Understanding Stress and Suffering

Can we learn to see opportunities in our suffering?

Let’s Think About Suffering…

There is a fine balance to be held when we consider suffering in our lives: suffering can both be understood as an inevitable part of life, and also as a result of systemic racism, classism, and other injustices that we must work towards changing. So, on the one hand, it seems like we can take personal responsibility to work towards wellbeing, no matter our circumstances. But on the other hand, there are greater structural forces that are outside of our individual control and constantly affecting our lives. This line between acceptance of circumstances and action towards change can feel like a contradiction, but it doesn’t have to- in fact, sometimes acceptance can free up our energy to do the work we believe in. When we truly accept the way things are, it does not mean that we condone bad behaviours or harmful prejudices; it means that we are not expending energy fighting this reality. Just because what’s real is real, doesn’t mean something better can’t be real in the future. Just because suffering is a part of life, it doesn’t mean that we can’t grow as individuals and as communities. With this knowledge, our personal growth and our social actions can come from a place of working with who we are and where we find ourselves, instead of against these situations. 

This is not an easy process. When we suffer, we want to blame someone. If we blame ourselves, then all the responsibility falls on us. This can lead to feelings of immense pressure, pathologization, and eventual burnout. But if we put all the blame on societal systems, then we give away our innate personal power to make our lives better. This is why balance is so important when we think about suffering: there are things you cannot control, but what can you control? By starting small, we can simultaneously acknowledge our social situations and also begin taking steps to improve our wellbeing and the wellbeing of our communities.

The videos below can get you started in thinking about suffering from different viewpoints. As you embark on this learning, remember to be kind to yourself, and take your time. 

Questions for reflection

What are some ways we can begin ‘trusting ourselves’ in a world that often tries to rush through suffering and deny hard feelings?

When you are experiencing a difficult emotion, how do you respond?

Are you able to “sit in” or stay present with difficult emotions?

How are you gentle and kind to your body?

How often are you kind to yourself? What are some unkind thoughts that could be replaced with kinder ones?

How might developing an attitude of self-compassion change your life?

How has isolation affected you during the pandemic? What are some ways you have tried to foster connection?

What ‘social prescriptions’ do you think you might need? Which activities do you love that you haven’t been able to do lately?

How would you personally define ‘wellbeing’?

How important is the role of community in your life? What is the nature of that role?

In what way do the social components of your life affect your health?

How else might you begin to take charge of your health?

How do you personally define ‘suffering’? 

In what ways are you able to find meaning in the suffering in your life? When is it challenging or impossible to do so?

What do you think of the concept of ‘evil’? Does it have a place in your worldview?

How do you make meaning out of life? What does it mean, to you, to be alive?

If you could always be constantly happy, would you choose that? Why or why not?

Further Resources

Decolonizing mental health: The importance of an oppression-focused mental health system – This article explores the importance of contextualizing our suffering and how doing so can be deeply empowering for us to find meaningful ways to heal, both individually and collectively. In decolonial healthcare, the role of one’s community is focalized. 

Read  a series of passages from Buddhist teachers on the role of suffering in life and how to see it as an opportunity, published in the online journal,  Lion’s Roar: Buddhist Wisdom for Our Time.

Try this Stanford University Stress Toolkit to learn about the role stress plays in our lives, the science of stress, the power of having a positive mindset, and how to acknowledge, welcome, and use stress to our benefit.

Check out the Huberman Lab podcast interview with Dr. Alia Crum on the Science of Mindsets for Health & Performance: “In this episode, Dr. Andrew Huberman is joined by Dr. Alia Crum, Associate (tenured) Professor of Psychology at Stanford University and Director of the Stanford Mind & Body Lab. Dr. Crum is a world expert on mindsets and beliefs and how they shape our responses to stress, exercise, and even to the foods we eat. Dr. Huberman and Dr. Crum discuss how our mindset about the nutritional content of food changes whether it is satisfying to us at a physiological (hormonal and metabolic) level. She also explains how mindsets about exercise can dramatically alter the effects of exercise on weight loss, blood pressure, and other health metrics. Dr. Crum teaches us how to think about stress in ways that allow stress to grow us and bring out our best rather than diminish our health and performance. Throughout the episode, Dr. Crum provides descriptions of high-quality peer-reviewed scientific findings that we can all leverage toward better health and performance in our lives.”

More than being against it: Anti-racism and anti-oppression in mental health services – This scholarly article outlines what it means to ‘‘be’’ anti-racist, to ‘‘do’’ anti-racism or anti-oppression; how to work within these frameworks and how they translate them into mental health and social services delivery. The key components of these frameworks, as identified by the authors, are: empowerment, education, alliance building, language, alternative healing strategies, advocacy for social change, and fostering reflexivity. There is still a need to document how these frameworks and approaches interact with one another to bring about individual wellbeing and the betterment of society.

The Role of Suffering

Efrat explains her belief that suffering is a natural part of life, and that a disservice psychiatry has done to our cultural worldview is to deny this truth. 

When You’re Having a Hard Time

Efrat addresses undergraduate students with her core piece of advice: trust yourself. She adds that developing an understanding of systemic factors that might be contributing to your struggles is an important way of taking the burden off of yourself.  

Understanding Suffering from Cross-Cultural Perspectives

Dr. Garrett talks about what we can learn from medical anthropology about our understanding of suffering and illness. Taking the work of Professor Arthur Kleinman as an example, she describes how cross-cultural analysis can reveal some of the peculiarities of biomedical theory and practice, and how this may affect our own experiences of health and disease.

Dealing with Difficult Emotions

Ms. Munjee speaks about managing difficult emotions such as anger, shame, fear and grief, and suggests that these emotions should not be treated as ‘bad,’ but rather they can be a motivation for change, depending on how they are expressed. She talks about healthy and unhealthy ways to express difficult emotions, for example through movement, and the importance of having a community to share our emotions with. She invites listeners to notice where they feel their emotions in the body, and to seek professional supports when they need help exploring and dealing with difficult emotions.  

What is Trauma?

Dr. Hewitt explains that one of the most damaging aspects of trauma can be how the people around us respond to it. She talks about trauma as ‘laying down tracks’ in the body and consciousness. Religion, in its texts and traditions, can sometimes reinforce the harmful idea that trauma is something to be accepted. Dr. Hewitt also discusses the way in which the pandemic has traumatized us on a global scale. Now more than ever, it is important for educators to show deep care for their students.

When We Struggle with Attention, Anxiety, and Stress

Dr. Weisbaum explains how it is common to panic when we are asked to focus, especially coming from a culture of perfectionism, as many students do. The antidote to this anxiety is kindness for ourselves. We can learn to greet our anxiety with compassion instead of judgment, and these moments are when mindfulness can be considered ‘a success.’ 

The Challenges of Social Isolation

Dr. Mulligan discusses the variety of contexts that can make isolation more or less challenging for individuals. While it may be difficult during the pandemic, the most important thing is to prioritize connection with people, even in small ways.

The Complexity of Emotions

Dr. Stellar discusses the way in which some emotions, such as awe, defy the categories of ‘positive’ or ‘negative.’ Depending on specific contexts and the way a person handles it, awe and other emotions can have very different consequences for our wellbeing.

Managing School Work and Projects with the Medicine Wheel

As students, we often feel pressure to complete our assignments as soon as possible, which can lead to anxiety and overwork.  Iehnhotonkwas discusses the importance of taking a broader perspective, organizing your time over the course of a week, in order to break up your work into manageable sections. The medicine wheel can be used in this process to ensure that you are making time to balance all aspects of yourself, and also can be used longer term as a framework for one’s development. Towards the end, Iehnhotonkwas also mentions the importance of experiential, hands-on learning.  

Finding Hope in an Unjust System

Dr. Richardson talks about the challenges of creating equality within the hierarchical system of the university. Despite our changing values on an individual level, the university still retains an older value system that places intellectual work in opposition to compassion. She also discusses how moments of harassment can be turned into moments of critical inquiry, calling us to question the assumptions that are being made.

How to Think about Suffering

Dr. Goldberg discusses suffering from the lens of the philosophy of religion. He distinguishes suffering into two categories: useless and useful. Sometimes, which category an experience falls under depends on the person who is experiencing it. For example, intense exercise is useless suffering for some, but for others it is useful – a type of suffering they willingly endure for a concomitant pleasure. Likewise, if we endure emotional or psychological suffering in life, but change in a positive way because of it, we can recognize this as useful (or worthwhile) suffering. But then, is suffering just a matter of perspective? Can any suffering be found to be useful? What about times when we  can’t find meaning in suffering? Dr. Goldberg explores these questions and others.

How to Think about Suffering

Dr. Goldberg discusses the meaning of the term ‘evil’ as a possible synonym for suffering. He brings up the classic distinction between ‘natural evil’ and ‘moral evil’ to illustrate his point.

Would you Want to Always be Happy?

Dr. Goldberg poses a philosophical thought experiment: if you could be hooked up to a machine that simulated a perfectly happy life, would you do it? Most people would not. Perhaps this says something about the potential value of suffering, and how much of the meaning we derive from life is based in suffering. Dr. Goldberg suggests that there is therapeutic benefit in facing philosophical questions head-on, in that they help us face the suffering in our lives instead of falling into patterns of avoidance.