The irony of stress in the twenty-first century is that it’s killing us—but it doesn’t know any better. It’s just trying to do its job. As a survival mechanism, a response to immediate threats in our surroundings, stress works to prolong our lives. If a predator snuck up on you and you only found out as it was about to end you once and for all, your brain would send the message to save yourself to rest of your body through a vast freeway of nerves. And saving yourself means that one of many things may happen: for example, you may pee—or poop—your pants (you need to be as light as possible), your heartbeat will surge in rate, digestion and growth and other costly bodily processes will be put on hold. Any sacrifice to help you in your quick—and hopefully successful—escape.
The risk of being eaten alive doesn’t really exist anymore. We’ve come a long way, in the right direction or not, since our hunter-gatherer days; now that we dominate the food web, and now that agriculture feeds us not only enough but surplus, we’ve evolved a new framework of living in which the original stimuli of stress have been replaced by new, far less life-threatening ones, a framework that stress acts independently of. The stakes are different: survival’s definition has broadened and it’s no longer so clear-cut. It’s now a spectrum, and instead of premature death on one end as an imminent possibility and an extra day of life on the other, we have homelessness—a life of rags—and fame and fortune—a life of riches*. This is especially true in this economy. So we end up getting stressed out by things like the MCAT or a grad school essay, things that we believe dictate, or at least facilitate, our future success. (The definition of which is always changing.) And since life is much more fast-paced now than it was back then in caveman times, since there are too many people now—too many overzealous people looking out only for themselves—and therefore too much competition for scarce resources, and since technology is speeding up the tempo, futzing with the rhythm, dialing up the noise, on every aspect of life, it doesn’t take much for stress to go into overdrive. And the health effects can be lethal. Stress that goes on without any type of alleviation taxes the body and compromises the proper functioning of various systems, especially the immune. And as I brought up earlier, everything that isn’t directly necessary to survival in that moment is shut down. Stress is part of the body’s sophisticated “thermostat,” its goal of maintaining homeostasis through feedback loops. With a plethora of stressors in modern life—that, again, aren’t even about life or death—triggering it all the time, we’re in dire need of some brakes.
Meditation, for me, works wonders. A commonplace misconception, at least here in America, is that meditation is religious—it’s the way people in the Asia pray. No—it is for some people, but it’s many more things. You don’t have to sit on a buckwheat cushion in full-lotus, although that helps some people. The essence of meditation, which is a much more familiar concept to Americans, is proper breathing—the unit is the breath. Deep breathing, or controlled breathing, can help us manage our emotions, and stress, almost instantly. And I’ll put it out there right now that regardless of whether this is substantiated by scientific evidence—which, in fact, it is—it nevertheless works from experience. Try it out. Close your eyes and count as you breathe, in and out through the nose. This always makes me feel somewhat better. Specific kinds of meditation, like Zen, might be right up your alley and something to look into—I know that Zen makes clear intuitive sense to me, and that I’ve been finding myself going back to its teachings for wisdom ever since the end of the high school. It’s been an invariably powerful way for me to be in balance with myself. Anyway, the point is that meditation can be doing the dishes, peeling the potatoes, going for walks, sleeping—which is the best meditation according to the Dalai Lama. This anarchy of meaning may be frustrating for some people who argue that by making “meditation” a placeholder word for so many competing things it’ll inevitably become meaningless. But this only happens to the most intensely personal words, even, debatably, the most important. It’s not the word that we should focus on but what the word represents: the balance that meditation can help us achieve. It’s nothing to be frustrated about.
Other things that work for me: exercise (sprinting clears everything up like nothing else—I love me some endorphins), music (tune into something positive since music manipulates our emotions), comedy (some good stand-up, the stuff that makes you bust your gut, is as close to an emotional cure-all as I can conceive of). These among other things are staples of good mental health for me right now.
So now let me turn the tables, force you to reflect. What do you do to handle stress? And what can you do to start reducing its role in your life? I, for one, am about to listen to some George Carlin.
* For the sake of argument I presented a simplistic model that shouldn’t be read as a theory grounded in lots of data. This isn’t the next Guns, Germs, and Steel. I’m well aware that the binary of “rags” and “riches” is only one way to look at it; there are other things that stress us out, like relationships (the fear of being alone), etc.
Written, not without a bit of stress, by James