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Inner Strength Is Your Armour Against Stress

Link to the Episode

Anshu Bahanda: This is Anshu Bahanda on Wellness Curated. Thanks for joining me on this podcast. My mission is to empower you with health and wellness so that you can then go and empower others. We are tackling the topic of stress because we are all affected by it. Whether it’s at work, with family issues, money worries, the list is endless. It’s a source of unhappiness and ill health, which is why we’re speaking with my guest today who’s a brilliant psychotherapist who graduated from Oxford University with three master’s degrees, a doctorate and was recently honoured with an OBE. 

Welcome Dr. Pattni. Stress levels have gone up hugely in the world. Especially since COVID they’ve gone up even more. And we all seem to be living in this fight of flight, sympathetic nervous system. I have a theory about it, but I wanted to ask you what is stress and why do we experience more and more of it? 

Dr. Ramesh Pattni: There are of course many signs and symptoms of stress. So for example, in the body people start having headaches, nausea and sometimes you have this stomach kind of problem, shallow breathing, heart palpitations. You have aches and pains in the body and somebody starts telling you “I feel this headache is never going to go because I feel so stressed” and this headache is there and the feeling is there as well. So for example, we feel anxiety, fear, as a kind of foreboding about something bad is going to happen. We feel frustrated about things and we become snappy in our behaviour. People become snappy and they at once get triggered off by something very slow, something very small. Also, some people tend to withdraw, fight or flight. This kind of flight behaviour is that you can’t manage the stress and therefore you start withdrawing from everything, there is indecisiveness. People then become very kind of confused. Sometimes, they become tearful and all these kinds of symptoms of stress. So where does stress actually come from? What is stress? Stress is your experience in relationship to the world around you, which you find challenging, dangerous to your well being and your life. As much as you kind of perceive that there is danger around you or there is a challenge around you, then stress will begin to arise. People can be stressors. Physical situations can be stressors. Even having something slightly out of line in my life can be a stressor which then triggers off the whole stress response. Now let’s look at stress. A very simple way of thinking about stress is the relationship between demand and capacity. If you put it as an equation, demand over capacity. Imagine now that the demand is going up, going up, going up like it was in the COVID times. So many demands are coming up-physical demand, personal demand, relationship demand, even moral demands. So we find a challenging situation. These are called demands. I mean they exist, but we perceive stress in different ways. Just like we talk about the half glass. So one thing which I perceive as very stressful may not be stressful to you at all. So in other words, there is another component to stress which is capacity. If I have a lot of capacity, then I can deal with a huge number of challenges. But if I have a limited capacity, then even a small demand can trigger off the stress. 

AB: Okay,

Dr. RP: Demand, as I was saying, can come from many different directions. And the capacity is related in terms of our physical capacity, emotional capacity, intellectual capacity, our moral capacity. Demand over capacity can also be thought of as pressure. Pressure versus resilience. If there is a pressure on something, if I’m pulling a kind of rubber band, then if it is as resilient, then it will keep on stretching. And if I leave it, it comes back to its original position. That is called resilience. The third way of talking about stress is that I can think of pressure demand as a challenge – challenge to myself, my relationship with the world. So it could be seen as a challenge. And people often say I find this job very challenging. Now, challenge versus inner strength. We can talk about capacity as resilience or we can talk about it as inner strength. Capacity means the psychological resources you have.

AB: So what you’re saying is that saying stress is our relationship with the world which should actually be a joy rather than pressure. And because a lot of us are living our life like this, are living our life pressurised and feeling pressure, then the joy out of our lives is gone. 

Dr. RP: That’s right. And what happens is that because stress is that kind of bodily or a mental response to that, there is a clear relationship between stress and well being. And stress in itself is a response at the individual level that it takes away a sense of well being. And well being, of course, is related to happiness and joy, that if I feel well in my body, if I feel well in my mind, of course there is a capacity to feel joy and happiness in my life. If we think about stress as challenge versus inner strength, the more inner strength I have, the more capacity I have to then deal with the challenge. 

AB: How can we deal with issues like this? Is it that ten minutes a day of meditation? Is it a whole lifestyle? How do you suggest we deal with it?

Dr. RP: There are things which will happen which will be beyond our control. So when I say your relationship with the environment, sometimes you cannot control the environment. So for example, how we can control the price of energy. To a certain extent, the government is trying to control it and say, okay, we’ll put a cap on it etc etc. But then there are things beyond your control, but there are things which are within your control, which is how you respond to that. Situations will keep on unfolding in your life. But the question is how are you going to respond to that or how are you going to react to that? That determines whether you’re going to experience stress or not. So there are two things here – the immediate thing is that you need to have some coping skills like meditation and the long term development of capacity. You can say, “okay, I’m feeling stressed at the moment, let me try and breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out” and after about 2-3 minutes at least, the stress seems to be going down. So that kind of way of using our breath for controlling it and then feeling the stress slowly coming out of our mind, that is the immediate thing. For example, if my thoughts have been triggered off by something in the external environment, I can begin to control the thought pattern by recognising that and saying “here, I have been triggered off now and I’m now experiencing this, what can I do about it?” And you start taking your mind either to another direction or reasoning with yourself about it. Or you can say, “okay, I know this is a challenging situation for me, but my perception of this is that I’m going to turn it into an opportunity.” There is also something called the long term development of our capacity. So that if I increase my capacity in the long run, then it also gives me this strength, it gives me resilience, it gives me this inner strength which then can cope with many situations which I might not have been able to cope with before. 

AB: So Dr. Pattni, when you talk about developing your inner strength, is that the same as developing your capacity?

Dr. RP: That’s right. It is about inner psychological resources. Even thinking in terms of the body, body can also support you in terms of stress, right. So that breathing in and out is a coping mechanism. 

AB: When you’re stressed, your shoulders will hurt, your back will hurt. These are physical manifestations of stress. 

Dr. RP: That’s right. And you can do something about it, right. You can do some kind of relaxation, body scanning and that also reduces the stress in the body and therefore reduces the stress in the mind in the short term anyway. But what we mean by capacity is our psychological resources and primarily because the psychological resources are about capacity, I need to have these psychological resources with me which will not only give me resilience, but also this inner strength. 

AB: So I want you to describe inner strength to us before we carry on, before we talk more about it. What exactly is it? 

Dr. RP: We can talk about inner strength as, say, character strength. And this is something which we all have at our core. It is also something which is positive, so it is a strength. It is an inner strength. It is something at our core, it is positive as well. And also it is like a trait. It is like my kind of character. It is like having this capacity to do something. So we can talk about strength as strength for thinking, feeling and behaving in such a way that it can help me to achieve the best potential which I have for myself and bring it out not only for myself, but others as well. 

AB: So now here’s the million dollar question. How do we develop our inner strength? You’re saying if you develop your inner strength, in most situations that come in front of you, you will have the capacity to deal with them. How do we develop this and how much time is needed, how much effort is needed? Could you give us literally a step by step guide? 

Dr. RP: Before we do that, I think we should mention some inner strengths. So we can talk about virtues and strength. They are available in many different cultures, many different religions. For example, we can take wisdom as a virtue, which will express itself as a strength in creativity. Some people who are creative have got this inner strength which comes through creativity. It can also be seen as this kind of inner wisdom, this knowledge and experience which come together as wisdom, which then is expressed as this very kind of fine tuned mind, curiosity, being able to see from a different perspective. We can talk about courage, expressed as a strength. “You are a brave person. You are a persevering person. You are an honest person. You have got the zest and energy for life.” This is the important point number one, the four A’s of conscious living because it is through conscious living that you will develop this inner strength. The 4 A’s are awareness, alertness, attention, action. These are what I call the four A’s of conscious living, which means you are here right now in the present moment and whatever is happening in the present moment, you have got the power to change it. So if we want to develop something as an inner resource, we have to do it in the present moment. You can’t think of it in the past, or you are hoping that it will happen sometime in the future, you have the power to do it right now. It requires for you to be alert that this thought process is going in this direction. I need to bring it into creativity or I need to be telling myself I am persevering with whatever I’m doing. So you get alerted, you pay attention to the thought or the feeling or the behaviour and then you change it at that moment.

AB: That is fascinating. 

Dr. RP: Number two identify what is the best in you. Each one of us has got some strengths. Identify what is the best in you and use that as a platform. So that if I have this kind of fine mind and I can use that fine mind to help all my other strengths so I can. For example, one of the greatest strengths you can have is love, compassion and kindness. So if I use my strength, then I can use that strength to help develop other strengths as well. So that’s number two. Obstacles are going to come in your life because you are trying to do something different. Like we know that if we want to do something different we will see many obstacles coming in our way. Look at obstacles as opportunities for growth and development. It’s like saying this glass is not half empty, it is actually half full. I appreciate the water which is in the glass and therefore I look at obstacles as opportunities for development and growth. Another thing is that practice meditation and mindfulness because that really is something which allows us to be in the moment and develop an increased capacity for awareness and presence of mind. Mindfulness meditation is very good exercise to do on a daily basis. Another important one is don’t forget the value of relationships. Through relationships and through our support in our immediate family and friends and even our acquaintances, there can be a huge support in developing our inner strength. It is not how many times you fall down, it is how many times you are willing and able to get up. 

AB: Dr. Pattni, you talked about some of the strengths which we need to develop like wisdom, et cetera. What would you say is the most important of those? 

Dr. RP: It could be something which is individualistic. So for me for example, wisdom comes right at the top because wisdom then kind of allows all the other things to come together. Because I value knowledge, I value wisdom. That’s the person I am. There are people whose hearts are very open. So for them developing loving kindness and compassion and emotional and social intelligence becomes a powerful technique and a powerful strength for them to then develop other things as well. So for example, in loving compassion and kindness, emotional and social intelligence, you can become courageous. You can have this perspective which is very fulfilling. There are basically five different kinds of constellations of values. One is wisdom which I’ve already mentioned. There is perseverance and honesty, then humanity looking at loving kindness and compassion and emotional and intelligence, social intelligence as well. Another one is temperance in regulating ourselves, forgiveness, humility, self regulation, tempering your total personality. The last one is what we call the spiritual dimension which means attitude, hope, faith, spirituality, meaning and purpose. So all these are strengths which anybody, if they persist, will be able to develop. Although there is no kind of strict hierarchy, whatever appeals to you as a strength, just start off with that and you’ll see that others will then follow step by step. 

AB: Any final guidance about this topic related to our lives?

Dr. RP: I think all of us will experience challenges throughout our life. That is a fact of life. First of all, acknowledge and recognise that there is going to be a challenge. The crucial thing is how prepared I am to face these kinds of challenges. So not only kind of thinking about what is my capacity, in which direction, and what is it that I can begin to think about improving, and then to have a plan of action. 

AB: You gave us six points that we need to develop, have a plan. So can you work on each one of them every day or work on one at a time? 

Dr. RP: That’s right, you can work one at a time. So, for example, if I ask you to develop creativity in your life, which means creativity in all directions, creativity in your relationships, creativity in terms of your thinking and your relationship with all different aspects of your life, creativity in terms of arts, creativity in terms of taking up something which allows this creativity to take place. Because creativity in itself opens up many different doors within ourselves. It opens the door of our imagination, of thinking, our way of functioning in the world, then work with that. You can start working with something else.

AB: From what you’re saying is for us to work on ourselves, what about children? Do you think something should be put into the curriculums to develop their strength? Because the world we’re going into and one of my theories is that a lot of this stress and my family is going to laugh when they hear me say this, but it’s because of this little device that we’re carrying with us all the time, which is now the smartphone. We’re talking here, we’re talking there, we’re connected to the internet. We’re seeing what’s happening in Hong Kong, we’re talking to someone in the US. We’re all over the place. 

Dr. RP: So think about the phone device as a hub of connections. So you’re connected with the whole world. Imagine if you are just connected with one thing, the stress is coming from there, the challenge is coming from there. But now if you are connected to the whole world, which means the way in which everything is going to come into your life. Not only that, but the speed at which it is coming is also frightening. Now, how much pressure is going to put on me, not only to kind of read whatever is going on, but then to start reacting and responding to that also creates a challenge. So to be able to kind of put some disciplines into place, that becomes an important part of the child’s journey as we instil some of this value right from the very beginning. Creativity, curiosity, perseverance, talk about love, kindness, sharing, caring, these are so important in the development of the child. Some of these things we miss out because so much of the focus of the children is very much taken up by mobile phones or whatever device and therefore it takes away the opportunity for self development. But not to say that it’s all bad, we not only tell them about it, but what is much more important is through our own example, how to be the person you want them to be, not only for your own sake, but be the change for others as well, so that they can see you, that this is the person who has got this inner strength, has got these inner values, inner virtues, which are helping this person to be in this kind of state, in which they can look very strong characters because they can face any challenge. 

AB: That was a magnificent talk. Thank you so much for joining us. Hope you enjoyed the Wellness Curated podcast. Please subscribe and tell your friends and family about it. And here’s to you, leading your best life.