take care of home or work and go away for a weekend retreat. You will be better off going to meditation camps run by Buddhist teachers. They deal with psychological issues and life’s-problems more effectively.

Writing a journal or a diary is another major stress-reduction device for me. I have done this for the past 40 or so years. I review them periodically to find out how much I have learnt from the past experiences.

Make sure you get adequate sleep. I found that meditation tapes which help you to relax your body are very helpful. I used these relaxation tapes several times a day during periods of stress. I found that 20 minutes of these relaxation exercises sent me into meditation. This was almost like 4 to 6 hours of sleep.

Treat yourself to frivolous things periodically. This is just to reward yourself and keep up your cheer. During one of those stressful times, I bought myself a GPS for the car! But, watch out if this leads to compulsive eating of junk food or to alcohol or drugs.

Engage your mind and keep doing things which will keep you occupied with matters other than the crisis. Learn to switch tasks. Read some books you like. Constantly brooding over the situation will not make things any better. It is indeed harmful to your mental health. During one stretch lasting for over 8 months, I kept working on republishing my book on pediatric diagnosis. I learnt to convert music from old cassette tapes into MP3 program. I went to the Hospital whenever I could and kept teaching residents and Fellows.

If you are one of those who find it easy to go the path of “faith”, you may wish to go to the Church or the synagogue or the temple. You may wish to meet with a priest or a rabbi or a Guru. Religion is a time-honored path to take during periods of stress.

If you are a person who deals with things intellectually, you may wish to go to support groups or take counseling.

If you are action oriented, you may wish to join a support group. Better still you may volunteer for a cause you believe in. I have observed over the years that some of the parents of children with chronic diseases who coped best were those who found time to organize parent support groups and helped others with similar problems. There are research studies to support this observation.

All or some of these ideas are wholesome by themselves, not just to prepare for a crisis. I hope you will start some of these habits NOW. If there are two items which were most helpful to me they are meditation and journal writing. In a recent article in a medical journal, there was a list of things to help prevent burn-out in physicians who take care of seriously ill patients at the end of life, such as those with cancer. The first two items were: “mindfulness meditation and reflective writing”. You can practice these anywhere, any time. Why not start now?

Let me repeat. You may not find time, energy or methods to cope with crisis when you are in the midst of it.Develop helpful habits now.

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