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Life Exclusive
Stress and distress are an integral part of life

The strongest bridge of all could be built with human love to withstand all distress. We need this message now more than ever before in history

“Fear not, life still
Leaves human effort scope,
But, since life teems with ill,
Nurse no extravagant hope”
Mathew Arnold, Empedocles on Etna

The word ‘stress’ brings on goose pimples in many of us. There are courses and symposia on stress management measures all over the country and even abroad. Stress, however, is the single most important growth related stimulus for all living organisms on this planet. If there is no stress, a zero stress state, there is no growth and, consequently, there would be death soon. Stress is, therefore, an integral part of life itself and the latter, in turn, is ceaseless change until death. Therefore we should not and, cannot, try to get rid of stress. What brings on disease and disability, however, is our abnormal response to stress, that many of us condition ourselves to acquire. This is better called ‘distress’ for the sake of clarity and proper understanding. Whereas stress is good and welcome, distress is the killer that needs to be managed well, lest it should lead to disease and disability.

To understand distress I better give a common analogy. When a civil engineer builds a bridge, he takes into consideration the most important role of that bridge, of bearing a particular load put on it. If it is a footbridge that needs to take a few humans crossing, it need not be as strong as the roadbridge that has to have big vehicles passing over it. In short, different bridges are built with varying strengths based on their needs. If a simple footbridge were to have a heavy vehicle pass over it there is a good possibility that the bridge might crack or break. In the same way, the human body is built with unique capacity to withstand stress and grow with it. But life being what it is, especially these days, where man eats man, every one of us meets with situations and stress levels that we are not built to cope with. That is how many of us bend and crack or break under the daily stress or unusual stress that could come our way.

How to cope with abnormal stress?

The one vital difference between the bridge that the civil engineer builds and the human body, that is built to last, is the capacity of the latter to vary its strength based on the level of stress and the need of the hour. It takes a bit for each of us to strengthen our defences against the abnormal stressors in life. Whereas the weak bridge could be temporarily strengthened, the human system could be trained to withstand any stress if only one learns to do that.

Human beings have three important levels at which they work. The body, as we see it, is only a minor part of the ‘whole’ human being. The most important part, the one that helps all kinds of adaptations under difficult situations, is the human mind or consciousness. The other vital part is our genome or the genetic structure. This is not changeable to any great degree. While one could build his/her body in a gymnasium by regular training of the muscles, one could as well train his/her mind through meditation, faith, and the ancient ‘Yoga’ system of India.

Faith heals

 Faith is not religion—far from it. Faith is mainly spirituality, which is sharing and caring. Scientific studies have shown that believers have lower blood pressure levels, slower heart rates, better breathing rhythms, and suprisingly, significantly lower rates of cardiovascular accidents and cancers compared to the non-believers. If one believes that he/she alone runs this world, there is always room for frustration and depression when things do not go the way one wants. This happens not infrequently. The resulting depression is the main cause of suicidal deaths, heart attacks and cancers. Many studies, on either side of the Atlantic, have now shown that depression ranks higher than cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and smoking as a trigger for the above mentioned killer diseases.

The best antidote for frustration seems to be this prayer.

“Don’t feel totally, personally, eternally, irrevocably responsible for everything,
 That is my job.  God
  (For the atheist is it Mother Nature)

This is the essence of the Indian philosophy of humility—the core of Indian education.

Meditation Helps

Meditation is not chanting any mantra. Meditation is silence that is golden, and listening to our own saner inner voice. We spend a lot of time with others and live in the midst of all kinds of noise pollution in this materialistic world today and rarely do we get time to listen to our inner voice. We rarely socialize with our own self. If one learns to listen to his/her own inner voice, sanity comes quickly and many of our actions, which might bring us sorrow and depression in future, could be modified. The prerequisite for proper meditation is the need to breathe slowly using the diaphragm, the belly button breathing. The latter makes the whole lung expand and contract making our individual body cells, of which there are more than one hundred thousand billion in all, to have better oxygenation. Every body cell, mentioned above, has the human mind at its sub-atomic quantum level. Better oxygenation of cells makes us tranquil in no time.

Various scientific studies have shown that slow and deep breathing, described above, makes changes in some of the vital aspects of the whole system. It lowers aortic pressure (blood pressure), pulmonary artery pressure (blood vessel taking blood from the right heart to the lungs for cleaning), and increases the heart’s ejection fraction (the power to pump blood) even in patients with decompensated hearts (heart failure patients). One could easily understand the good that it could do to a normal person! Slow breathing and better oxygenation of every bit of the human (cell) mind is meditation. The serenity that comes with it strengthens our mind to resist and cope with even the worst stressor.

Yoga is the answer

Yoga is not synonymous with aasanaas. Yoga is, simply, the training to control the undulations in the mind. Desire, greed, pride, ego, hatred, hostility, anger, and jealousy are the enemies of mankind. The one good antidote to kill all these negative thoughts is the capacity of a trained mind to overcome them. That is exactly what a good yogi achieves. He becomes tranquil to understand that life is uncertain, transient and the only purpose of life here is to be of some use to someone else, who might need a helping hand to wipe his/her tear.  He quickly learns not to weep at human action, not to hate it, nor to laugh at it but, to understand human action. Understanding human action is the strongest antidote to any distress in life.

The yogaasanaas, in addition, give the body muscles a good pull everyday. That is shown to produce very powerful opioids that help reduce certain common cancers like that of the breast, lung and prostate gland. This is the bonus one gets.

‘Civilized’ man has been trying to change the world, but has never attempted to change himself. The above mentioned training should help one to change oneself. When one changes, one is absolutely certain of one thing—that there would be one rascal less in this world. That would make this world a better place to live in. Even if one does not understand where the human mind is never mind; as long as you practice the above three methods to bring that mind under control to manage distress. One does not manage or avoid stress in life as it is impossible, but one could always manage distress using the above methods of love as being, sharing and caring.

One could still argue that the above methods hold good for the ‘educated’ class only and might not help the poor illiterate in the world. Most of the illiterate in our poor villages are better educated than most of us literate lot. Poverty is the greatest risk in life and is the womb of all diseases but, the poor have learnt to “pay for their poverty with their lives” because of the literate, uneducated people see that 90% of the wealth is held by 10% of the top rich and the rest of the world should rest content with the remaining 10% of the wealth. This “inverse care law” teaches the poor the best solution for the stress, i.e. to lessen their wants and not increase their needs. They mostly live a hand-to-mouth existence but, are happy with their lot most of the time. Again the greedy amongst us that make them spend what little they earn on tobacco and alcohol, the two enemies of mankind that we, the rich, sell to become richer! The solution suggested above that all of us become tranquil would remove the greatest risk for the poor as well, without their having to do anything at all.

Still some questions remain! Today’s risks, like what happened in NewYork and Washington on 11 September 2001, have never happened in the past and how does one cope with this kind of novel distress? The distress that the Yangste Valley peasant had in the times past of plagues and pestilence, as also the predation that killed our forest-dweller forefathers were as bad as what happens today, may be even worse. While a few thousands died in NewYork, almost 90% of the population of London and Venice were dead bodies during the plague epidemic (Black Death) and an equal number died of the white death (tuberculosis) in Europe in the past. Time might not be far that our terrorists might reenact that scenario for us in the near future. Some of us have stockpiled deadly germ warfare weapons. That would make the battlefield even at all times—real equality indeed!

Our greatest enemy has been our educational system that taught us the struggle for existence as the basis of human life on earth. Both Darwinists and the social Darwinists that cry for class struggle drew their inspiration from an economist, Thomas Malthus. Malthusian hypothesis that survival depends on struggle and competition is flawed at its very root. Darwin's theory of the survival of the fittest has been disproved time and again by biology. A pregnant butterfly that smells a snake in the vicinity, changes its foetus so that the offspring is born with larger wings to fly away from danger faster. Similarly a pregnant lizard that senses the presence of its enemy with its smell, changes the smelling (olfactory) apparatus of the foetus inside its womb to be able to smell, after birth, the enemy from far greater distance than the mother does! On the contrary, a human mother that does not get proper food during her first trimester of pregnancy makes the foetus have a much smaller pancreas, heart and blood vessels, exposing the future generation to have precocious fatal diseases like diabetes, hypertension and heart attacks! Curious are the ways of nature.

Class struggle of the social Darwinists also does not depend on struggle completely. Before the struggle starts there is always co-operation. The class that wants to fight the other class will have to first have co-operate among themselves to fight another class. If they, instead, take the other class also into co-operation where is the need to compete and fight? We need human understanding as stated above to avoid all struggles in life. Distress of all kinds could be managed with the tranquil mind. As the original analogy goes, the strongest bridge of all could be built with human love to withstand all distress. Long live mankind. We need this message now more than ever before in history.

“If you do not learn from history,
You will have to relive history”

(Professor Dr BM Hegde, a Padma Bhushan awardee in 2010, is an MD, PhD, FRCP (London, Edinburgh, Glasgow & Dublin), FACC and FAMS. He is also editor-in-chief of the Journal of the Science of Healing Outcomes, chairman of the State Health Society's Expert Committee, Govt of Bihar, Patna. He is former vice-chancellor of Manipal University at Mangalore and former professor for Cardiology of the Middlesex Hospital Medical School, University of London. Prof Dr Hegde can be contacted at [email protected])


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