By Swami Bhaskarananda
Mental stress can be caused by the anticipation of unwanted events. Worry, anxiety and fear are states of mental apprehension. The disaster has not come, yet its apprehension causes mental stress. When disaster strikes, we are no longer afraid, anxious or worried. The fears, anxieties and worries caused by the anticipated disaster are gone. Now we are only busy trying to survive the disaster we are in. Even in this changed situation new fears in anticipation of the condition getting worse may come and start causing stress.
To manage this kind of stress, it helps to mentally assess the worst that can happen and then prepare for its prevention. In reality most anticipated events never take place. Yet, knowing the worst that can happen and being prepared for it can greatly reduce stress. For example, during the Second World War, Londoners feared that their city would be bombed by enemy planes. Many were panic-stricken. Meanwhile, various precautionary measures were taken, such as building air-raid shelters all over the city, introducing daily blackouts, training people to respond to air-raid sirens, and forming Air Raid Precaution (A. R. P) units all over London. Citizens were also educated about the harm bombings could cause and how to protect themselves from air raids when that would happen. In short, Londoners were made fully prepared psychologically and otherwise for that eventuality. As a result, panic-related stress was vastly diminished.
Mental stress can also be overcome through positive comparisons. Comparisons can cause either happiness or unhappiness. The kind of comparison that causes unhappiness may be called negative comparison. The kind that causes happiness may be called positive comparison. Positive comparison can help us in getting rid of psychological stress.
One gentleman had developed the habit of feeling miserable most of the time. His miserable feelings were largely caused by negative comparisons such as, “My brother is very successful in life and I’m not; all my neighbors’ have nicer and bigger homes while my home is the smallest; my friends’ sons are extremely gifted and enterprising but my sons are not, ” etc. He felt so miserable and depressed that he would often speak of death. But once he had to go to see a patient in a hospital. There he saw several young people paralyzed from various sports-related accidents. Some were quadriplegic. They were unable to move their legs and arms. And those young men were expected to live that way for many more years. This experience opened the eyes of that gentleman. Through positive comparison—comparing his own condition with that of the paralyzed patients—he suddenly realized how lucky he was. He shook off his miserable feelings and started volunteering as a nurse’s aid in that hospital. This selfless service gave him great joy and satisfaction.
The support group concept used by organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous is based on positive comparison.
A wonderful example of overcoming stress through positive comparison we find in the life of Hellen Keller (1880-1968), who became blind and deaf when she was only nineteen months old. But her physical handicap did not stand in the way of her becoming a role model for millions all over the world.
She once said, “Instead of comparing our lot with that of those who are more fortunate than we are, we should compare it with the lot of the great majority of our fellow men. It then appears that we are among the privileged.” This is what I call positive comparison.
To instill hope in those who are defeated by their own minds another statement from her is worth quoting: “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.”