Does it seem like a fantastical pipe dream that people could go through life without chronic stress, no matter what was happening in the world around them? Regardless of turmoil, disappointment, loss, pain, horror, chaos? No chronic stress? None? Really?
Yes. No chronic stress. None. Really. And what a remarkably more comfortable world it might be! Despite circumstances, unpredictability, disaster, mayhem, people could quickly get over their initial reactions and respond with grace, dignity and wisdom. Grace: not falling apart in the face of things, but having quiet, clear perspective. Dignity: not losing touch with our true spiritual nature and our innate resiliency. Wisdom: Having insights into fresh, meaningful, simple solutions to life’s challenges, and recognizing how to put them in place.
How is that possible? It’s all around us, naturally occurring, but we write it off if we happen to be one of the millions of people haunted by chronic stress. When we’re mired in stress, calm people look unrealistic to us, or are simply invisible to us. We see the world through our own eyes, our own state of mind, so we tend to see what we’re thinking. It’s the old truism: When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
We know that we can’t get through life without experiencing acute stress, those moments in time when we realize something is wrong and we need to marshal our resources. That is a healthy human survival response. Our bodies are well-suited to ramp up all the resources we need right then and shut down the activities we don’t need — i.e., to make an internal chemical adjustment to how resources are allocated in the body. When the stress system is working as it is meant to, we depend on those enhanced resources, the emergency passes, and we return to an unstressed state of equilibrium. The body chemistry readjusts to normal operations, with our internal resources distributed for maximum well-being.
One of the best contemporary authors/speakers on this subject is Dr. Robert Sapolsky, whose Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers is a major contribution to the understanding of how and why chronic stress impacts all the major systems of the body and fundamentally contributes to disease states. Sapolsky clearly demonstrates that chronic stress, which amounts to taking negative, upsetting thinking seriously over time without relief or solutions, keeps that acute stress chemical imbalance in place, as though we were animals continuously in startle mode. Very simply, it misdirects the body’s internal resources. It’s as if we put the entire household budget into a car, and then had nothing left to take care of everything else in our life so all we could do is drive around. We put all of our bio-psycho-social resources into the experience of unremediated stress and have nothing left to expend on present-moment life experience, so all we can do is circular thinking — rumination.
The human capacity to hold thoughts, to keep going over the same worries or concerns or fears or upsets hour by hour, day by day, is both our enemy and our friend. Misunderstood, it is our enemy, the mechanism behind chronic, debilitating stress. Clearly understood, it is our friend, the early warning sign that we’re using our thinking against ourselves. When we feel ourselves stuck in the stress mode, it’s a wake-up call to leave that thinking alone, allow our minds to clear and quiet, and allow our internal chemistry to come back into balance so that we feel at ease.
What’s to understand? In the simplest possible terms: We’re making it up. The only way we can experience stress is through the thoughts we create, bring to mind, and hold in place. We use our very life energy, the ability to think, to define our moment-to-moment interaction with life, our own particular experience of reality. And we become conscious of our thinking, and thus can feel how we’re doing. When we feel stressed, it’s the internal messaging system that lets us know how we are holding and using our own thinking.
Only we can create stress. It’s a thought-created cycle, originating within our own minds. Only we can relieve our own stress. Relief comes from understanding how our thinking works and why we’re feeling tense. Once we’re onto ourselves, though, the game is up. People don’t deliberately choose to make themselves sick and upset, once they see for themselves how not to do it. The AHA! moment of seeing that chronic stress is an inside-out phenomenon, not an inevitable result of the circumstances in which we find ourselves, sets us free from chronic stress.
It’s our thoughts that get us into trouble, and our thoughts that get us out, as my exceptionally wise and dearly missed teacher, Sydney Banks, explains so clearly.