Recent stress surveys* reveal some stark statistics:
• 59% of British adults believe their lives are more stressful than 5 years ago
• 40% of workplace illness is due to stress, depression or anxiety
• Nearly half of survey respondents reported feeling stressed every day or so
• Money and work are listed as the top 2 causes of stress
Blogs and bookshops are full of advice telling us how to manage stress, with techniques to remember, practice and apply. We each know what we "should" be doing to manage our stress levels...
• "I know I should take a break, but I've got so much to do."
• "I know I should exercise every day, but I'm too tired."
• "I know I should work smarter, but I'm too busy to figure out how."
• "I know I should meditate, but I can't find the time."
Meanwhile, social media and smartphones enable an "open all hours" business culture. But what if our attempts to manage stress are actually adding to our stress levels, giving us more things to think about and practice (and to feel guilty about when we don't do them)?
To answer this question, we need to look at what actually causes stress. Mainstream literature tells us that stress is caused by "stressors" (E.g. workload, finances etc.) This implies that the source of stress is in the "stressor", but that's impossible. If being broke or having a heavy workload were the source of stress, everyone would feel stressed by them, but they don't. Some people feel stressed at even the thought of going broke, while others are unconcerned. Some people are ground down by a heavy workload while others thrive on it. The idea that "stress is caused by stressors" is fundamentally wrong.
So if stress isn't caused by stressors, what does cause stress?
Unhealthy stress levels are caused by a misunderstanding of how our minds work. It seems to us as though we're looking out through our eyes at a world "out there", and for practical purposes we are. But what's really going on is that data flows in through your senses, and your mind creates a multi-sensory "picture" of what it thinks is "out there". While we live in a real world of bosses and bank accounts, 100% of our experience of that world is generated from within our minds. This "trick of the mind" is a shocking illusion, discovered by the pioneering physician Hermann Helmholtz in 1852.
For a tangible example of this, look at the Kanizsa Triangle. Your eyes receive light reflected by the image and pass those signals to your brain. Your mind then guesses at what's "out there" and a (nonexistent) white triangle appears in your consciousness. Now look around you. Your experience of everything you see is generated from within your mind in the same way. I'm going to refer to your ability to create that perceptual experience as the power of Thought. Here's an excerpt from my book, The Little Book of Clarity (Wiley ©2015 Jamie Smart)
People are literally able to think anything and experience it as real: Two people watching the same movie can have two completely different experiences of it, thanks to the power of Thought. Similarly, a person with a phobia uses Thought to create the experience of an imminent plane crash, a spider bite or a dog attack. A person doing a job can feel inspired and energized, while the person sitting next to them feels stressed and unhappy doing exactly the same work. Both of them create their unique experience using Thought. A person can become convinced that their partner is cheating on them, regardless of the reality of the situation. They create their perception using Thought, then experience it as real. Someone can have a richly enjoyable experience, anticipating a holiday that they're planning to go on. Thought is making that enjoyable experience possible, even if the holiday ends up being cancelled!
So what causes stress? The mistaken belief that our feelings are letting us know about something other than Thought in the moment. It may seem as though we're feeling what our boss said last week, how many emails are in the inbox or how many days there are until payday, but it's a trick of the mind. Our feelings are there to let us know about Thought in the moment, but as soon as we believe we're feeling something other than Thought in the moment, we perceive ourselves as victims of a world "out there" with power over how we feel, and our heads fill up with a mental to-do list. That's contaminated thinking.
So what's the solution to stress? Fortunately, our minds are a self-clearing system. We each have an innate capacity for resilience, clarity and peace of mind. In fact, like a cloud passing in front of the sun, the only thing that ever obscures that capacity is contaminated thinking. Your feelings are letting you know about the ebb and flow of Thought, not about the ebb and flow of your life circumstances. And the moment you realise that, you fall out of your contaminated thinking and into the moment. And when you land in the present moment, you discover that you have what you need for the task at hand.
Once again, your mind is a self-correcting system. There's nothing you need to do to clear your mind. As you get a deeper understanding of the principles behind clarity, you'll find yourself falling out of your contaminated thinking more and more frequently and easily. As you do, you'll discover that stress is less like the average annual climate, and more like an occasional passing cloud. And when it passes, you discover that the sun's been there the whole time, behind the clouds, shining without interruption.
* Surveys conducted by the Office of National Statistics and the Mental Health Foundation