My apologies for making you wait for the second part of this article, but there is much ground to cover.
We are moving forward on the basis that the best approach to dealing with stress is not to plunge into it but to step back from it somehow. This rests on the premise that stress is built on a foundation of ‘unknowns’: holes, gaps, vacuums that suck attention. Usually these are to do with future outcomes — we wonder what will happen to us physically, mentally, emotionally, in the future.
It turns out that there are seven positions to assume in relation to any unknown:
This is the one which both our own minds and the surrounding culture tend to push at us: we must plunge straight into the stress, we must ‘go under’, we must 'experience it fully'. Anything less than this feels both physically and mentally impossible and counter-intuitive — surely, a problem exists and the only way to deal with any problem is to jump into it, to become it?
The result of this immersive approach is a loss of perspective and sanity. We are caught up in the swirl, we sink into grief, helplessness, apathy, confusion. Our bodies and minds are wracked with anguish; we cry, we writhe, we despair.
Our culture suggests that this is the only way. We must ‘go through’ this storm, somehow exhaust it. It holds that the answers to the stress lie hidden at its core.
Wrong. All that lies at the core is an unknown. It’s that unknown which creates the vortex which sucks us into it in the first place. We shouldn't have to journey to the centre of the vortex to discover that there’s nothing there.
So forget about immersion as a valid method of dealing with stress. In some cases, yes, the emotional outpourings and insanities prompted at the core of an unknown eventually exhaust themselves temporarily, leaving the individual seemingly more able to see a way forward a little more clearly. But that is pretty much where most individuals would have started from in the first place had they been able to back away a little — and immersion leaves the swirling core still in the vicinity, building strength for another attempt at capturing our attention.
So what do we do?
2. Fixed orbit
The next step out from immersion is to be in a fixed orbit around the unknown at the core. This is most people’s common, day-to-day experience of stress: they are not totally overwhelmed by it, but it fixates them: all or almost all of their attention is stuck on whatever the problem is. This could be a health issue, a relationship matter, something to do with money or a career, or a wider topic like a social concern or cause. Whatever it is, it has at its core an unknown, or more than one, collectively gathering power to draw attention towards itself. And it does so, successfully trapping the individual in its grip. The result is perpetual grief, fear, depair, pain — feelings of loss of selfhood or integrity, lack of will power or direction, absence of freedom.
Luckily, this is only the second step on a seven step ladder or pathway.
3. Wayward orbit.
Another common experience of stress is this next level, in which the stress is still very real and powerful, but does recede at times. This gives the individual a sense of periodic freedom from it. Perhaps they are able to simply forget about it, or other matters grab their attention for a while; perhaps whatever the problem is actually lessens in intensity for a time. However it comes about, the outward result is the same: wayward swings of mood, in which the person is sometimes ‘up’ and sometimes ‘down’. Sanity and perspective are occasionally present, and then mysteriously vanish as the core of the unknown exerts itself again.
It’s better than being totally overwhelmed or trapped, but it’s still very non-optimum.
4. Opposing terminals.
Now we are getting somewhere. The next step up from a position of vacillating stress is this one, for which perhaps the best analogy is probably the positive and negative terminals of an electrical circuit: on the one hand, you have the negative terminal which can represent the unknown at the heart of the stress, but on the other hand you have a positive point in opposition. Things get binary; conflict and discharge occur from time to time between these two separated points, but at least there are two separate points. Instead of being fixated to one degree or another by the stress, the person is moving to an understanding that there are other things outside its orbit. Disorientation, anger, antagonism occur — but these are accompanied at times by feelings of indifference. As the individual masters this state, he or she develops other interests and start to shift away from the source of the stress altogether, even if these movements are temporary. At this level, some sense of the person having a life beyond the stress begins to appear.
NASA’s scientists use the gravitational effect of planetary bodies to accelerate spacecraft away into the void, as you may be aware. It’s called the ‘slingshot effect’. As the individual grows distanced from the unknowns at the heart of whatever stressful situation is bothering him or her, this effect becomes observable and useable at a psychological level: whatever is causing the stress is put to positive use. People at this level begin to create lives for real, to veer away completely from the unknowns which have previously dominated them, and to ‘boldly go where no one has gone before’ — or, to put it less flippantly, to ‘move on’. This is possible because, at this distance from the black holes at the centre of their stress, sanity and space and reasoning power and freedom of movement are growing in strength rather than being drained away. Individuals begin to exhibit strong interest in other fields, creativity, even exhilaration. They experience success, freedom and the first inklings of independence.
As the person grows away from and in an outward direction from the sources of stress, they develop a total independence. Things can reach a point where former stresses are forgotten altogether; recovery is achieved. The person can live an enriched life in the absence of whatever it was that was sucking attention priorly. Perspective and sanity have restored action and power.
Independence isn’t quite the end of the journey, though. There’s still a final, if largely theoretical stage, the point at which not only is the individual free from stress completely, but also comprehends and is able to control those things which formerly were a source of pain and distress. A person in this condition could approach, interact with and even manipulate areas, people, conditions, which earlier might have overwhelmed him or her. This is true mastery and the real end of the road.
Whether or not these stages or levels seem real to you at the moment, they certainly outline a desirable route leading away from stress towards a real and fulfilling life. Next time, we’ll look at particular steps which a person might take to move from one stage to another with some confidence.