I've been meditating and teaching meditation for some time. Daily life is constantly delivering new lessons, and new clarifications, about what this practice does to improve life and let us live in better ways. Some recent family events brought home in Technicolor, Surround Sound detail how high levels of unremitting stress can tripwire even the most careful and kind-hearted person into reactivity and fear.
When stress builds up, it erodes your energy to deal with challenges. It muffles your sensitivity to the big picture and to other peoples' needs. It blinds you to the consequences of your actions on those around you. It narrows your viewpoint as your body tenses into a survival mode. All that your body and your reptilian brain know (that's the old part of the brain that dominates under stress, while the sharper, smarter, more recently evolved part gets knocked offline) is that things feel dangerous—and you need to take immediate action to save your butt.
The result of living under sustained pressure? A fun little bounty:
Reactive, rash decisions that you'd never normally make, but that put other people out and force them to have to accommodate your "urgent" needs.
The perception that big changes have to be made immediately, as if your whole life is on 911, when normally you might take a calmer and more thoughtful approach.
Coming at your life, relationships, and future from a place of fear, which drives behavior that can be selfish and exclusive, instead of a place of love, which is co-creative and inclusive.
Feeling generally crap, run-down, and negative about what's happening.
The list goes on. When you notice yourself acting in a way that falls short of your highest potential, or doing or saying things that disappoint you for their lameness—but that feel impossible to change—it's time to do an inventory of your stress levels. Then, take responsibility for your own stressed-state and find a way to release the pressure valve yourself.
When under persistent stress, we tend to blame others for our state. The job situation, the demanding family, the maxed-out world, we say, are making us feel this way. All those factors influence us, sure. They pull at our equanimity like hungry vultures sometimes. But all we can do is change our inner state to meet those external factors.
We can increase our energy, adaptability, grace, humor, and capacity for thoughtful response and avert getting to the point of panic and freak-out. We can cultivate the spaciousness in our awareness, what some call the witness quality. It's the part of your awareness that watches ourselves in action and that, in times of pressure, can go, "Holy wow, I'm so stressed I'm about to do something very uncool, I better go for a walk alone for half an hour." All this is why, basically, I and the majority of my friends meditate daily!