There’s lots of talk and concern about stress. Sometimes we act as if stress were an affliction of this generation (that is, of your generation). Cognitively, we know that’s not true. Stress has always been around. We have been hard wired for stress. And it’s served us well. We learned to be stressed every time we smell a saber-toothed tiger or heard a snake. Stress saved our lives. We learned when to run, to fight and to freeze.
But more than simply saving our lives, stress has been a major motivator and catalyst for innovation. We invented stuff to get us some relief from the stress of the unacceptable current situation. A little stress is a good thing, whether it’s emotional stress or physical stress. For example, the right kind of compressive stress can contribute to increased bone density. Stress becomes problematic only when it is too intense or when it is experienced over long periods of time.
Our bodies were designed to enter into the fight-fight-freeze mode automatically when danger presents itself, and to leave that mode when danger passed, usually in a few minutes or hours (as in the case of severe weather). Unfortunately, as our social systems became more complex, we learned how to remain under stress for extended periods of time. Initially, we only worried about having enough food for today; but now we worry about having food 20 and 30 years from now. The result is that the stress hormones circulate in our system to the extent that it impacts our health, our sleep patterns and social relationships. So, what are we to do?
The good news is there are many things we can do to reduce the levels of stress hormones coursing through our systems. Physical activities such as Tai Chi, rigorous exercise, meditation, and the like can lower stress hormone levels. But stress can also be decreased by examining it. That is, ask yourself, “Is the source of stress internal (comes from me) or external (pressure from others)?” “Is the threat actual or potential?” “Immanent or distant?” “How does the stress present itself to me: In pictures or in words?” What happens when you make the picture small and dim or turn the volume down and move it across the room? What does it feel like to imagine stepping six months into the future when this issue is completely behind you? As you “step out of” the stress to examine it, the stress level automatically decreases.
Taking three to five minutes to perform one or more of these activities three to four times a day can lower stress hormone levels, and over time will keep them low. People who are stressed are seldom as resourceful as they can be. That in itself creates more stress, which decreases resourcefulness. It becomes a self-perpetuating downward cycle. We may not be able to control the circumstances of life, but we can influence how we experience them, and thereby manage how they impact us.
By Larry Wells