I listened to an interesting talk with Lisa Damour, PhD. She is the author of two New York Times bestsellers about parenting teenagers (particularly girls): Untangled and Under Pressure. In the talk she reminded me of something really valuable that I’ve heard before but sometimes forget to apply to my life:
Stress is not necessarily bad!
For many people this is a startling concept to consider, especially when coming from a meditation teacher. For meditation to be effective, the body needs to be relaxed and in the restorative (parasympathetic, in terms of the automatic nervous system) state. In this age, it is common to hear proclamations that we must do what we can to always remain relaxed and peaceful, and any shift into an “activating” (sympathetic, relating to the automatic nervous system) state is harmful.
It is true that in modern times the vast majority of us are spending too much time needlessly in the fight-or-flight state of undue stress. If you think of life on the plains (a la The Lion King), a zebra grazes on some grass mindfully until it has become the potential prey of a lion or hyena, at which point it switches into activation mode where chemicals are released in its body to get the blood flowing quickly to the muscles so it can run fast and get out of harm’s way. That period is short-lived, and it either escapes danger or becomes lunch. If it has outrun danger, it fairly quickly goes back to grazing and its body withdraws back into the rest state. The zebra isn’t continuing to remain in that activated state after the stressful situation concludes, because it knows it is no longer in danger and that chemical process in the body was utilized and metabolized fully when it ran away from the threat. There is a book which probably describes this a lot better than I have called, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, by biologist Robert M. Sapolsky, so if you want to explore this more fully please check it out!
Compared to that zebra scenario, many modern humans have their bodies in a state of constant stress from perceived threats. Our minds are constantly in motion, worrying, planning, regretting, and that is keeping our bodies in a heightened, activated state. When we aren’t coming out of that activated state it causes many physical and emotional problems which are countered when we are in a rest and restore state. This is why relaxation and stress reduction are advised so frequently now.
However, there is an interesting side effect of this emphasis on avoiding stress, which is that people are now adding an extra layer of stress when they feel stress: they are stressed about being stressed. Stress has been linked to everything from ulcers to hypertension to cancer to mental health issues, and everything in between. This link between illness and stress has become part of our social fabric, our conventional wisdom, and as such when people get stressed they now also are worried about what extra burden they are putting on themselves by way of the stress itself.
The point made by Lisa Damour which I found so powerful was that stress isn’t necessarily bad in and of itself. Yes, we don’t want to put ourselves in a state of constant stress, but sometimes life will give us stressful situations, and that is part of living. Everything we do will require a certain amount of stress, just in the act of “doing.” If we get carried away with avoiding stress we could very easily slide into laziness, where we aren’t making any use out of our lives. We may feel very relaxed lying on the couch all day every day watching TV, but we aren’t going to be very fulfilled or get much out of our time on this planet doing so. Spiritually speaking, we aren’t giving ourselves opportunities to grow in this lifetime with that approach. So, it can be really helpful to frame stress in a healthy way, by seeing it as necessary and beneficial to what you are guided to do with yourself.
This is one of the ways meditation can be SO helpful. By meditating every day (twice a day is even better!), you give yourself that chance to go inward and retreat into that restful state. You allow yourself to come back into balance and give the body a chance to self-soothe and restore itself, more fully that with sleep. So, when you begin engaging again with the world you are doing it from a calmer state, and you’re avoiding being chronically in the active, “sympathetic” state of the nervous system.
So, we could all do with less stress in our lives. There are many ways to deal with stress, including reevaluating what you are doing with your time and seeing if there are things that can be let go so you have more time for the things that really matter and you can avoid letting things get to a fever pitch. Also, try reframing how you view stress by not getting too stressed about the stress itself.
Joy to you!
I am an Ananda® certified meditation teacher. I am passionate about meditation and embrace a yogic lifestyle for greater wellness physically, spiritually, and emotionally.
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