Recipes For A Happier, Less Stressful Life
Living a stress-free life is a myth. Men and women across the Arab world wake up every day to face multiple challenges, and not only on a personal level. They have to muddle through political and social strife and some even have to survive fear and insecurity. Human beings have had to deal with stress ever since they developed an awareness of fear and understood the consequences of danger. Our bodies evolved to cope with the natural stressors that existed in primordial times: storms, hunger, and wild animals. We learned that solidarity within the group and physical strength were the key to manage stressors.
Times have changed and the number of stressors has grown exponentially. However, our bodies have not evolved to cope with modern life, and our natural means became inadequate to handle our current issues. The ‘fight or flight’ response is no longer helpful for modern stressors. In the 1980s, psychologists were busy identifying the causes of stress. Many books were published on the subject. People around the world were coached to identify their stressors and work on eliminating them, or at least to control them. They were promised that most problems would be solved.
With the proliferation of mega cities and the complexities of residing in them, the fast-paced life that ensued only increased stressors. All the advice advocated earlier became obsolete. Commuting, traffic jams, long hours of work, juggling more than one job, dealing with difficult bosses, handling financial worries while dealing with personal matters, only complicated our struggles. Stressors became a series of daily life events that we could no longer manage. Many people were succumbing to the pressures of daily life and surrendering to its might and this eventually led to serious health consequences.
In the 1990s psychologists shifted their attention to the management of the consequences of stress. Stressors are here to stay. Efforts were devoted to learning how to manage the effects of stress. Heart problems, weight issues, migraines, and other health complaints became common not only for middle-aged people but also among young adults at the peak of their careers. To respond to these concerns many programs were established, and themed holidays focusing on diets and sports flourished.
The message was simple, work hard, suffer, and then let us take care of you. The demand increased, and soon a couple of weeks during the year were no longer enough to counter the effects of modern life stress. City dwellers around the world turned to daily routines such as yoga classes, tai chi, Pilates and a variety of other physical activities that try to soothe the body and heal the soul. People living in cities like New York, London, Paris, Tokyo, Dubai or Beirut to name a few, were busy organizing their schedules to include carrying a mat or other sports gears and rushing around either during the day or after office hours to join a club or a practice that which promised health and a stress-free life.
Health vs. happiness
It is a fact that many people who have adopted these lifestyles are healthier, but they are often more stressed out trying to squeeze these activities into their busy and demanding lives. They are also very anxious about food, pollution, and the general quality of life. In their health pursuit, they have managed the migraines but not the mood, they have managed the weight but not the pleasures, and on average they have managed to improve the quality of their lives but not necessarily the levels of stress.
This cycle of life leaves many people disillusioned. Physical and medical tests could detect a healthy person but not necessarily a happy person. The initial quest was to control stressors, deal with the consequences of stress and manage our lives to secure a happier life. However, stress and happiness have a very complex relationship. Stress is a concept that involves many variables. The most obvious are certainly the stressors (cause) and how our bodies react to these stressors (effect).
Stress management studies over the past three decades have addressed the causes, symptoms, and provided a set of treatments. All the techniques to deal with stress have been exhausted. The shelves of bookstores are overflowing with self-help books, websites and blogs are bombarding us with tips, and workshops are marketed to sell us a better life. What we seem to ignore very often is the missing link – our state of mind.
Stressors are here to stay, we will react to them physiologically because our bodies are not meant to deal with modern stress, and yet we can do a lot to help our system survive. Our focus should transcend dealing with the situation to working on prevention. A prevention plan designed to allow us to develop immunity to life stressors at both the physical and the psychological level. A plan that would support and guarantee both a healthy and a happy life.
Secrets of equilibrium
The secret to a sustainable stress management strategy is to fall in love with ourselves and we need to start as soon as possible!
Middle Eastern cultures consider self-love as a vice and many confuse it with selfishness. However, there is a lot of wisdom in considering self-love as a mental state that focuses on nurturing your physical and emotional health. This strategy exercises a dynamic approach that allows you to take action towards achieving your ultimate goal of having not only a healthy life but a happy one as well.
Loving ourselves is a state of mind that serves us best as a long term project. Quick fixes have proven to be useless. Their long term damage outweighs the short term gains. Self-love involves a commitment to a style of life where action starts from within to create ripple effects on our surroundings. The list of advice can be very long, but a few ideas can set us on the right track. An assessment of one's current state is vital as it allows us to develop a personalized strategy that sustains our needs. The following are a few principles and ideas that will get you moving towards your ultimate goal – happiness.
- Start by believing that you can live a happy life – it is your right.
- Develop the skills of mindfulness – your ability to understand your feelings and your thoughts. Being mindful also means that your actions are dependent on what you think rather than what others think of you.
- Draw your boundaries and learn how to say ‘no’ to social relationships that do not nurture your well-being. Say ‘no’ to toxic relationships and surround yourself with positive friends and family. Say ‘no’ to work that drains you physically and emotionally and does not support your professional growth and maturity.
- Nurture good habits and live a healthy lifestyle – taking care of your body (the only one you have!) and protecting it as a means to a higher goal. A healthy body allows you to focus on more meaningful causes in life.
- Focus on the ‘here and now’ and live in the present moment. Address your current needs rather than what you want in the future. Focusing on current needs satisfies the body and soul while focusing on ‘wants’ leaves you struggling with frustration and anxiety.
- Be compassionate towards yourself. Treat yourself gently and do not go harsh on your body and ego. Take ownership of your successes and mistakes without punishing yourself. A mistake is a learning experience that allows us to mature. Love yourself.
- Find your purpose – set intentions on a daily basis. Simple guidelines that allow you to focus on your daily activities, give value to your work and to your interpersonal connections.
I believe we owe ourselves the commitment to cherish our bodies and nourish our souls with good habits, meaningful intentions and healthy relationships whether at work or in our social space. We should cherish the time we have and focuse on elevating ourselves beyond the daily struggles to enjoy the blessings of life.