The Stress Epidemic

The 21st century will be the century of Mind. But the Mind is Man’s last unconquered frontier. The Upanishads describe it as fast, fickle and uncontrollable, like a dozen swift horses travelling at break neck speed. Mankind is paying a steep price for failing to learn about Mind before embarking on the race for success in the new Millennium. Stress is the price we are paying. Stress, tracks the precarious climb up the corporate ladder.

Let us consider the most common emotion of this century – anger: What happens when you are angry?

Thirty-six chemicals pour into the blood: Lethal chemicals like adrenaline and histamine. The heart rate, pulse rate shoots up. The rate of breathing increases. The body gets ready to fight or flight. Digestion is switched off. All parts of the brain, except the primitive ‘lizard brain’ is switched off. Primitive man who was confronted by a tiger needed this state of high alert to survive in the jungle. Today, this desperate MayDay response, this most primitive survival response, is used frivolously. Not to save life, but in response to office politics or a traffic jam.

Any of the Big five emotions (Kama, Kodha, Madha Lokha, Matsarya) lust, anger, obsession, greed, jealousy, can flood the body with the chemicals of stress. Interactive Electronic tools have made stress continuous. Home is no longer a refuge.

Work follows us everywhere. The blurring of work and leisure, has intensified in this era of 24-hour access, when the computer is just a fingertip away and the cellphone is as intimate as a heartbeat. The delicate tissues of the body are constantly awash in the lethal chemical bath of chronic stress. Stress is destructive. Stress is aging. Stress is a killer.

I was talking to one of the brilliant young men in a client company I am advising on innovation. He said “No one takes you seriously, if you leave office before 9 PM. The fellow who stayed on till 12 PM to answer his last e-mail, received at 11.45 PM from the boss in the US, is a winner. The fact that he had a motorbike accident going home, makes him a corporate hero!”.

In my previous avatar as group vice-president of India’s largest corporate hospital, I have seen 29 year olds drop dead from a heart attack. A bypass surgery in the 30’s has become a status symbol. The personal cost of stress includes burnout, chronic disabling illnesses, crippling tensions in family life, and a loss of personal fulfillment and joy. The casualties are often children who live in the high tension, pressure cooker climate created in the homes of corporate high fliers.

Often ignored are the corporate costs. From a study of the health records of a well known US company, it is estimated that the annual corporate cost of stress per employee, is about US $ 10,000. None of us want to backtrack to the snail paced world of BI (Before Internet). How do we cope? How can we be successful without damaging ourselves and those we love. How can we be peaceful and happy and still maintain the kind of speed required by the corporate world? What are the coping skills required to deal creatively with the stress epidemic? Insurance providers have found that the regular practice of meditation reduces heart related expenses by 87% per person. Just as rates are reduced for fire insurance, when sprinklers are provided, perhaps health insurance rates can be reduced for those who practice meditation regularly.

Einstein, Time Magazine’s Man of the Century warns. “The concern for man and his destiny must always be the chief interest of all technical effort. Never forget it among your diagrams and equations”. The revolution of rising expectations, fuelled by the global perspective, provided by the media and Internet creates unrelenting stress

The world is in your drawing room, clamouring to change your life with more and more sophisticated toys. As a popular jingle goes, ‘What separates the men from the boys, is just the price of their toys’.

The world is a five star hotel. Let’s not grab everything on our plates. Let us be choosy, so that we may avoid spiritual indigestion and physical exhaustion.