Stress: We Have a Choice

“Choose not be harmed and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed and you haven’t been.” Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor and Stoic Philosopher.

Stress kills. The evidence is pretty convincing. Like with smoking and alcohol. But we’re not stressed, right? We don’t feel anxious or worried. We’re not trembling and sweaty. We don’t feel unable to cope. That may be true. But it doesn’t mean we’re not stressed. I recently sat some exams. And it gave me the opportunity to reflect on stress. Exams are stressful. Not life-threatening, but stressful all the same. The same is true of many (most?) other situations or events that modern life throws at us. It’s the accumulation of this low-level stress that’s harmful. We can’t avoid it completely, and nor would we want to. But we can manage it. And we must.

The stress response has evolved to help keep us alive in the face of life-threatening danger. It readies the body for flight-or-flight, before we can consciously process the threat. And it’s extremely effective. We’re still here 2 million years later, after all. When confronted by a grizzly bear (or a dog, or an erratic driver), our brain and sympathetic nervous system coordinate a stress response. Firstly, the adrenal glands pump out adrenalin (epinephrine) – the fight-or-flight hormone – preparing us for the enormous, imminent physical effort. Glucose and fat stores are released into the blood for energy. Breathing rate increases and oxygen uptake is boosted. The heart pumps harder and faster, and blood pressure rises. Nutrient and oxygen-rich blood is pumped preferentially to the brain and muscles, sharpening our senses and readying us for explosive movement. All of this happens before our eyes or ears are able to make sense of what’s going on.

The initial surge of adrenalin subsides quickly. If the threat persists, the brain continues to perceive danger, and cortisol – the master stress hormone – is released by the adrenal glands, keeping the body on high alert. Blood sugar is increased further via the breakdown of muscle protein. Blood pressure is maintained by increasing fluid retention. The gut lining becomes more permeable, increasing nutrient absorption. Cortisol also preserves energy by shutting down the systems not required for immediate survival. The digestive system, reproductive system and growth are all suppressed. In preparation for trauma, cortisol stimulates inflammation throughout the body, increases production of immune cells and blood clotting factors and redirects them to exposed tissues (like the skin). This type of threat is typically short-lived. Death, victory or escape come quickly. The parasympathetic nervous system dampens the stress response, and hormone levels return to normal. You know the feeling. Your child runs into the road. A jolt ripples through your body. You react immediately. Unconsciously. The situation is resolved quickly. And your body calms down. We have evolved to deal with this type of acute stress very well. Any negative effects are temporary, and are an acceptable cost of survival.

But modern life brings with it another type of stress. Chronic stress. The cumulative effect of unrelenting, low-level stress. Deadlines. Traffic jams. Queues. Parenting. Arguments. Sales figures. Financial problems. You know what I’m talking about. The stuff that makes us angry, frustrated, worried, anxious, depressed. Individually, these things are not life-threatening. But they induce a mild to moderate stress response. And it’s the aggregation of these that is so harmful. We don’t get the jolt of fight-or-flight. We don’t necessarily feel stressed. But cortisol is consistently elevated and our bodies simply haven’t evolved to deal with it. It makes us irritable, aggressive, and argumentative. And we don’t make good decisions. The health consequences are profound: High blood sugar; high blood pressure; muscle wasting; bone weakness; gut and digestive problems; depression and cognitive impairment; immune dysfunction and systemic inflammation; reproductive faults; disrupted sleep; and fat accumulation (particularly in the abdomen). Elevated cortisol also increases appetite and the desire for calorie-dense foods, compounding the weight gain. There is a risk factor here for just about every disease.

So, what can we do about it? Alcohol doesn’t work. I know. I’m sorry. But it’s true. Alcohol actually increases cortisol. It contributes to stress, rather than relieving it. Same with junk food and comfort eating. And caffeine. Exercise, social connection and laughter have all been shown to reduce cortisol. (Although it should be noted that exercising too much, without sufficient recovery, raises cortisol). They are all good mechanisms for reducing built-up stress. But wouldn’t it be better to not get stressed in the first place? Or at least not as stressed. You can do this by changing your environment. Your job, for instance. But you won’t escape pressure completely. Leaving banking reduced my stress load considerably. But doing a degree and beginning a new career brings its own obstacles. We all have plenty of opportunities to get stressed. The question is, do we have to take them?

People have been contemplating such questions for thousands of years. And their wisdom is free for us to use. I like the principles of Stoic philosophy – they’re practical, accessible and relevant, and don’t come with the baggage of religion, or endless enigmatic debate – but similar guidance can be found in many religious, spiritual and philosophical traditions. It is possible to head off stress before it happens, by changing the way we think about stressful situations:

• No event or situation is inherently stressful. It is our reaction that provokes the stress response. So, we can choose to be stressed. Or not.

• Get some perspective. Is missing that deadline, or being late for dinner, really that important? In the moment, it may seem like it is. But what’s the worst that can happen? It never looks that bad after some analysis.

• Don’t worry about what you can’t control. There is nothing you can do about the grid-locked motorway. So, don’t sweat it. Focus diligently on the things within your control and then submit to a higher power.

• Find the joy in everything. Believe it or not, there is good in every situation. Delayed train? An opportunity to finish your book. Business fails? A valuable lesson for next time. Redundancy? The kick you needed to change careers.

“Go get your mother and all her friends. They’ll never see a fire like this again”. Thomas Edison, while watching his entire company and life’s work go up in flames.

Writing these principles down is easy. Putting them into practice is a whole other thing. It requires self-awareness. Presence of mind. In the moment. Amidst all the emotion. Not easy. Fortunately, we can train ourselves to get better at this. We can practice at being present, so that when stressful situations arise, we can take a step back and apply our philosophical principles. There are many techniques for this. Too many to list here. My daily routine typically includes some combination of the following:

• Meditation. It has become very popular lately. And for good reason – it’s extremely effective. At anchoring us in the present. And helping us see thoughts and emotions for exactly what they are. Thoughts and emotions. Not actual harm.

• Gratitude. By taking the time to feel truly grateful for the things we have today (large and small), we can bring ourselves back to the present. And be happy about any situation.

• Breathing. It sounds too obvious, but breathing is very powerful. Psychologically and physiologically. Deep breathing and breath holding are both effective at bringing your mind into the moment.

• Cold exposure. Neither the past nor the future seem very relevant when you jump into an ice-cold shower on a December morning. It also makes you feel great.

• Exercise. Intense and endurance. Like with cold exposure, you can’t think about anything other than the here and now when you’re struggling to keep moving forward.

I should probably point out at this stage that I’m not exactly what you would call proficient at any of this. In fact, I’m pretty rubbish. And I’ve been practicing for more than two years. But even with the tiny fraction of mastery that I have almost attained, I feel significantly calmer, more focused, less reactive. My recent exams were a great opportunity for live-fire training. Instead of worrying about the time I had or the end result, I simply showed up every day and did the work. Instead of feeling depressed at having to revise again, I felt privileged at being able to sit in a beautiful, historic library studying a fascinating subject. Well, at least some of the time, anyway. It was hard. And often my emotions got the better of me. But it did work. These exams were less stressful than they have been in the past. I’ll keep practicing.

The accumulation of low-level stress is dangerous. It’s also difficult to recognise. Just a part of life, we think. Whether you feel stressed or not, it’s important to put measures in place to reduce your overall stress load. Consider changing your environment. Train yourself to be present. See things for what they are. And don’t worry about things outside of your control. Give more hugs, exercise and have a laugh. This stuff is actually quite enjoyable – certainly not a chore – and the benefits are huge.

Own your health.

– James.

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