Why do some people suffer from debilitating symptoms of stress while others who are under equal or greater pressure don’t? This is a question I’ve deliberated for the past 17 years as I’ve listened to countless meditation students tell me about the difficulties in their lives. I’ve learned consequently that there is a distinction between the pressure someone experiences due to the conditions in their life and stress, which is their mind’s reaction to that pressure. Although constant pressure can lead to physical and mental fatigue and even strain, stress, which is the result of anxiety and fear, is far more likely to endanger your physical and mental health. I’ve also observed that many people conflate pressure and stress; they automatically interpret any feeling of strong pressure as being inherently stressful. But this is a misperception, and understanding the difference between pressure and stress can create a greater sense of ease and well-being in your life.
Differentiating between Pressure and Stress
Pressure is a natural response to the “weight” or “heaviness” of the demands in your life, which you experience in your body, particularly your nervous system. The feeling of pressure starts in the brain as it contemplates your situation; the brain then sends signals about whatever is happening to you to your autonomic nervous system, which manifest as body sensations, thoughts, and images in your mind. Pressure is like an internal messenger that is telling you, “Pay attention.” You experience the message as a demand; it is this demand that constitutes the felt sense of pressure in the body and mind.
Stress is a very different phenomenon. It is your mind’s fearful, anxious, and immediate reaction to the demands that you face. You may be reacting to demands that you are facing at this moment or ones that you anticipate will happen in the future. You may even be reacting to pressure you felt in the past that was so traumatizing that the memory of it triggers feelings of stress in the present. You may also be inflating how truly fearful the situation is or completely misperceiving what’s going on.
The reason stress can be harmful is because it provokes an exaggerated and inappropriate “fight or flight response.” Although the fight or flight response is designed to help us cope with threatening situations, it isn’t intended to be turned on for long periods of time. When it is, the flood of neurochemicals that are released in the process damage the heart, the glands, and the nervous system. Also, when we’re stressed we tend to take up unhealthy habits in order to combat the stress, such as overeating or abusing alcohol or drugs.
Don’t get me wrong — too much pressure for too long a time period can also be debilitating and harmful, however your body and mind are built to cope with sustained pressure and to recover when the pressure is over. But when you are under stress for a long period of time, you are in danger of becoming imbalanced or sick. Your body and mind can handle periodic or brief episodes of stress but they are not equipped to cope with constant stress and the damage it causes.
Using Mindfulness to Heal Your Stress Habit
If you tend to interpret many situations in which you feel pressure as being stressful, then you are in danger of getting caught in a vicious cycle of constantly feeling stressed. The first step in overcoming this reflexive reaction is to ask yourself, “Is this really stressful or am I simply feeling a lot of pressure?” You find the answer by assessing the particulars of the situation, clarifying what action is called for (while being realistic about what you are capable of doing), and accepting that there are times in life when you will feel pressure and the outcome is uncertain. (This is called clear comprehension in the Buddhist practice of mindfulness.) If it truly is a stressful situation and you are in danger or are unable to function, then you need to take whatever steps are necessary to assure your safety.
The second step is to be mindful of whether you are feeling stressed simply because you are under pressure. If so, you can remedy this in several ways:
Begin with naming it as pressure and clarifying what the demand is. Then define the tasks involved and make a list of what is required of you to complete what needs to be done.
Acknowledge the challenge that the pressure presents and work out a system of balancing it. Allowing yourself time to rest, eating healthy food, meditating, being in nature, engaging in physical activity, receiving body work, and getting involved in activities that give you joy can all help bring relief from stress.
Find a support system (either a person or a group, professional or friends) to help you deal with the pressure.
The third step is to notice if a feeling of inadequacy, ambivalence, or ambiguity is causing your stress reaction. If so, explore these feelings — they are your teachers as well as your motivation.
The fourth step is to notice if you have a “story” or an identity of being stressed out and ask yourself, “In what way does feeling stressed all the time serve me? If I weren’t so stressed, what would I be feeling? What would I be dealing with?”
If you truly apply yourself to this mindful exploration of pressure and stress in your life, you will become much more mindful of what you are actually feeling. Moreover, once you have clarity regarding the distinction between pressure and stress, you may well discover that you have an increased capacity for handling pressure and are more skillful in dealing with it. You also become more adept at recognizing stress and seeing its destructive nature. In turn, you become more careful about putting yourself in stressful situations and are more likely to seek help in getting out of them.
© Phillip Moffitt, 2012