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Medical research shows that stress contributes to the development of an unsettling number of disorders and diseases – so how can we de-stress spiritually?
Scientific research has shown that stress can have a significant impact on the body – and with the current state of the world, we’re not exactly free of reasons to be stressed. Despite the world often feeling chaotic and full of hardship, we still get to decide how we react to what it throws our way.
The Baha’i writings shed light on the role the soul plays in this relationship between stress and the physical body:
If we are caused joy or pain by a friend, if a love prove true or false, it is the soul that is affected. If our dear ones are far from us – it is the soul that grieves, and the grief or trouble of the soul may react on the body. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 65.
You probably already know some of the obvious examples of this: when we lie, our palms might sweat; when we feel guilty, our stomach might hurt; or when we feel anxious, we might have trouble getting a restful night of sleep.
Many more complex examples of the ways ailments afflict our minds and souls also impact our bodies. For example, race-related stress creates health issues for black women who give birth; cancer has been tied to stress; and when someone doesn’t have the resources to address psychological unrest triggered by trauma, they sometimes lean on harmful substances. Once someone becomes addicted or chemically dependent, a host of physical symptoms and pain can emerge:
To be pure and holy in all things is an attribute of the consecrated soul and a necessary characteristic of the unenslaved mind. The best of perfections is immaculacy and the freeing of oneself from every defect. …
First in a human being’s way of life must be purity, then freshness, cleanliness, and independence of spirit. First must the stream bed be cleansed, then may the sweet river waters be led into it. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 145.
The sources of stress in the world often come from spiritual problems or misunderstandings. So many of us undergo financial stress or face material poverty because others hold disproportionately and unnecessarily vast amounts of wealth. Rampant greed and materialism have led us to a tangle of environmental crises. Racism arises from an inability to grasp the spiritual reality that diversity is a natural and beautiful part of humanity.
When it comes to these wider and more pervasive roots of stress, the Baha’i writings suggest that we need universal participation to effectively overcome them. Improving our ability to include increasing numbers of people and feel sustained in contributing to a goal bigger than our personal aspirations requires a shift in culture:
The real secret of universal participation lies in [Abdu’l-Baha’s] oft expressed wish that the friends should love each other, constantly encourage each other, work together, be as one soul in one body, and in so doing become a true, organic, healthy body animated and illumined by the spirit. – The Universal House of Justice, in a message to the Baha’is of the World, September 1964.
Though no single one of us has the power to wave a magic wand and bring about world peace, we each have a role to play in making progress towards that goal. Instead of giving way to chaotic actions and feelings, we can align ourselves with people who focus on building prosperity for all.
As we work towards addressing the societal sources of stress, let’s not forget to take care of our own individual needs. Protecting our health requires that we develop habits that allow us to move through stressful situations without internalizing those feelings. Prayer and detachment allow us to “let go and let God.” Instead of clinging to the stress and letting it fester in our bodies, we can choose joy despite hardship.