You are presenting today at work and you start the day off by waking up late. It’s worse than that. You spent much of last night awake and worrying about how your peers and upper management will respond to the presentation. Distracted this morning, you spill coffee and stain your shirt. You tell yourself that you can already see how this is going to go – it’s not a pleasant outcome that comes to mind. You’re hurrying to get out the door and the family isn’t cooperating; you snap at them and as you leave you feel guilty about that.
What we have come to call stress has always existed. When your ancestors heard that sound in the clearing, their brain went to work shoveling chemicals into the system. The chemicals gave them the energy to do whatever it took to survive, protect their families, and stay fed. They were good at it. The proof of that is that you are here reading this.
If you’ve seen movies like Jurassic Park, you can probably figure that back then we had some nasty challenges, life threatening challenges to deal with. There was no end to movement. People woke up in the morning and were hauling butt trying to stay both fed and alive until it was time to head back to the cave for sleep, only to get up and do it all over again. When their brains pumped out the same hormones and neurotransmitters we call stress today, they were able to burn them off throughout the day. These “stress hormones” are valuable in the short-term and toxic in the long-term.
The groups they lived in were also not as diverse and complex as ours. Their brains got them ready when they needed to be ready, and then backed off. Deadlines were immediate and real. At night, when they took time to recover, they weren’t worried about what the boss was going to do the next day. Their minds weren’t telling them that their presentation was going to be a disaster or that something would certainly go wrong.
What’s different about the way we live today?
Well, what are some of the things that bring stress into your life?
I know it probably seems like it sometimes. In reality, even if your life is similar to the example that begins this post, there are few real life-threatening situations from day-to-day.
But what is stress, really? Is it one thing, or is it many?
Or is it similar to the famous political definition of pornography – I’m not sure what it is, but I know it when I feel it?
Says a dictionary definition –
- The internal resistance of a body to such an applied force or system of forces.
- A mentally or emotionally disruptive or upsetting condition occurring in response to adverse external influences capable of affecting physical health, usually characterized by increased heart rate, a rise in blood pressure, muscular tension, irritability, and depression.
- A stimulus or circumstance causing such a condition.A state of extreme difficulty, pressure, or strain.
The bold text is mine.
A View from Another Room
There is another way to look at the idea of stress. It has to do with accepting it and still moving on with life, to take all the doubts, worries, and fears of the (at least in the short-term) non-life-threatening events we deal with – like that presentation in the morning – and moving toward psychological flexibility, psychological resilience, and mental toughness.
What is it that We Make Important?
A key to what stress is lies in what we “important.” We focus on certain things and place importance on what we choose to place it on. The second two parts of the definition say, yes, there are some things that we may agree are stressors, and, by definition, are influences capable of affecting physical health. Life conditions such as illnesses, extreme heat, lack of food or water, among others are certainly stressors. It makes sense that these things are stressful. And some of us are ill, or in pain.
Chances are though, that if you are reading this, you have enough food, and most of the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy are covered.
It may sound counter-intuitive, but the solution to stress doesn’t actually include solving it, but is also connected to what we make important.
It Takes a Worried Mind
What we tend to call one thing, stress, is actually fed by a number internal processes that are visible only to us. These events are common experiences such as thoughts, feelings, physical reactions, images, and memories. We have learned – or our minds have learned – to create stories about many of these things. Our minds make up stories as to whether they are good or bad, helpful or harmful, pleasant or unpleasant.
And based on these stories, we may work very hard to avoid some of these thoughts, to dodge some of the feelings; or we may seek others as in “the pursuit of happiness.”
This is the paradox of stress. The more we work to avoid or seek certain feelings, the more we tend to limit the things we do. The avoidance of stress itself creates the path we follow and instead of making our own way, we develop habits of a sort, habits that take away our freedom to choose our way.
And again, worried mind or not, success is rooted in letting the fear, uncertainty and doubt along for the ride and continuing to move in the direction of life.
Taking Life As It Comes – And Choosing Our Direction
What would happen if we just accepted life. If we gave up trying to control thoughts and feelings and such, and only chose the direction we wanted to go in life, one thing that we would gain is freedom of movement. We can’t choose what life sends our way, but we can choose what we do from moment to moment.
What it takes is making some choices about what we make important and once we do, continue to move in that direction. Do I sound like a broken record yet?
Either Way is a Choice
The curious thing is that we can’t avoid making a choice. Even deciding not to make a choice is a choice.
It makes much more sense to make a pro-active choice between accepting life and moving forward or avoiding life and running in place.