I can only feel how I feel.
We all heard a variation of this sentence at least once in our lifetime. One who hasn’t, has not lived long enough. From childhood on, we are wired with a character, a way of treating information. How we react to events cannot be chosen. We cannot control our emotions.
Or can we?
Robustness discussed the central notion of freedom: how we are not completely free, and at the same time, how there is a choice in how we react to any situation. The wiring we were born with exists. There is no denying our conditioning, before even the date of our birth. There is no denying that we do not choose our childhood environment. It can be a tremendous undertaking for anyone to decide to alter the odds, to change our animal reaction to certain situations, certain events, certain patterns. And in particular, it can be a tremendous task to learn to handle stress in an efficient manner.
Efficiency! Why does everything need to be efficient? Nothing needs to be. We can let stress control us, and live the life with what destiny has put in front of us. We can let it eat our joy, our calm, and feel in a constant state of fear and greed, from elevated mood one second, to depression the next. This is not about putting judgement on whether this lifestyle is any wiser than its alternative. This is about creating an alternative, such that those who feel like living differently can find that path.
Stress carries a utility. When we feel threatened, or when body and mind detect that immediate response is necessary, they release stress hormones. These hormones elevate our blood pressure, heart rate, and have a wide-reaching effect across all organs. The effect of stress is not dissimilar to inflammation – something that scientists in the field of medicine and well-being, and the rest of us who are acquainted to the notion of chronic stress, will recognize instantly. When stress occurs once in a while and create the right response – for example, a fire occurs and we are able to run away from smoke – the net result carries a positive outcome. This is the case because fire is highly infrequent, pick other unusual situations of the same proportion, which means that highly stressful situations do not recur immediately. If we scratch a shoulder against a tree while running in the forest, we stand a good chance of recovering, assuming this rare injury will remain an exception. But now, consider the case where one feels fire-like stress levels every single day. This is plain craziness. This person lives in a state of constant fear, continuous high levels of distress, ranging from panic to depression, and as soon as things get a bit better, the hormonal release and reactions from that person reflect an event like a fire, while in reality, the event itself does not necessitate the alarm. Consider the same craziness with the running example. You just hurt your shoulder running against this branch and now you’re scratched. You have a bruise. The next day, you re-injure that wound in the same place. And the following day, once more. Chronic stress is like chronic physical damage: the body needs time to heal, and if this time period is violated, we destroy ourselves.
In one of his interviews, centenarian cardiovascular surgeon Ellsworth Wareham noted that stress “is a luxury” that he can’t afford. His job involved open heart surgeries. He recounts that in rare cases, patients did not survive the surgical intervention. Putting ourselves in his shoes: what if you and I were the surgeon? We have to open someone’s chest, operate the heart and the surrounding arteries. For a person who is not able to control their stress level, this could drive them into levels of anxiety that are so high, that they would prevent the surgeon from focusing. Stress would prevent the person from being efficient. This is, figuratively and plainly, the heart of the matter. Wareham talked in other settings about nutrition, how in his mind most tastes are acquired, and how we can re-wire ourselves to eating and enjoying what benefits our health long term. His point about re-wiring applies equally when he discussed the topic of stress. It is not a fate. We are not completely pre-determined to feeling how we feel. Taking a deep breath, we can develop something that be completely lacking in someone’s life: perspective. We can be so focused on our own reaction, that we become unable to develop any awareness of whether our reaction is proportionate to the situation, or helpful to others and to us in any way. The extension of taking a deep breath finds itself in the field of meditation.
Yuval Noah Harari, a fellow writer and thinker, claims that meditation helps him better understand the world, seeing it as it is, not as his raw emotions and impulses make it appear to be. Harari is not the only one in the field of thinkers to practice meditation. It is a bit like going for a long run: the body does its work, breathing, moving, being in nature. During this time, the mind wanders, does what it wants. Much of our creative ideas come while meditating, running, while letting the mind do its own thing. It is as if the mind became creative once the awake part of us stops instructing it to be so. Meditation works as a medium to re-wire ourselves into a calmer, more focused mind and heart. It develops new habits for the rest of the day, and the rest of life. And to the point of this section, meditation acts as a stress reliever without side effects – for side effects can turn the solution into the problem. Those who enjoy a glass of wine and know how to stop themselves from drinking the whole bottle know that a little bit of wine is unlikely to hurt. Those who need to finish the bottle to relieve stress would find benefit in meditation and in fitness, for these carry the same mental uplift without the next day crash.
Many factors influence our stress level. Other fitness points we discuss in this blog relate directly and influence directly how we experience stress. A friend in graduate school used to say “when I feel nervous, I go for a walk or a run”. Methods to release stress without the use of medication and other drugs exist. Most of these involve an introspection: why do you feel anxious? Is there an immediate action you need to take now? Will stress help you in the current moment, or is it superfluous, un-necessary? Is it even harming you? If this is the case, why not say no to it? You can, and it works.