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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Coping with Stress: Different Ways In Later Days

From Christmas morning through Boxing Day, my wife and I were on the Island visiting our daughter. She shares an apartment with two other young women. It wasn’t crowded because until the day following Boxing Day her housemates were away visiting their own families.
         We brought Ella, our cat, with us.  From the turning on of the car engine in our driveway she was stressed and traveling for several hours, including an hour and a half inside a ferry full of loud noises, made things worse. 
         Then when we got to apartment Ella found a cat belonging to one of the other women already lives in the apartment.  Both cats were stressed about each other, hissing and growling whenever they met. They remained that way most of the time we were there. Along with Ella I was getting stressed. The long drive over and being in an unfamiliar household where I continually had to search for things I wanted also triggered stress in me. Occasionally I almost lost my temper, something I seldom do.
         During this adventure, I was sometimes able to stay in the “here and now” by paying attention to my breathing, listening to the tinnitus ringing in my ears and occasionally chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.  As I meditated, the stress did not go away but I was able to detach from it and investigate mental attachments as they emerged. It was the first time I have ever meditated during an ongoing series of stressful events.
          It has been found that as we age the amount of stress we experience becomes a good predictor of our life satisfaction; the more stress, the less satisfaction. Stress is moderated by resilience. In later life resilience is associated with good health and well being in the face of financial and other stressors. There is also evidence that a growing number of older adults are able to develop effective ways to deal with the emotions accompanying stressful experiences.
          There are, of course, differences among seniors; some of us cope better than others. For instance the experience of retirement may involve different amounts of stress for different people and having ongoing negative feelings about retirement builds even more stress.  At worst with their job gone some retirees may feel a loss of his or her self/ego and become depressed.
         All psychologists see resilience as a form of coping, which can be successful in moderating stressful experiences. But their explanations of how it works can be quite different. The core to understanding the resilience process seems to be found in understanding the specific ways we respond to stressful events. Western psychologists see coping as an unconscious ego defense mechanism directed at stress. For example, “rationalization” is a subconscious justification using excuses that explain behaviour.   In my experience sometimes students, due to a lack of adequate study habits, may receive a lower test score than he or she expected. Using rationalization they may blame their unwanted grade on me: “.. he had it in for me etc..” A problem with this approach is that too much use of defense mechanisms may contribute to increased dysfunctional behavior. It may moderate stress in the short term, but in the long run it is not a very adequate coping strategy and can lead to future stress in similar situations. 
         So far, aside from reporting my experiences during my visit to the Island, I have been presenting information about  “Western” views of the stress/resilience process. I will now turn my attention toward  Buddhist approach.  It has been suggested that the differences between these two approaches refer to definitions of stress coping styles and practices, connected with different interpretations of the term “reality.”  As stated above Western psychology tends to focus more on the emergence of personal identity or “Ego” and the defense mechanisms it uses while attempting to remain dominant and avoid stress. 
         Buddhist psychologists explain the origins of stress somewhat differently. For them the Ego, is much less important and is basically an illusion with many attachments; “I am ….”.  The Ego itself is seen as a major source of stress and negative feelings. In this way of thinking, stress occurs when we are unable to see reality and we are fixed on making interpretations through the eyes of the Ego about the future based on past experience. In doing so we ignore things about ourselves such as motivation, expectations and dysfunctional coping strategies.
         Both groups agree that by using effective problem solving we can reduce the stress and narrow the gap between reality and our perceptions. At best we can problem solve the effects of stress by finding a way to relax and develop ways to cope with similar situations when they occur in the future. Western psychologists focus on the understanding of defense mechanisms while Buddhist psychologists see meditation setting aside the Ego is an effective method for accomplishing this goal.
         In summary it appears that both approaches see the “Ego” as a central stress factor but they have some disagreement about the Ego/stress relationship. In the “west” the Ego is seen as more individualistic and in need of protection. Buddhist’s see it as a self-creation that we can set aside while we examine our stress directly.  As we age perhaps it is more likely for us to reduce seeing ourselves as the centre of the universe and more as members of the community with increased insight that can lead to more effective conduct and understanding of the meaning of life. 

Sources of information for this blog entry are:

1. Buddhist and Western Perspectives on Suffering, Stress, and Coping by Paul Tyson and Rana Pongruengphant  and
2. Resilience-as-Process: Negative Affect, Stress, and Coupled Dunamical Systems by Mignon Montpetit et al
3. If you would like to look more into your own the stress/health issues Google the “Social Readjustment Rating Scale”.  Take the test and see if it’s relevant to you.

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