Work, Stress, and Karma Yoga (Part 1): What Is Stress?

Work, Stress, and Karma Yoga (Part 1): What Is Stress?

Work, Stress, and Karma Yoga (Part 1): What Is Stress?

This is part one of three in this blog post series.  Read the second one here. Read the third one here.

Audio Blog Version (10/6/19):

Sometimes I think we don’t have enough words to accurately differentiate and help us understand the world around us. If you’re like me, half of the vocabulary you use most days are reconfigurations, combinations, or recyclings of the same utterance in different contexts (thank you thesaurus!). Many times this redundancy is useful and efficient – our brains are lazy and always look for ways to make life easier. But what happens when we overuse a word or phrase? Ever repeat a word aloud enough times that it loses its meaning and sounds foreign to your ears? That’s called semantic satiation.

Well the one word that I’ve repeated so many times–the word that started this blog post and has led me to write two more–is “S.T.R.E.S.S.” What an overused, underappreciated, and misunderstood word! There are tons of programs that aim at stress reduction, stress management, or perhaps stress transformation. If you ask most adults–and young adults even–about stress, they’ll likely explain that their whole life is stressful.

I have a lot to say about stress, especially in the context of yoga. Stay with me for these three blog posts, and I’ll share with you my own insights and thoughts which I’ve picked up along my yoga journey.

Types of Stress

Here’s a short list of things that “stress us out”:

  • Our commute
  • Work and coworkers
  • Making and preparing meals
  • Doing our taxes and managing finances

I’m sure you could add more. But let’s take a moment and notice things that are stressful that would not typically make it onto the above list.

  • Eating
  • Working out
  • Doing yoga asanas
  • Breathing

You might feel a little confused about this second list. How are these things stressful? This is where we need to bring out some differentiation and some definitions.

Hans Selye was the scientist who originally coined the term “stress” which he defined as “the non-specific responses of the body to any demand for change”. Let’s emphasize the “non-specific” portion of that quote. Stress itself is non-specific and neutral.

Typically, when we mention stress in our culture we consider it “bad” or “negative.” But we could also see stress as “good” or “positive.” These two classifications are named distress (negative) and eustress (positive). Distress makes us weaker, leads us to feel anxious, overwhelmed, and depressed. Eustress, on the other hand, makes us stronger, more resilient, and oftentimes more efficient.

Additionally, we can further classify stress in terms of its frequency and duration. Stress can be acute, periodic, or continuous. Take a look at this table for some examples of stress in our lives. Note what things you categorize as eustress or distress.

Car AccidentMorning CoffeeAir pollution
Winning the LotteryWorking OutPoor posture
Preparing for a PresentationCommuting to workSun Exposure

If you take a couple minutes to play around with categorizing these items, you might find it difficult to label one thing as good stress and another as bad stress. For example, winning the lottery could be the best thing ever. Then again it could be the worst thing possible! Maybe you wouldn’t even consider something like drinking coffee a stressor.

You also might feel that some of these events belong in multiple columns. For example, getting into a car accident can cause acute stress in terms of physical and psychological injury. These injuries may soon turn into long-term stress in the form of disability, anxiety, or even PTSD.

It’s true, there aren’t clear cut lines between these different categories. In fact, something like working out can turn from eustress to distress if we overtrain. Conversely, a distressing event like a car accident can be turned into a eustress.

If you have a few minutes, take time to watch Aubrey Marcus’ video about how he has turned his serious car accident into a positive life event. This is some truly inspirational material.

What Yoga Says about Stress

So why categorize different characteristics of stress? First and foremost, I want you to be able to identify and describe types of stress in your life. To take control of our stressors, we need to first identify them.

Take a moment to write out a handful of things that are daily or frequent points of stress. How would you categorize these stressors? Keep this list nearby as we will return to it.

Earlier I pointed out how stress is non-specific and neutral. Let’s take this a step further and expand this idea to say:

All events are neutral.

This includes events that bring us sadness or joy, make us tense or relaxed. I understand this can be hard to grasp, especially in extreme contexts like trauma, so let me ask a hard and perhaps tricky question:

When you describe something as positive or negative–when you say you are “stressed out”–what is the root source of the positive or negative emotion you feel?

If we accept that all events are neutral, then really we decide how we feel about an event. This may be a conscious or an unconscious process. It is our belief system and our story we tell ourselves that determines our feelings.

Uncovering Our Belief Systems to Transform Stress

To uncover this story or belief system is hard work. This process is a form of therapy and specifically a large part of yoga therapy. Take a moment to look over your list of stressors and think about the underlying story or belief system and how that impacts your emotions. I’ll give you an easy and often used example:

As I’m driving to work–in a hurry because I don’t want to be late–another driver cuts me off. I immediately react with anger, beep my horn, yell out curses, start driving aggressively, and for a short period get lost in some form of road rage.

Why might I react that way? Yes, driving is dangerous. There’s a lot of stimulation, and that primes us for these seemingly overblown reactions.

But also, there’s a story and belief system at play here. It starts with, “I’m late for work and this guy cutting me off is making me later!” or “How dare that person threaten my life with his reckless driving!

If we look deeper into the emotions underlying these thoughts we can start to uncover the scaffolding of our belief systems and stories. For me, I always felt rushed and anxious about being late to work. Why? Well if I am late, I risk being in trouble with my superiors. And, if I am in trouble with my superiors, my job is at risk. If I don’t have a job, I can’t support myself or my family. If I can’t do that, I won’t be loved by my friends or family. Then I’ll be alone.

Summarizing those realizations boils this down to: When I’m late to work I risk losing the love and support of my family that I need to survive. Being cut off in traffic brings that feeling of anxiety out, especially when I’m already running late.

There are two things that can change here. First, I can ask myself if my thoughts are true. Honestly, they are not well founded. My family will love me despite my being jobless. They’re always there to support me.

Don’t believe everything you think.

Second, instead of letting that normal story play out in my head, I could see that all events are neutral and I can decide what meaning I apply to them. I could choose to give that other driver the benefit of doubt. Maybe they have a good reason to be in a hurry, or maybe they made an honest mistake and didn’t see me in their blind spot. Then I could take it a step further and wish that person to have a great day and feel some sense of love towards them.

Making these two changes can dramatically reduce the stress I experience and create for myself while driving. And furthermore, I can apply this process to all areas of my life that create distress. This is a transformation. It’s also hard work.

Karma Yoga

This discussion about stress is the first step in discussing a greater yoga philosophy: karma yoga. That will be the topic of my next post. Following that post, I will discuss how karma yoga philosophy plays into our work. All together, my intention is that these three blog posts will help create a positive paradigm shift towards our view on the world and especially toward our view of work. With that improved perspective, we can foster greater health and wellbeing in all areas of life. Stay tuned.


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