Anyone who knows me would be shocked to discover that I once indulged in 60-hour work weeks, drinking endless cups of black coffee, and smoking three packs of cigarettes a day. What saved my life? What helped me to transform the tension I thought was caused by the circumstances of my life? What helped the overwork, caffeine and nicotine to drop as coping strategies? Awareness.

It was an increased ability to be aware of what was happening outside and inside of my body as it was happening, especially in stressful situations, that changed my life. Increased awareness in the present moment expands my choices of how to respond to external situations, instead of just reacting habitually and automatically in ways that are damaging to my body/mind. And how did I cultivate greater awareness? Meditation!

Many of us think we know where tension and stress come from. Ringing phones, endless e-mails, street clogging traffic, irritable or difficult spouses, kids and friends, insensitive and demanding bosses, uncooperative and unproductive co-workers, too much to do and too little time, world disasters blaring on TV every night! Right?

Hold on a minute! Is this really true? It is true that life presents challenges and plenty of stimuli that can result in tension and stress on the body/mind. But do stressful situations and people in our lives inevitably have to lead to physical aches and pains, runaway emotions, mental anguish? The answer is a resounding NO!

“…it is not the potential stressor itself but how you perceive it and then how you handle it that will determine whether or not it will lead to stress….”
Jon Kabat-Zinn

The problem is that some of us react to our external environments in automatic, habitual ways, without realizing what damage the physical cascade of nervous system firings and release of stress hormones in the body can do. Some of us indulge this reaction and compound its negative effects on our body/minds.

Others try to internalize or suppress this stress reaction, but that can lead to increased blood pressure, cardiac and digestive problems, chronic headache, backache, sleep disorders, or anxiety. Still others respond with maladaptive coping behaviors, such as overworking, hyperactivity, overeating, or dependence on substances such as drugs, alcohol, caffeine or cigarettes.

“The problems and disturbances are all near the surface. Go deep, and you’ll find your way beyond them. The tumult and confusion can be overwhelming if you keep yourself in the middle of it. Take a step back, and give yourself some perspective.”
Ralph Marston

Many studies show that meditators display reduced stress reactivity and greater resilience (see the works of Dr. Dean Ornish or Dr. Jon Kabat-Zin, for example). Meditation practice eventually leads to the integration of calmness, spacious awareness, a sense of humor and relative equanimity in the face of everyday life. Thoughts will still come and go, emotions will come and go, body sensations will come and go, stressful situations and people will still be in your life, but the way you handle each will change. Meditation will give you the tools to prevent, release and transform tension in the body/mind.

Author's Bio: 

Roshani Shay, Ph.D., is Executive Director of the Hawaii Wellness Institute and former Co-Director of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Programs of Hawaii. For more information about her work go to: