remember the first time I heard the word “stress”, I was six years old and playing hide and seek. Wrapped like a burrito in the folds of the living-room curtains I tried not to breathe as I spied on my mum and her friend talking conspiratorially about how “stressed” they were over a mug of steaming tea.
Then a strange thing happened, I started hearing adults talking about stress everywhere I went. Teachers’ reedy voices trickling through the hinges of staff room doors; “I’m so stressed with marking”, newscasters announcing “worrying” new data on the “effect of stress on our heart health”, my dad pouring himself another glass of wine after a long day in the office. I began to think this must be some sort of exclusive club that only adults were part of, I wanted to be stressed all the time, it seemed so grown up and ubiquitous. Which, I soon discovered, it is.
The word stress is derived from the Latin strictus, meaning “tight, compressed, drawn together”, which accurately sums up the gnawing feeling I’ve had in my chest since 2013. Much has been said about our angst-riddled society, with different buzzwords cropping up every few months, anxiety, burn-out, fatigue. Whatever way you put it, it boils down to the same thing, we’re tired, unhappy, and unhealthy. Before the pandemic one in four people in the UK reported mental health issues each year with 72 million working days a year and £105 billion lost to the economy as a result.
You’d think then, that a lockdown, or period of stillness might have alleviated some of our inner turmoil, but alas no, according to ONS data during the first lockdown in March 2020 almost half (49.6 per cent) of the UK population reported high anxiety levels, with young people, women and ethinic minorities disproportionately affected. Despite lockdown easing in June 2020, reported depression and anxiety increased by a further 4.9 percent and we are seeing a similar spike in the last two weeks since restrictions have loosened again. According to an ongoing UCL study our alcohol consumption and smoking has increased since last year and anxiety and loneliness levels are at their highest, despite a return to relative normality.
So if we were stressed before lockdown, during lockdown and now with the easing of lockdown, is there anything we can do to break the circuit of malaise and live a more content and peaceful life? After wracking my brain for anyone who might hold the answer to this seemingly incontrovertible dilemma, I remembered a Taoist priest I met once at a festival, never before or since have I met anyone who radiated such serenity, and he wasn’t even on drugs.
So I set out to speak to a Taoist master and figure out a way of saving the world from itself, or at the very least glean some sort of hope for our burning, miserable planet. But first things first, what is Taoist philosophy? The “Tao” is an ancient Chinese philosophy and religion that emphasises living with inner harmony through the cultivation of balance, it translates literally as “the way”. If this sounds woo-woo, it’s not, it is the fundamental basis of human existence, yin and yang. We cannot have light if we don’t also have darkness, we can’t feel happiness without experiencing sadness, satiety without emptiness, health without sickness. I could go on.
Anamarta has been practicing Taoist healing for 14 years and reached the level of Taoist master, after 11 years of intensive training. The Tao philosophy and practices have given her a sense of objectivity about life and outside stressors. “Things don’t stress me anymore,” Anamarta muses “I don’t see things like Covid as a big challenge. Tao practices have taught me how to adjust and keep my centre.” So what are these “practices” and how do they work? Taoism states that we all have “Qi” (pronounced chee) or energy flowing through our body, when there is an imbalance in our lives our qi becomes stuck or stagnated, creating physical or mental pain and tension.
“If the flow or the qi energy is moving properly in your body, it’s actually moving at 1.5 volts and this has been scientifically proven,” explains Anamarta. “We talk about being human beings but we are human doings, when we live at this constant fast pace it creates imbalance. I work with a lot of women who are struggling with reproductive health for example. Why? Because we’re so in our heads we have lost the connection with the body. It’s all about allowing the flow and this involves respecting when it’s time to sleep, when it’s time to work, when it’s time to eat, when it’s time to run. None should be prioritised more than the others”
The cornerstones of creating inner-harmony according to Tao philosophy are meditation and exercise. Although all movement is encouraged, Qigong (pronounced chee-gong) sometimes known as Chinese yoga is fundamental to Taoist practice. The ancient martial art incorporates aspects of Tai Chi but moves at a slower pace and involves meditation, visualisation and self-massage to facilitate the healthy movement of Qi. Qigong has been practiced for centuries throughout Asia and just a few minutes of the exercise a day has been proven to improve immune health, speed injury recovery and calm our nervous system.
Anamarta is keen to stress that Tao is not prescriptive, although Qigong is encouraged everyone should choose the right movement for them, whether that’s yoga or dancing naked around your living room. “Everyone has their own power and way of finding their balance. It’s up to all of us to find what that is”, she says.
“We all have a choice, you can choose to be tired and drained because you say you don’t have time. That’s your choice. If you think you don’t have time to nurture yourself, whether that’s Qigong or a jog or a bath, then ok you have time to be stressed or drained or even sick. It’s all about choice, I have clients who are new mothers, who work in the city, have busy careers, are addicts who have made the choice to change and do our practices and they find the time and are happier for it.”
We have been conditioned as a society to view 12-hour working days a marker of dedication and ambition, but for many of us lockdown has given us a glimpse into a different way of life. “I speak to many of my clients and none of them want to go back to the office five days a week,” Anamarta relays, “they have noticed that even though working from home has its challenges, if you organise your time you can do more things for yourself.”
A year on pause may not be enough to change our ingrained association between stress and success, but one thing that we can all do is learn to breathe properly. “So many people do not breathe. You do not have to call it meditation but conscious breath can actually change your life,” says Anamarta. The benefits of breathing are increasingly recognised in the scientific community, with psychotherapists prescribing breathing exercises to clients with anxiety, depression and panic disorders. Breathing in through your nose for five seconds, holding the breath for six seconds and slowly breathing out through your mouth for seven seconds has been proven to activate our parasympathetic nervous system, reduce our heart rate, and take us out of a fight or flight state.
Now that the seeds of normality are beginning to blossom across our highstreets, tube carriages and pub gardens, we have a chance to go forward with a different mindset. Rather than diving back into the quagmire of nine to five, living for the weekend and Sunday anxiety, we have been given an opportunity to rummage through the lessons learnt over the last year and cobble together a different path or “tao”.
“To break through the cycle of working so hard you’re burnt out takes courage.” Anamarta muses.
“We all find our own way of being happy, but if you start to feel unhappy and unbalanced then it’s a call that something needs to change in your life. Everyone should choose a path that makes them feel alright, but if they do not feel alright then ok that’s a sign.”