S.T.R.E.S.S.

I love wordplay and acronyms in particular. However, this one hit home in an all too real way, as we live in a world where stress is quickly becoming the underlying culprit of so many common medical disorders we see today.

Self-imposed Trauma Requiring Excessive Struggle and Suffering.

People suffer significantly from chronic insomnia, depression, anxiety, heart disease, and many forms of auto-immune conditions which lead to loss of vitality, passion, performance at work, heightened medical costs to companies and families and overall quality of life which is a fraction of what it could and should be.

We live in a 24/7 open world, are bombarded with more news, data, facts, and access to stimuli than we ever have been as a societal norm. We earn more, spend more, save less and have so many choices concerning everything that even running down the cereal isle of a large grocery store can be overload to your brain as you face hundreds of options.

Much good came out of evolution compared to 1950 when a family’s long-term goal and plan was to own a home, have a life insurance policy and take the kids to Disney once a year. However, advancement allows the potential for side effects as humans tend to get out of balance.

Since we cannot turn back to a simpler place in time, the only choice we have is to revert ourselves. We can live quietly inside, and create the internal and external boundaries needed to preserve what our spirits and physical bodies are genuinely designed to do: live peacefully.

It may be a hard pill to swallow, but the reality is we internalize and self-impose the traumatic effects of stress by allowing it to dictate our reaction to the circumstances we face. As more responsibilities appear on our plates, the emotions we attach to those requests are the forerunners of our actions. It is always our choice as to how we react.

Do we feel important because our boss thinks we can accomplish something even though it may be unrealistic?  If so, we may expend energy attempting to achieve a goal which may be unattainable for one person, all in the name of significance. Perhaps we are in a financially difficult period, and the choices we need to make are tough. Do we adapt by moving to a less expensive area which could disrupt our family? Or, do we take an extra job to make ends meet, using credit cards for the rest which adds to the overall burden in the name of suffering for others?

Often it is a combination of both, as the need to feed our ego and the lifestyle we have created for ourselves and our loved ones become the very trap we find ourselves stuck in. The possibilities are endless and as unique as each of us. After sustained periods of this kind of stress, physical manifestations occur which we treat symptomatically to get us through. It would be the equivalent of perpetually changing the gauze pad on a wound that needs cleansing and stitching to heal.

What we don’t realize is that our job and family is suffering right along with us by watching us burn out and run ourselves into the ground, rather than make the needed changes to sustain ourselves (and them) in a healthy, synergistic way. 

A perfect example of this is when we have a cold, and we take something to relieve the symptoms so that we can keep going. If the cold turns into something more significant like bronchitis, we go to the doctor to get antibiotics, so we don’t get anyone at work sick. Once we run a high enough fever (or get pneumonia since we have not appropriately rested), we call out sick and spend a week in bed anxious about the work that is piling up the entire time. We return to work at 80%, stay late to catch up, and crash over the next weekend or so at home to “get over the hump.”  Sound familiar?

What if we just took a day or two to stop when our body signaled “I am running low and need rest”?  Rather than a collective month of lower productivity at work and home culminating with a week of lost time, we could have taken a couple of days to sleep, rest, eat well and listen to our body’s need to slow down.

Similarly, we often push through periods of sustained travel, long work hours, worry, pressure and anxiety because we need to keep our performance and output high, keep pace with demanding responsibilities and still manage to function with the ups and downs of life in the personal zone.

Struggling is not what the human body is designed to do.  We are asking our bodies to adjust to a fast-paced, instant environment. The world is evolving quickly, yet our physical, emotional and spiritual beings have not adapted at the same pace. 

From the dawn of time hunting, gathering, and survival depended on the vigilance of 24-hour monitoring of groups and tribes. Responsibilities delegated between dependable, adaptable people who knew everyone depended on their performance for a set period was the protocol. When one group was too tired to continue, others stepped in to care for the children, take the post to watch for enemies and predators, and went out to hunt while the others rested. This rotation continued and no one person was responsible for the long-term burden of the group.

The fight or flight response which kept our ancestors alive was able to be turned off when not needed, and adequate time was taken in between to ensure the collective whole stayed functional and healthy. 

Today’s society with all of its constant stress and pressure has us living as if a wild boar with 10-foot tusks is in our family room ready to attack us. It may sound like a silly example, but it’s true. The part of your brain controlling your stress hormones cannot tell the difference between a man with a knife to your throat, a looming deadline or mortgage payment. All it feels is the hormone associated with your reaction to the stress, so it does what it is designed to do – protect you. How? By making sure you stay vigilant, awake, lowering your immune system and slowing your metabolism to conserve resources – the absolute last thing modern day man needs!

Like turning back life to the 1950’s, we cannot undo the part of our brain that has been with man since creation. What we CAN do is communicate better with it, by letting it know the difference between a real threat and a self-imposed one. We do this by controlling our reactions. Not just outward calm for others to see, but true inward calm, especially at the point of a stress-inducing event.

Using breathing and meditation techniques, engaging in something meaningful and playful each day, connecting with nature in some small way like a sipping a cup of coffee outdoors or walking at lunchtime without our phones are simple yet effective ways of letting steam out of our kettles. Taking a hot bath or shower at an unexpected time, spending 15 to 20 minutes reading a thoughtful book, listening to music during your commute instead of news, volunteering and engaging with someone who needs something you can provide, all promote a sense of well being.

We don’t all have the money to detach and take extravagant getaways, but I invite us all to challenge ourselves to commit just 15 minutes, three times per day to employ the use of mindfulness. Breathing deeply, writing five things you are grateful for, taking time to stretch, walk or close your eyes to think about good health, loved ones and envisioning things the way you want them to be, not as they are, to name a few.

Repeated use of such mindfulness techniques has been medically proven to alter the chemicals in the brain enough so that the stress hormones released during a perceived challenge can subside much quicker than if left to the natural pattern. 

Sometimes we do need to make hard choices to remedy the effects of steeping in an environment that does not bring out the best in us. It’s not easy to do, but may be necessary if the physical toll is manifesting as a lack of health. For others, some modifications to daily living will be all that is necessary to start retraining the response to stress, and it’s negative fallout over time.

Without physical, mental and spiritual health we are out of balance and are not serving ourselves or anyone else in the world. Your cup is meant to stay full so that you may help other from your overflow, not fumes. The best gift you can give to the world, including yourself, is the very best version of you.

“Good health is true wealth.” Urijah Faber

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