It’s standard practice for any doctor to ask what level of stress a patient is under. I have begun to wonder how people might come to understand the answer to that question. Most of us work hard, have kids, busy lives, complicated families, difficult co-workers and the list goes on. Add to that – many of us live in noisy, crowded cities with lots of traffic, construction and pollution. We are bombarded daily by television, email, advertising, pressure to spend, save, buy, advance, get educated, get richer, parent better, be a better partner and the list goes on… feeling stressed yet? The funny thing is many of us experience all of the above, on any given day, and do NOT consider ourselves stressed. I wonder why. To me the answer lies in the human being’s brilliant capacity for adaptation. We acclimatize. Our homeostasis goes up along with the amount of stress we are experiencing so that after a while every little increase becomes “normal”.
And what of those of us who grew up with rockier than normal childhoods. What about kids who live under a constant siege of stress and anxiety for any number of reasons: fighting and violence, depression in either parent, poverty, alcoholism, drug abuse, sexual abuse, mental illness, narcissism, perfectionism … if you were little, and had any, some or all of the above going on in your environment as you were growing up, chances are you can tolerate a lot of stress as an adult. What is someone’s homeostasis that has grown up under siege? How do you learn to understand or recognize what is too much stress – too much as though any were a part of the normal experience of living.
Some of us are more attuned to our bodies and through that relationship recognize when things are getting out of whack – catching more colds, feeling exhausted, having stomach ailments, we use these as signals that we are “stressed out” … because somehow looking around at all we cope with on a given day, or what we’ve coped with in the past, doesn’t seem to register in our brains – so it registers in our bodies. What would it take to understand what “normal” stress is supposed to feel like. How does one undo the ravages of a childhood under siege?
And what of the seduction of stress? In our culture and society we are rewarded for taking on more, doing more, having more, being more…. And if we suck it up and tolerate the significant amount of stress that is without a doubt required for living that big – we are almost heroes. “Wow, s/he can really do it all!” the crowds whisper under their breath … and so we are seduced into taking on more. The praise and recognition we get seems to feed us into taking on more – and as we do, we find ourselves becoming increasingly unhappy on the inside. When praise and recognition come from the outside it’s fleeting at best, not tangible, and given the price we pay, not sustainable.
I think it behoves each of us to examine the toll that “stress” is taking on our bodies, minds and lives. Some of the tell tale signs of the price we pay include constant worrying, difficulty sleeping, feeling resentful for the lack of time you accord yourself and the things that are meaningful to you. What would it cost you to turn your attention to that – the meaningful part of your life? I believe strongly that better choices are available to all of us – choices to live a calmer, more centered life. I believe too that it takes a lot of inner strength to allow that calm to exist. We are creators of our lives and environment and to the degree that we have the power to shape our world, we can choose to resist the temptations and seduction of stress. We are worth so much more.