Pulitzer Prize winning poet Mary Oliver’s haunting question should become a mantra for life in the 21st century.
Seemingly inured to stress, too many of us speed through each day without taking the time to stop and ask – what have I traded a day of my life for today? Jumping on the mindfulness bandwagon dozens of articles still ask, “Can you afford ten minutes to devote to the practice?” Collectively we know that stress is a slow killer but it’s not changing our behavior. How much information do we need before we start shifting destructive behaviors that pose real threats to our personal and social well-being?
Lack of sleep (which data shows leads to brain cell loss) is endemic. There is no single behavior that is more basic to human performance than sleep. Yet, in cultures like the U.S. where many people believe that sleeping less adds to productivity, the average sleep duration is now around 6 hours. It’s a vicious cycle – less sleep exacerbates stress which leads to less sleep.
Stressed Out? Everyone is – even the kids!
Stress has become so ingrained in our culture that many people don’t even pay attention to it anymore. Everyone is “stressed-out” – children even use the term.
When scientist Han Selye coined the term in 1936, he defined it as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” `Since Selye’s discovery, stress has become common in the so-called developed world. We’re burned out, overwhelmed, losing it and hanging in. We call it life. That’s the way “it is.” We identify stressors –jobs, time pressures, traffic, children, family obligations, finances, relationships – they are to blame. We treat stress like a thing. It’s happening to me and I can’t do anything about it. We’re in tacit collusion with each other about this modern-day malady. How did this happen? How did life get so stressful?
Pogo’s classic quote (from the 1953 comic strip the Pogo Papers) captures the essence of the predicament we’re in, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” What Selye, the “father” of stress research found was that chronic-stress causes long-term chemical changes in the body. The body/mind responds to external “stressors” by activating the fight or flight response. Mobilized to restore internal homeostasis, the fight or flight response is an alarm system that wasn’t meant to stay on indefinitely.
Selye believed that there is a limited supply of adaptive energy to deal with stress. Through a series of progressive stages the body works to retain its stability but over time takes an ever greater toll. Selye warned, “Every stress leaves an indelible scar, and the organism pay its survival after a stressful situation by becoming a little bit older. Decades of information are clear – stress is corrosive and over time, lethal. The deeper question is, given a choice, why do we continue to ignore the signs and the remedies?
How Much Choice Do We Have?
Michael Singer, author of The Untethered Soul, writes that we have a decision to make when it comes to our continued suffering, “The prerequisite to true freedom is to decide that you do not want to suffer anymore.” But is it as “easy” as the author claims? The reality for the majority of the population isn’t that simple. Harsh economic, social, physical and familial conditions make stress a way of life for millions of people. Too many prescriptive self-help articles ignore the fact that many people struggle daily with real external and internal burdens that create enormous pressure with little relief. Doctors may recommend that we decrease stress but usually know little about the substance of a patient’s life. This well-meaning advice absent support for the changes that need to be made, is often of little value. Most people don’t have the benefit of an early education in cognitive and emotional self-management skills. Few societies have yet to learn the value of institutionalizing social-emotional intelligence skills development. And too many workplaces are cauldrons of stress-inducing practices offering little or no support for mental health issues that do arise.
Understandably resiliency has become a buzz word today. More than a trendy catchword, resiliency is a critical skill in today’s stressful world. Resiliency, a complex process, is generally described as the ability to stabilize ourselves after a challenge. Barring severe psychological or physical barriers, everyone has some potential for developing greater resiliency.
Contrary to enduring beliefs, we aren’t born with fixed levels of resiliency. Resiliency develops as children mature through experiences and increased cognitive and physical self-management skills. While physical trauma can trigger stress, it is the mind’s messages to the brain that signal a physiological response. Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now describes stress as “wanting something to be the way it isn’t.” His incisive description can be liberally applied to any circumstance, person, ache or pain that “causes” stress.
Thoughts – Weapon or Tool?
All of these are major factors that build resiliency:
Stress is essentially an auto-pilot experience. When we’re stressed we’re often in the throes of our habits of mind. The most efficient way of monitoring our stress levels is to develop our meta-awareness. Mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn describes this as the “ability to move our attention to what is happening in our experience.” The more present we are to what is happening in us – the better able we are to make different choices which begin with our thoughts. When we frame an experience as happening to us, it changes the entire dynamic. We feel more helpless spiking strong disabling emotions – fear, anger, resentment, frustration.
Zinn believes stress often overwhelms us because our narrative – our “Story of Me” – is too narrowly focused. When we perseverate we continue to activate the amygdala region of our brains, limiting access to other neural resources. Expanding our self-narratives literally opens up other lateral networks in the brain. According to Zinn, stress escalates when we believe these thoughts as truths, rather than events. He counsels, “If you want to reduce your stress load, make events less personal. You need to make your story bigger.”
Although the tools of mindfulness and better breathing habits are crucial stress-reduction skills, there is no quick or permanent fix for dealing with stress. How you think and practice self-care will make a big difference. Learning to listen more deeply – and respectfully – to the physiological cues our bodies are constantly sending is essential.
In her book, Tending the Heart Fire: Living in Flow with the Pulse of Life, author Shiva Rea points out, “Throughout our lives the heart sends more signals to the brain than vice versa. If we are aware of how damaging “disconnected stress” is to our system and in contrast, how powerfully regenerating the state of love is for our whole being, we will be more aware which “fire” we are fueling. Beat by beat, our hearts are patiently requesting that we return to the natural flow of life.”
Thanks for reading,
Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Consultants
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I really like how you explained Zinn’s thoughts about stress, it really supports your article well. I enjoyed reading it!
Always appreciate your comments – and find more layers in meaning through your perception.
You’ve isolated an essential component in the constant generation of stress – internal tyranny. Sounds like an extreme term but that feels more apt than ever. We internalize these
unrealistic expectations from cultures driven to “success.” Then we use these “standards” to judge and self-punish. The endless comparison trap keeps it all going. Then there are the people who
don’t have as much choice that simply must work multiple low-paying jobs, struggle with day care and family obligations. Sadly, we not only live in a culture (U.S.) that offers them no
support, but debates whether they “deserve” help. I use that word because I think it also applies to this endless internal judgment – do I deserve to relax, to rest, to have fun – to do nothing?
There’s a great quote that has inspired me – the pain pushes until the vision pulls. So what’s our vision for ourselves? Personally and collectively? Is it endless and often ruthless competition
for the “best and the brightest”? Where is this all heading?
One thing I know – this cycle is not of life at all but of a fear of meaningless disintegration that controls.
Thanks as always,