Stress kills. We see it in magazines, all over the Internet, on TV and in our own lives. It is intimately linked to obesity and thus to heart disease, diabetes, cancer and depression. It’s a major player in every decision we make about our healthcare and in the dollars we pay to our providers. Our doctors tell us to slow down, meditate, get enough sleep, spend quality time nurturing ourselves. They may give us pills to reduce our anxiety, or we may self-medicate with tobacco, alcohol or other mood-altering chemicals.
The problem is that it’s not working. We’re losing the battle against stress and our collective health shows it. Obesity, the most predictable outcome of high anxiety in a world where empty calories are cheap and exercise is rare, is skyrocketing. Our pundits wring their manicured hands in dismay at the costs of taking care of our health, but carefully avoid addressing the real problem, which is this: the way we live is so stressful that we are no longer capable of making healthy, self-nurturing choices.
Stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A certain amount of it is good for us, motivates us, keeps us moving forward. And it’s easier to cope with stressful things that are positive for us (marriage, promotion, new baby) than negative. But there comes a point where the stressors come too quickly, or they’re too contradictory, or they threaten us too deeply, for us to be able to handle them. That is when it becomes a health problem. In order to be healthy, we must know how to handle the flood of stimuli that are our world. Our life and death depend on it.
High anxiety throws human beings straight into the fight-or-flight (and, for women, the intensive comforting) response, flooding the system with adrenalin and other chemicals in preparation for intense physical activity. This is all very well if the situation can be resolved by fighting or running away or making sure no one is hurt, but most of our stressors are not that kind. We are plagued by vague (and not-so-vague) fears, confusion, exhaustion and frustration. No running away from those, they are a part of us.
So what do we do, hard-wired as we are to kick some ass or make a run for it when life becomes overwhelming? Nothing. In our living rooms or cubicles or cars there’s no room to run, so we just sit there and panic while our bodies absorb this chemical assault over and over again. Small wonder we make poor decisions, with the hormonal rollercoaster in full swing inside our heads.
This is our new normal and it shows no signs of slowing, this is the way of life in the heyday of the Information Age. We must adapt the way we live so that our bodies and our minds can get off that rollercoaster and function as they were designed to. To do that, stop worrying for a moment and think about what happens in your head when you’re stressed or anxious.
Our stressors tempt us to see the world in black-and-white, in terms of “either/or.” From a place of fear, it can feel impossible to step back and remember that we don’t have the whole story, that the choices we make in panic are merely shorthand, no substitute for careful consideration. To restore equanimity to ourselves and then to our world, we need to look at the world through truly open eyes and be willing to reach conclusions like “I don’t know, let’s learn more about that.” To do this, we need to take that step back, become observers of the crazy world around us instead of its pawns.
Eastern religions make much of the practice of meditation to attain this end, and it has become a mainstream tool in managing anxiety. Meditation invites us to observe our thoughts and emotions without engaging them or allowing them to direct us. As our skills mature, we are able to retain this quality of detachment while we are not meditating, and to free ourselves from being pummeled by our emotions when they are triggered by stressors beyond our control.
Ah, control. If we could understand fully what we can and can’t control, how relaxed we might all be! Discerning when we need to engage and when we can stay detached may be the most profound gift I could wish for all of us. To stay healthy, we must develop some degree of this discernment, so that we can see and understand what is happening around us and remain free enough of its drama and confusion to make sound decisions.
Interested in getting a better handle on your stress to clear your thinking? Try these; if they work for you, teach them to your children, your students, your colleagues. You are giving them the tools to take ownership of their health, and to spare themselves the indignity of lifestyle-driven disease. This is politics, this is healthcare reform, and it begins with each of us.
Breathe. Long, slow, even breaths counteract the chemical flood of anxiety and refocus your energy on your breath rhythm instead of what’s bothering you. Feel yourself getting ramped up? Take 10 long breaths and see if your outlook changes. If it doesn’t, try another 10.
Move. Exercising while stressed gives your body an outlet and a substitute for the fight-or-flight it’s pre-programmed for. Not only will the movement do you all kinds of physical good, the release of endorphins (especially noticeable after half an hour of sustained exercise) will act as a natural anti-depressant and help equalize your mood.
Think. (Or “Write”). Step back from your situation and try to make sense of it as if it were happening to someone else. Writing down your impressions may be helpful in getting additional distance. Formulating your thoughts in a coherent way will help you see gaps in your thinking, or information that you still need.
Self-Assess. Are you hungry or thirsty? Tired? Physically uncomfortable? Have compassion on yourself and address those issues before they get any worse. No one can tackle their problems effectively unless their brains are fed, rested and undistracted.
After practicing for a while, check your progress. Are you feeling more relaxed? More importantly, are you taking better care of yourself? Are you thinking more about what you eat? How much rest you get? Ways to move around more? Are you remembering your medicines? Your doctor appointments? Then keep it up. You’ve just figured out the first step in solving the healthcare crisis.