Stress

 
Stress is a life-saver. Stress is a killer. Stress is sometimes a pleasure. Stress is part of every normal life, and a bigger part of lives that are fully engaged. The opposite of stress is not peace, but stagnation.

Stress is what happens within our minds and our bodies when we are forced to adapt to frustrating or changing conditions, or to rise to a challenge. The changes may be subjectively good or bad – getting married is as much a stressor as getting fired – and our ability to cope obviously depends on many other factors in our lives. Nevertheless, on a somatic level, all stress produces similar physiological arousal. Our bodies respond the same way, even though we interpret and process the reaction differently based on our opinion of the stimulus and based on our personal resilience.

The body's stress response is to increase the flow of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol in the bloodstream. This has the effect of raising the heart rate, redirecting blood from the extremities and stomach to the vital organs, changing the consistency of the blood to prepare for potential injury, and sharpening our senses. By these changes, the person is poised for action, defensive or evasive, so the pattern is commonly known as the “fight or flight” response.


Fight or flight is a primal response, observable in animals as well as people. It can be literally life-saving in emergency situations, but it’s no way to live full time.


You could liken stress to the charge in a battery. The body charges itself up to a high voltage, ready for action. But if we were to keep on charging a battery without a chance for it to discharge, it would eventually explode. If our body continues to be flooded with stress hormones and our heart rate is constantly high, we will develop health problems -- and these could even sometimes be fatal.


Magic is the art of changing consciousness in accordance with will. Training helps us move smoothly and appropriately between a variety of states of consciousness. Mentally healthy people live most of their lives in a condition that Pagan Greek philosophers called ataraxia, and we might call equanimity or serenity, but can pump thenselves up when necessary.

Neither is stress only associated with danger and trouble, although those are the focus of these notes. Hans Selye (1907-1982), who introduced the concept of stress as physiological arousal, regardless of emotional connotations, called unhappy stress distress and happy stress eustress. (the prefix eu is Greek for good, as in euphemism).

Generally, situations that are engrossing, demanding, and challenging, but also deeply satisfying, induce eustress. Some examples would be writing a book or working on an election campaign or caring for a newborn baby. Even when the stressful activity is truly rewarding – inducing only eustress – people need some downtime as well.

 

Sources of Stress:

Certain common life events or experiences—whether positive or negative—typically cause stress for many people.

Major Life Events

Long-term Issues

Immediate Issues

getting married

chronic illness

long commute

Initiation, Elevation, hiving

financial concerns

parking ticket

bereavements and breakups

demanding job or school program.

no clean socks

new job

relationship conflict

deadline

coming out or being outed

conflict with coven-mates

computer breakdown

moving to a new community

waiting on long lines

children with school problems

graduation, first job

spiritual dry spell

Holidays and birthdays

 
 

Avoiding stress

Although everybody will experience stress at some point, and may encounter severe or even traumatic stress, there are some things we can do to reduce or mitigate our exposure:

 
#1: Lighten your burden:

  • Review and revise your to-do list – If you’re feeling overloaded, look over your schedule, responsibilities, and daily tasks. Separate the “shoulds” from the “musts.” Figure out what you actually need to do, then be sure to allow time for what you really want to do: satisfying projects, fun, and rest. When you set priorities, put the “musts” first, then the "wants," and the “shoulds” last.
  • Learn how and when to say “no” – Know your limits and stick to them. Unmet obligations are stressful, so be cautious about what you promise. Whether in your personal, religious, or work life, refuse to accept added responsibilities when you’re close to overload.
  • Create a sanctuary for yourself. --  Make your home, and your workplace if possible, peaceful and nurturant. Clear away whatever you can that is distracting, harsh, or upsetting. Add green plants, artwork, music, etc. -- whatever you like to have around you. Certainly add symbols of the Gods that guide your life. This will be different for different people, so know what works for you.
  • Avoid tense topics – If you repeatedly argue about the same subject with the same people, stop bringing it up and excuse yourself when it comes up. Do be aware, though, that the larger the “frozen zone,” the shallower the relationship. Limiting interaction is equivalent to backing out of the relationship – and sometimes, sadly, this is your best choice.
  • Avoid people who distress you – If someone consistently causes stress in your life and you can’t turn the relationship around, limit the amount of time you spend with that person, or end the relationship entirely.

#2: Change what you can change: If you can’t avoid a stressful situation, try to alter it. Figure out what you can do to change things so the problem is reduced or avoided in the future. Usually, this involves changing the way you interact or behave in your daily life.

  • Be more assertive. Pay attention to your own observations and intuitions. State your needs and desires clearly. Deal with problems as soon as they arise.
  • Express your emotions instead of bottling them up. If you feel bothered about something, communicate your concerns in an open and respectful way. If you don’t voice your negative emotional reactions, resentment will build, producing inner stress and/or explosive anger. The situation will likely remain the same, or may even get worse. Clear communication in conflicted situations will benefit you and may even bring about a win/win solution.
  • Be willing to compromise. When you ask someone to change their behavior, be willing to do the same. Being clear about what is optimal for you and what is acceptable defines the space within which you can negotiate good solutions to conflicts.
  • Manage your time better. Poor time management causes a lot of stress. When you’re running behind schedule or are in danger of missing a deadline, it’s hard to stay calm and focused.

 


Time Management Techniques

Create a balanced schedule

All work and no play is a formula for trouble. Find a wholesome balance between work and fun, group activities and solitary pursuits, chores, play and rest.

Don’t over-commit yourself

Avoid scheduling things back-to-back or trying to fit too much into one day. Keep track of how long things typically take, so you can allow realistic amounts of time.

Set priorities

Make a list of things you have to do, and tackle them in order of importance. Do the most pressing items first. If you have something particularly unpleasant to do, get it over with early. The rest of your day will be more pleasant as a result.  Be sure to build in some time for creative self-expression or other really satisfying activities, and time to maintain relationships with your loved ones.

Break projects into small steps

If a large project seems overwhelming, make a step-by-step plan. Focus on one manageable step at a time, rather than taking on everything at once.

Delegate responsibility

You don’t have to do it all yourself, whether at home, at work, or in your Circle. Let other people share the work. It takes the pressure off you and gives them a sense of “ownership” of the results.

 
#3: Accept what you can’t change:
Some sources of stress are unavoidable. You can’t prevent or change stressors such as the death of a loved one, a serious illness, or a national recession. In such cases, the best way to cope with stress is to accept things as they are. Acceptance may ssem difficult, but it’s easier than railing against a situation you can’t change.

  • Don’t try to control the uncontrollable. Many things in life are beyond our personal control— the weather, the economy, the behavior of other people. Identify what you cannot control, and let go of it. It’s OK to avoid what you can neither change nor abide.
  • Look for the gift. Challenges are also opportunities for personal growth. Notice what you did that worked well, and celebrate your strength and ingenuity. Give thanks for whatever help you received, from people or from Spirit. If your own poor choices contributed to a stressful situation, reflect on them and learn from your mistakes, but don't beat up on yourself. If there is a next time, you’ll do even better.
  • Talk it out. Talk to a trusted friend, your Circle or your elders, or see a counselor. Expressing how you feel about what you’re going through releases some of the tension, even if there’s nothing you can do to change the stressful situation.
  • Learn to forgive. Accept the reality that we live in an imperfect world and that people make mistakes. Try to distinguish between honest mistakes and intentional malice. Releasing any resentment and anger that came from your reaction to a mistake, even one that hurt you in some way, will free up your energy and allow you to move on. Understanding some of the current pressures or old inner scars that induced a person’s bad behavior also helps take away some of the sting.

 

#4: Adapt to the stressor

If you can’t change the stressor, change yourself. You can adapt to stressful situations and regain your sense of control by changing your expectations and attitude. Remember, magic is the art of changing consciousness in accordance with will.

  • Reframe problems. Try to view stressful situations from a more positive perspective. Identify the indirect, or sometimes even direct, benefits that came from meeting the challenge. In every challenge, there are opportunities for psychological and spiritual growth.
  • Look at the big picture. Put the stressor into context. Ask yourself how important it will be in the long run. Will it matter in a month? A year? If the answer is no, relax. An old Yiddish expression can help put complaints into context: “may this be the worst thing that happens to me all week!”
  • Adjust your standards. Perfectionism is a major source of avoidable stress. Stop setting yourself and others up for failure by expecting perfection. Set reasonable standards, and learn to be okay with “good enough.”
  • Monitor your self-talk. Practice inner dialogue that empowers and encourages you. When you notice that you are calling yourself dumb or clumsy or ugly, interrupt those negative self-messages and replace them with affirmations.
  • Practice gratitude. Not for the stressor, this time, but for all the good things in your life that balance it. Appreciating the small pleasures and great satisfactions that come your way will help you keep a sense of proportion about the immediate irritant or problem, and refocus your attention towards all the blessings and delights along your way. One good practice is to list five things you are grateful for every evening – journal these at least until you can discern the pattern.

 

Resolving stress

 
Some stressors are more severe than others. Some stressors will catch you by surprise, perhaps at a time when you are less resilient. Despite all precautions, everybody gets stressed out sometimes. Here are some suggestions for resolving stress and restoring body and emotions to a normal “resting” state:

  •  Ground. Discharge any emotional overload by the methods you have learned from your own spiritual or magical Tradition. For many of us, this involves envisioning a connection to the ground beneath our feet, and allowing any excess energy to drain into the ground, where it can be cleansed and recycled to wherever there is need for more spiritual energy. Or you can simply find and hug the nearest friendly tree.
  • Meditate. There were some studies done in which people were shown stressful scenes on film. All of them went into the state of arousal associated with stress. The meditators returned to equanimity more quickly and more smoothly. Meditation is as beneficial to mind and mood as exercise is to the body. However, your ability to use meditation for stress reduction (and its many other benefits) depends on your consistently practicing it, even when there is no stressor operating at the time.
  • Relax your body. Take extra time for conscious relaxation when you feel tense or stressed. Remember, body and mind are one system. That means relaxing – or tensing – either one affects the other. When we intentionally relax our bodies, we necessarily also ease our minds.

Use whatever techniques work for you. Stretching and hatha yoga are excellent for this purpose, as is conscious deep breathing. For some people, active sports or unrestrained dancing shake out the tension. Or indulge yourself with a good massage.

  • Create and use calming imagery: Imagine a peaceful and pleasant place where you feel safe. This will be different for different people. It might be a cozy fireside, a sun-drenched beach, or a shady forest glade. Whatever it may be for you, build up the image in detail in your own mind. What does it look like, sound like, smell like in this place? What do you do there? You can use your trained imagination to take you to this inner sanctuary to escape the pressure and chill out whenever you feel the need.
  • Connect with others. Empathic friends will allow you to vent your reactions to a stressful situation. They may also make sure get a good meal and a good laugh.
  • Have a good laugh! It’s worth repeating this one: laugh! Laughter breaks tension and generates natural endorphins. Watch a comedy.
  • Exercise. Another endorphin generator, and a great way of releasing bodily tension. Stretching releases muscle tension. Full-spectrum light elevates your mood, and so do natural surroundings. Go for a walk or a bike ride in a beautiful place.
  • Do something you enjoy. If you have an engrossing hobby, spend some time with it. Take a hot, scented bath. Listen to some music. Dance. Sensual pleasure and creative activity both help you come back to balance. Nurture yourself.
  • Reflect on your stressful experience (when you’re rested and ready). Put whatever happened into a context. What did you learn from the experience? What would you do differently if it happens again? Most important: what did you do well?

Keep a stress journal

 
A stress journal can help you identify the regular stressors in your life and the way you deal with them. Each time you feel stressed, keep track of it in your journal.

Write down:

  • What caused your stress (make a guess if you’re unsure).
  • How you felt, both physically and emotionally.
  • How you acted in response.
  • What you did to cope or feel better.
  • What you might want to do differently in a similar situation.

Your journal may bring overlooked problems to light. Whatever your discoveries, the journal will help you understand how you cope with stress, and how to manage it better in the future.

 



 

To Learn More:

Books

  • Selye, Hans The Stress of Life revised edition NY: McGraw-Hill, 1978
  • Selye, Hans Stress Without Distress  Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1974

 

Web sites

  • Topic: Stress: an informative collection of stress-related links from the American Psychological Association
  • Medline Plus: Stress: Medline is a service of the US National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health. This site is encyclopedic!