Omega: What causes stress?
Saki: What we’ve learned is that our immune systems are not independent of our emotional lives, so when we feel like something’s not quite right, or we say, “I don’t feel like myself,” we know that we’re experiencing stress. Stress can be caused by anything that makes us feel this way, including a change in social status or experiencing a difficult life event, like a diagnosis, the death of a spouse, the sickness of a child, the loss of a job, or a precipitous change in income. When we feel the stress of these things, it causes changes in our physical body and our mind.
Omega: How can we reduce stress using mindfulness?
Saki: Mindfulness isn’t a panacea, but it can be very helpful for reducing the negative effects of stress. Our capacity to pay attention and be aware has enormous influence on our health and well-being, and thus on our levels of stress.
We also know that our capacity to challenge our usual views of who and what we think we are—the story we’re telling about ourselves and our life—is important to managing stress. If you don’t challenge the narrative, then when a stressful event happens to you again, you are simply going to go along with the narrative of what happened last time. If every time you feel a tightening in your chest you think, “Oh my God, I’m going to die!” then you get stuck in a rut. Here comes the physical sensation and then here comes the thought, and then here comes another symptom. You get caught in a loop.
Mindfulness is a way you can step out of the groove. It teaches you how to lift the needle on the record. It gives you a way to challenge the idea that these thoughts are accurate, that this is the way it really is.
The stressors of life aren’t going to go away. We need to have ways to buffer and cope and meet the struggles. We need to gently and persistently challenge the story we’re telling ourselves. We need to create situations and structures for people where they feel that even in the face of difficulty their life has a sense of meaning and purpose.
Omega: What is the role of community and connection in dealing with modern day stress?
Saki: We have an epidemic of depression and disconnection in the West. Just after World War I, the average age that someone was diagnosed with depression was 64. Now it’s 17 or 18. While there is some value in the medication that's being developed for depression, it's not enough. Our capacity to be connected to others and to feel a part of something has an enormous salutary effect on our well-being.
We need to be more engaged in how we’re going to deal with this together. We’re at risk right now of only the people with resources getting the support they need to survive a changing world, but that’s anathema to what we really need. We don't need more barriers, more walls, more separation. We need to realize that if it's happening to “you,” it's happening to “me.”
I don't know if we're going to make the turn as a species or as a planet. I certainly hope we do, so I’m leaning in and lending myself to that process. I want to live in a world where people make life easier for those around them, so that’s what I’m trying to do. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m trying to live my life awake and engaged with as many other people as I can.
© 2019 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies