For 4 years, my days started something like this:
The shrieking alarm clock…running late in the morning (again)…a long commute full of slow traffic…an inbox full of urgent emails…
I was stressed out and I looked it. Maybe your stressful day looks different from mine and that’s fine—stress is a very individual experience. The point is, it’s the everyday stuff that stresses us.
We know the big stuff—death, disease, divorce and so on—are going to be traumatic but why does every day seem like going into battle?
We try so hard to be happy: we get good grades, we work hard at our jobs and try to be loving to our partners. Yet it all somehow adds up to more stress. How did it all get this way? And what the hell can we do about it?
The stress in our lives is now so great that many people want to understand it. We want to grow, change and heal. We, finally, want to manage stress instead of running away from it.
If you are ready, let’s get started!
- Why Are We So Stressed?
- 21st Century Problems
- Bad Ways of Dealing With Stress
- Unlocking Your Stressed Mind
- Ecosystem of Happiness
Why Are We So Stressed?
It is impossible to understand stress without, first, understanding how our bodies react to stress. So here is a technical explanation of stress.
I know, yuck!
That sounds incredibly boring and no one wants to read it. But I promise you, that by the end of this section, you would know why you feel so helpless when your boss gives you a deadline.
Humans have lived in cities for one thousand years (that’s just a blink of an eye). But for more than a million years we have lived as hunter-gatherers.
During all this time, our bodies have changed slowly through the process of evolution. In fact, evolution is such a slow process that it takes thousands of generations and is impossible to observe in your own lifetime.
Clearly, evolution can’t keep up with the fast changes in our technology and environment. This means that we are stuck with the bodies of ancient humans, which are not suited to the conditions of modern society.
These ancient humans faced physical dangers all the time. And when they faced a violent person or animal, they had two simple choices: fight for your life or run for your life.
Our bodies’ stress response was designed for such physical dangers, that usually ended very quickly. (In just a few minutes, you either managed to escape a mountain lion or, well, you became its dinner.)
Even today, when you feel stressed your body has only one goal—to give your muscles energy ASAP so that you can deal with any physical danger.
The book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers explains our stress response in great detail. Here is a simplified version:
- Your body mobilizes energy from its storage sites.
- Your heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate all increase to deliver this energy to your muscles.
- Your body also shuts down other projects like digestion, reproduction, immunity, and growth to save energy.
- Your short-term memory improves and senses get sharper.
Quite clearly, none of these reactions is going to help you face an approaching deadline. Unlike ancient humans, we don’t face many physical dangers, instead, we face psychological and social dangers (work demands, traffic jams, increasing expenses and complex relationships).
So our environment has changed drastically over the centuries but our bodies’ stress response has stayed the same. Your body reacts to everyday situations as if they were physical emergencies. That is crazy and very damaging to our bodies.
The threats of the modern world last for a long time—we sit and worry about the same things, sometimes for decades. And this long-term activation of the body’s stress response causes more damage than the original stressful situation.
Here are the problems with being stressed all the time:
- Frequently mobilizing energy increases your risk of diabetes.
- If your blood pressure rises when you are running for your life, you’re doing the right thing. If it rises every time you check your email, you’re heading for heart disease.
- You may get reproductive problems as well. Women experience irregular menstrual cycles and men experience a drop in testosterone. (Both experience a decrease in sex drive.)
- You are more likely to fall ill and will recover slower.
- Parts of the brain that become alert during the stress response start to get damaged.
Bottom line: We suck at dealing with stress because our bodies’ stress response is outdated.
21st Century Problems
Great! We now know how our bodies deal with stress.
But just what about the modern world is so stressful? Our standard of living is rising; we are living longer than ever; knowledge is free; Netflix is just a click away.
If we have all this technology, automation and progress behind us then why are we constantly tense and anxious? It’s time for a closer look.
Newsflash: You are constantly with your phone and your phone constantly connects you to your work. This is bad news.
Every email is urgent. Every call is important. You have Gmail on your phone and WhatsApp has read receipts. It may sound funny to you but technology was meant to cut down our working hours. Yeah, that didn’t happen.
Our jobs have given us every luxury we could dream of, from fancy cars to luxury homes. They just took away all our time. And as we spend our days trying to prove that we are passionate and capable team players at work, we are slowly forgotten by our spouses, kids and dogs at home.
Some places are dealing with this problem better than others. France has proposed the “right to disconnect” as a new human right. In Japan, on the other hand, “death by overwork” is legally recognised as a cause of death.
Someone somewhere is skydiving right now! And someone else, from your friend list, just got into Harvard! Another has set up a tech company….
We get plenty of daily reminders of everything we are unable to do. And there seem to be so many people on social media leading such dazzling lives—successful in business, with a dynamic love life, sporting a perfect figure while they travel around the world. (Phew!)
It’s not surprising that we are all suffering from the Fear-Of-Missing-Out (FOMO).
Before social media, we would compare ourselves to the people around us. And if we tried very hard, it was possible to be the best at something. But now we are competing to be the best at everything and with everybody.
Maybe we can slow down. And, maybe, we can prioritize our lives based on what is important to us, rather than what people on social media seem to be doing.
Sensationalism in the News
The way the news is presented is changing.
The news today competes with Netflix, social media and video games for our attention. The best way for them to win is to be visual and shocking.
Sadly, violence and injustice have always existed. They are not creations of our age. What is new is that we are now aware of every unfortunate event happening anywhere in the world. And the most shocking images from these events play repeatedly on our screens.
If the news makes you anxious, sad, angry, and disgusted then you will carry these emotions to the events happening in your life. It would affect how you interact with the people around you.
Perhaps the news can be just what it was supposed to be, the news. It’s meant to inform us, not to entertain us.
Superficial Standards of the Media
(The book Integrative Nutrition explains the standards set by the media very well. This section is a simple paraphrasing of what the book calls “the pressure to be thin”.)
Everyone on TV looks just perfect.
We are bombarded with images of attractive people every day on the Internet, in magazines, on billboards, on TV and, in movies. But these images are not normal.
The typical model is taller and thinner than 99.99% of women and is chosen from thousands of applicants for an ad. She would then work for hours with the world’s best hair and makeup artists. Her clothes would be tailored to fit her exact shape.
A professional photographer would take hundreds of pictures under the perfect lighting. Finally, a single picture would be chosen and photoshopped.
But we forget these details and start to think the media is normal.…
Women start to think that they are meant to roll out of bed looking like these pictures. Healthy girls start to believe they are overweight. Men start thinking that rock-hard abs and unrealistic muscle mass are the standard. And school children start to go on diets.
Since the media’s business model depends on ad revenue, they will never analyze the effects of ads on society. I invite you to evaluate the effects on your life.
Bad Ways of Dealing With Stress
Alright, you get it. Our bodies go into a state of panic every time we worry and the modern world gives us a lot of things to worry about.
But, how are most of us coping with this daily stress? We do it mostly through unconscious behaviours that let us ignore the stressful problems.
“Who me? I’m not stressed,” says the person with the tense body language. Some areas of our lives may be too painful to deal with and we choose to simply pretend they do not exist.
Smoking & Alcohol
These are quick-fixes that immediately change our mood when we are feeling uncomfortable. (To a lesser extent, coffee and sugar do the same.)
Eating can also make us feel good when we are anxious. Unfortunately, we usually choose junk food (high in sugar and salt) at such times.
If you have a stressful family life, then work can be a wonderful excuse for never being home.
All of these bad ways of dealing with stress can cause health problems. They also prevent you from resolving your emotional problems and can lead to depression later in life.
Unlocking Your Stressed Mind
When it comes to dealing with stress, the gold standard, followed by all stress clinics is an elegant solution from Eastern Philosophy: mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a willingness to live more in the present moment, to stop at times and simply be rather than getting caught up in endless doing while forgetting who is doing all the doing, and why.Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn
Most of the time we are lost in our thoughts. We worry about the future and obsess about the past. We do not want to be where we are and we are unable to fully accept who we are.
When we are always worrying and regretting, we miss the rich details of the present moment. The now becomes unimportant, almost an obstacle to overcome. We start to eat without really tasting; see without really seeing; touch without feeling; speak without knowing what we are saying…
Before you can bring your mind to the present, however, you would need to fully accept reality.
- Accept the bad things that happened in the past. Don’t turn away from them. Accept them and then let them go.
- Accept that the good things in your life might change in the future. Change is not a threat to your life, rather it’s a part of everyone’s life.
There are many ways in which you can bring mindfulness into your life. To understand it better, do have a look at Full Catastrophe Living.
Ultimately, mindfulness will not solve all of life’s problems, but it will help you see those problems clearly.
Ecosystem of Happiness
Along with practicing mindfulness, I urge you to follow healthy habits, which will also help to keep your stress levels low.
Here are 7 healthy habits:
- Follow your dreams: Stay away from repetitive work that does not engage you.
- Socialize: Friends and family can help you cope with challenges. Talking about your problems is therapeutic.
- Eat Healthy: Eat loads of fruits and veggies. Keep off packaged food.
- Have Hobbies: Take out time for your hobbies. (I like to read.)
- Meditate: You don’t need to live in a monastery to do it and it just takes 10 minutes.
- Work Out: Join a gym/yoga class or work out at home. Consistency is key.
- Sleep Well: 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night is non-negotiable.
Over to You…
This was a long one! I’m happy you stayed till the end.
If your stress has pushed you towards burnout, then it might be a good idea to work with a therapist. Getting help doesn’t mean you’ve failed as a person (you haven’t).
Here is one last thought before you go. We are happiest when we are appropriately challenged—when our goals seem difficult but not impossible. I hope mindfulness, and the Ecosystem of Happiness, will help you see your goals with a relaxed and calm mind.
Now you know how to manage stress. I wish you much laughter and many smiles.
How do you usually de-stress after a long day?