On a call with a friend of mine last month, exchanging common platitudes, I asked “how are you?” The response is a familiar tale of work stress, health concerns and overwhelming anxiety. Her reply was riddled with phrases so common as to become cliched, were they not terribly worrying:“I’m so stressed with work”, “life is just crazy at the moment”, “I can’t handle it” “I’m really worried about XYZ”. The notion of stress has permeated our lives and daily parlance, it lingers in the kitchen doorway as we prepare tomorrow’s lunch, it perches in the seat opposite on the delayed train to work.
In 2018, research carried out by the Mental Health Foundation found that 74% of adults experienced stress to the point of feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope. Stress is no longer an experience but a personality trait, a constant sense of being. It is this under-pinning, ever-constant anxiety that contributes to an array of health conditions including an increased risk of heart attack, insomnia and depression.
Why do we feel so stressed? Research carried out by the Mental Health Foundation found 49% of people aged 18-24 experienced stress due to self comparison, a phenomenon no doubt exacerbated by social media platforms. A further 60% cited a pressure to succeed as the reason for increased anxiety. The results are telling of the way we process the world, our stressors and anxiety so often fuelled by fears: fear of not being good enough, of failure, of getting it “wrong”. Such fears instil indecision and doubt, paralysing the individual from taking any action. Rather than put ourselves at risk, we withdraw: festering in the stress-filled-cesspit.
It is the premise of Susan Jeffers’s popular book Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway. An instruction manual for overcoming anxiety; do things that make you scared, that challenge fears or assumptions holding you back from reaching your potential.
Jeffers’ text is not entirely new material.
In yoga, Tapas refers to the cultivation of self-discipline in order to burn away our impurities, or as Swami Satchidananda defined it, the acceptance of those pains that lead to purification. On the mat, tapas manifests in the determination to hold a difficult pose, to breathe through a challenging posture. Beyond this, tapas is embracing new opportunities, or taking on challenges as a means to affect change and enable personal development. It is a simple hypothesis: by gradually exposing ourselves to that which brings us stress, we are better able to handle it. I am reminded of the common phrase, now fallen foul to the printed-kitchenware trend: “nothing changes in the comfort zone”.
Deliberately putting yourself through hardship? It is hardly an appealing invitation. Yet, experiencing these micro-stressors allows the individual to manage their expectations. Much like the dreaded office party, made somewhat bearable by free booze and M&S nibbles, we learn the realities of fears are not quite as awful as first imagined.
I am not arguing for extremism. I have sat beside a self-confessed “bad flyer”, a term which did not do justice to the tearful, panicked hour that followed. There is a reason Exposure Therapy is a gradual, controlled process.
Tapas should be driven by kindness and an acceptance for the discomfort that may arise. It is the cultivation of self-discipline and courage, enabling the individual to lean into discomfort with generosity and warmth. Too often we indulge in self-punishment, belittling our anxieties in the desire to overcome them; a fruitless attempt that only serves to exacerbate stress. A stoic and loyal friend, yoga empowers us to address stressors with tenderness and find strength in challenge.