It was in Samkhya Yoga that the rishis of India identified the cause of stress as avidya or faulty interpretation of reality.
As we observe a stress awareness month in April, there is cause for concern in India’s context. Stress has reached alarming levels in India. A recent survey conducted by Cigna TTK Health Insurance found that 89% of Indians reported being stressed. Another recent survey by a Canadian software company, Open Text, reported 88% of Indians were stressed due to information overload in this age of technology. These levels of stress among Indians are much higher than even in developed as well as other developing countries. With data about post-COVID-19 stress and anxiety still evolving and being researched, the healthcare of Indians seeks effective measures, most of that come from within our daily lifestyle.
Health experts have been pressing the alarm bells on stress affecting our lifestyle as we go more complex with the use of technology and our workplace environment, both at home and in offices. Stress produces both short-term as well as long-term harmful effects. In the short term, it is responsible for anxiety, faster heart rate, increase in blood pressure, increased energy consumption, and faster intestinal motility. While, in the long term, it contributes to diseases including hypertension, anxiety disorders, sleep disorders, heart disease, stroke, migraine, ulcers, headaches, asthma, backache, arthritis, and others. The technology boom is a culprit to the daily stress levels despite its utility factor. With Indians, including teens and kids, among the world’s highest screen time users, the constant information overload has a latent spiral effect. Just give a quick thought: how many apps do you try daily and how much time do you wait to get responses to your messages? We are constantly bombarded with information, and we are becoming poorer at identifying what information to focus on and what not to consume. Further compounding the problem is the absence of any stressors or what is known as non-events or things like boredom. The causes for rising stress levels and their remedies are both within our daily lifestyle. Ask yourself: when was the last time you actually relaxed without the pressure to take a call or respond to a WhatsApp message? Indians are filling up their free time with video games, endless cell phone use, including playing games and social media engagement, with little time for relaxing their limbs and minds. Worse, workplace stress and the breaking down of extended families into nuclear families have also added to stress among Indians.
History has the answer to all questions baffling our minds regarding modern-day diseases. Interestingly, Ancient India recognized stress much earlier than in the West, but today it itself has succumbed to the stress monster, blaming it on the lack of right knowledge and on how to cope with stress. It was in Samkhya Yoga that rishis of India identified the cause of stress as avidya or faulty interpretation of reality. Such avidya could come from asmita or incorrect assessment of one’s abilities; from raga or attachment to the objects; from dvesha or how much one dislikes the outcomes; from abhnivesha or fear of death. Today, a large segment of Indians has gotten away from the traditional culture and imbibed the harmful habits of the West. Thus, stress has increased, and poor coping styles copied from the West in the form of smoking, alcohol drinking, externalizing entertainment, and other such maladies have taken the forefront.
The research in the West has successfully identified effective techniques of coping and relaxation which need to be promoted in India. There are two primary modes of managing stress, namely, emotion-focused coping and problem-focused coping. In emotion-focused coping the mind is made calm through techniques such as meditation, relaxation, social support, hobbies, and creative activities. While in problem-focused coping, the mind is used to alter thinking and a positive mindset triggers optimism as a remedy.
India is a global powerhouse for the genesis of meditation. However, very few Indians are practicing meditation the right way and many can self-analyze if they’re really getting the returns out of that noisy breathing in public parks. Actually, many miss the perfect harmony between the body and mind, something most essential, during meditation. Meditation is the regular, purposeful practice of becoming aware of one’s bodily sensations, thoughts, or other points of focus. The key to effective meditation is focus, sincerity, regularity, and practice. The other emotion-focused coping techniques are also helpful such as building real-time social support of family and friends instead of spending time in front of the computer. Developing hobbies and engaging in creative activities are also helpful.
These measures may sound stressful, but the West is slowly adapting to these to overcome the stress levels in their daily lives. One of the problem-focused coping techniques is rational emotive therapy. The premise of this psychotherapy that can be used as a self-help approach is to challenge our faulty thinking more in line with what the sages of ancient India said. We all fall into the trap of awfulizing or dwelling on catastrophic ideas or thinking about extreme consequences. We need to realise that this is irrational and must be replaced with statements of acceptance, a moderate assessment of badness, tolerance of failure, and abstaining from the use of extreme terms. This technique can be remembered as the ABCDE technique: A=Activating system identification (stressor), B=Belief system identification (irrational ones), C=Consequences (thinking about consequences of engaging in irrational beliefs), D=Disputing irrational beliefs, and E=Enjoying the effects of new thinking.
Another problem-focused technique is cognitive behavioral therapy. The tenet of this psychotherapy that can be used as a self-help approach is to replace automatic negative thoughts with positive ones. Being an optimist should be the cardinal rule to beat the stress in your life. We must think of problems as temporary and optimism as permanent, failures as specific rather than general, and not blame ourselves for failures but attribute them to circumstances. Yet another approach to problem-focused coping has been described as introspection in yoga in which we can classify worries into those to be faced, those to be tackled immediately, those to be deferred for dealing with later, and those to be ignored.
However, yoga and meditation are yet to be harnessed and embodied in our lives as the ancient texts have laid out. Also, the rise in stress, particularly after a long period of isolation, depression, and anxiety during-and-after the Covid-19 pandemic, demands from us to apply techniques that are nascent in Indian culture as well as those researched in the West.
It’s time to nip it in the bud before it turns into an overwhelming threat.
Prof. Manoj Sharma is Chair of the Social and Behavioral Health Department at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Maneesh Pandeya is a Fulbright Professor and Ph.D. Scholar at Howard University in Washington DC.