The Stress Balloon

By Marcia G. Yerman

With global conflicts in the headlines and a constant analysis on the health of the economy filling the airwaves, it's not surprising that people feel anxious about the future ... and increasingly stressed-out about their lives. I spoke with Sarah McLean, author of Soul-Centered, about the challenge of staying centered in our fast-moving world of information and electronic overload.

"We cannot shut out all bad news. We cannot just delete stress. Stress is a fact of life," McLean pronounced. Rather, strengthening one's nervous system through the practice of meditation is a top way to navigate stress.

Each of us has a different mind/body makeup. Therefore, the manifestations of too much stress differ. One individual may be able to listen to the 11 o'clock news and not lose a wink of sleep. For another, a negative report can keep them ruminating until three in the morning. Regardless of the source, stress causes discomfort. McLean uses a metaphor to explain that as the stress level builds, it's like pumping air into a balloon. Without relief, the balloon gets to a point where it can't take any more pressure.

Our nervous system operates the same way. When we have reached the point where we can't take any more taxing input, it can manifest in various ways. In the emotional realm, people can become overreactive, angry, anxious, or depressed. They may become psychologically paralyzed, or develop panic attacks. Their mental facilities may become confused.

Loss of focus or poor decision-making can be evidenced. In the physical realm, insomnia, migraines, and chronic pain can be experienced. Yet, when we let a little air out of the balloon - as with meditation, exercise, and sleep - the built-up tension can be relieved. Meditation leads to an alertness and realization of habitual responses to external cues. This empowers the possibility of making deliberate changes to reactivity.

Discussing how meditation trains attention to go inward, directing one to become more self-conscious and attuned to the present moment, McLean said, "Looking to the external world to feel safe and centered is not the answer. The world is ever-changing."

In other words, that approach is a false refuge. Rather, she advocates becoming "more referred to your inner realm, where the constancy of your own awareness can become an island of peace."

McLean related, "When you develop an inner focus, you can get in touch with yourself and experience a sense of stability, stillness, safety, and spaciousness. This can lead to less reactivity to external phenomena, more thoughtful responses, and nourishing choice-making."

Meditation develops deeper self-awareness by soothing emotional organization, thereby activating a calming stage. Most importantly, it replaces coping strategies that have negative side effects. These include abusing drugs, alcohol, and food, as well as other self-numbing activities.

Although emphasizing that meditation is not a Band-Aid for problems and adversities, McLean indicated that the practice develops a whole "new normal," one of balance and serenity. There are no guarantees what life will bring. Like the tide reaching the shore, we never know what we will find. Finances, family, national and global influences - they all challenge us daily. Sometimes we can cope. In certain situations we resist.

"The only guarantee," McLean articulated, "is that life is happening now, and this moment is a sure thing." That thought brought us to the topic of "safety," and how we perceive it. If we consider safety as dependent on situational factors, then we are destined to be on a roller coaster. Anything can change in the blink of an eye - from fiscal security to physical health. The cornerstone of McLean's philosophy is that "safety is internal."

She asks, "Are you safe in this moment?" Her belief is that the answer is usually affirmative.

McLean told me that what creates a sense of being unsafe is our mental habit of projecting into the future as a reaction to an external cue or threat. She suggests that this can create confusion and fear. Instead, she advises cultivating "present moment awareness" as key. Along with being able to be more responsive, rather than reactive, when we are more mindful and engaged in the activity at hand - with a non-judgmental approach - it creates attentiveness to "being in the here and now."

It's an understanding that, "Life is what is happening now!"

The world can be viewed in two ways: as an unfriendly arena, or as if circumstances and events are happening for your benefit. McLean asks rhetorically, "Is life happening to you and are you a victim of your reality?"

The flip side is, "Do experience the world as a friendly place, as if life is happening for you?"

Like many, I was looking for an explanation of why bad things happen. McLean suggested reframing the inquiry and considering the movements of the world as part of our collective "awakening journey" - an opportunity to imagine that we are all on a quest for "spiritual evolution."

When confronting a difficult or overwhelming circumstance, McLean encourages responding to a situation while keeping in mind that the experiences can yield a new perspective. Rather than shutting down and becoming reactive, she offers the premise, "How could this be for my benefit? Can something good to come out of it?"

She insists, "We can always find what we are looking for!"

McLean shared the story of a frightened caterpillar, scared that the world was coming to an end as it began going through its changes. Just when the caterpillar thought its existence was over, it emerged as a butterfly.

Indeed, people often speak of an illness or life trauma as putting them on a new path that connects them to an ability to live a richer, more balanced life. Rather than wishing away the bad news or overreacting, it is best to be in charge of our own inner equilibrium as a way of making the change we want to see in the world.

McLean quoted the poem by Tao Te Ching author Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher who lived in the sixth century B.C.E.:

"If there is to be peace in the world,
there must be peace in the nations.
If there is to be peace in the nations,
there must be peace in the cities.
If there is to be peace in the cities,
there must be peace between neighbors.
If there is to be peace between neighbors,
there must be peace in the home.
If there is to be peace in the home,
there must be peace in the heart."

The bottom line remains.
Everything begins on an individual level.

This article originally appeared on the website SedonaMeditation

Reviewed November 21, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith