How can I change my perception of stress?

Authentic meditation practice can help us change our perception of stress and our reaction to it. “Stress” is a catchall term that covers a variety of reactions to unwelcome circumstances, from anxiety to panic. When we allow stress to run the show, it impacts our bodies and our minds. We often use the word “stress,” meaning we often feel the pressure of having to deal with the difficult situations we find ourselves in.

It’s when we notice that we’re overwhelmed, when we notice the suffering, that we look for help. In many ways, stress is a good motivator; when something hurts, we’re going to try to fix it, to do something about it. At the same time, we can also try to prevent it from happening in the first place. And research has confirmed over and over again that certain meditation techniques both prevent stress and help us cope with it better.

Meditation can help—it can really change the way we relate to stress. We experience “bad” stress when we perceive that demands—on our time, our emotional availability, our competency—are greater than our resources. That’s when stress can overwhelm us. “Good” stress might be when demands are higher than our usual resources, but we’re willing to try—it makes us stretch. We might say that the gap is smaller, and we can handle it. So it’s all based on perception. We actually need certain levels of stress to drive us, to motivate us, to make us grow, to make us go beyond our comfort zone and to stretch beyond our self-imposed limits. It’s something we need if we are serious about personal development.

The mechanisms of stress have two components: how we appraise the stress, and how we handle it. How do we respond? How do we react? What do we do? If the gap between what we think we can do and what we need to do isn’t too wide, we can try to handle that. But if the gap is really too large, we can’t. This is where meditation can really help.

Regarding the first component, how do we interpret our resources and how do we interpret the demands? It’s subjective, obviously—it has a lot to see with perception. And our perception can be trained or modeled with meditation. What’s the connection?

When we practice meditation, we develop a different perception of things because we are not so engaged with them. We don’t identify ourselves so much with the problems. And when we have more distance, when we are less caught up in the situations and emotions that cause stress, our problems are perceived as being more manageable. It’s as if you took a step back and observed the whole picture from a distance. This is the first way that meditation can help—by allowing us to appraise stressful situations with more detachment.

Whatever is in the way is the way.

But we can go even farther. We can disrupt the habit of seeing these situations as problems, and begin to see them as challenges. If our main motivator is to avoid everything that disturbs us and be comfy, then of course it doesn’t work. But if our motivator is to grow as human beings, whatever is in the way is the way. Anything that might be seen as a problem is recognized as an opportunity to know ourselves better and to grow. So in a way, turning the perception of a problem into a challenge makes a huge difference on how we appraise it.

Now, how do you appraise your resources? Because very often we don’t even know what our resources are, what our limits are and how far we can stretch ourselves. And it so happens that the more you practice meditation, the more the picture you have of yourself is realistic, because you’re more in contact with yourself. You’re less distracted; you have a clearer picture of who you are. You’re learning how far you can stretch yourself. You won’t just keep on going without knowing what your limits are; your appraisal of your resources is more accurate.

There are different ways of coping. For example, we can cope by solving the problem. When meditation is part of our lives, our capacity to focus is better; our problem-solving abilities are more accurate and more skillful because our attention is a hundred percent there. Naturally we will be more competent when it comes to solving whatever problem arises.

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Furthermore, the way we respond or react emotionally, our capacity to regulate our emotions, will improve as well. Because that’s another effect of meditation that has been proven by neuroscience! Meditators handle stress better; we are less reactive to emotional stimuli and situations because we are less involved in the reality that we perceive. We don’t cling to it as strongly. And so naturally the way we cope with our emotions will be much more skillful. We will be less agitated and stressed, and we well know that when we are calmer, we can handle any crisis better. And vice versa. We also know that those who handle crises better are those who are better able to handle their emotions.

This is just a small sample of how meditation supports our appraisal of and ability to cope with stress. And just that, in itself, is huge.

This article is derived from Mind Talks by Maria Camara, PhD, our featured teacher in our Working with Stress meditation course. Click on the banner above to find out more details.