Simply put, stress knocks your body out of homeostasis and puts your body in survival mode. Regardless of what the cause of stress may be, to our biology, stress means imminent danger.
Due to this, our body will prioritize all things related to short-term survival and deprioritize all things related to long-term health and well-being.
When you are under attack, processes such as digestion and abstract thinking take a back seat to processes that give us the best chances to successfully “fight or flight,” such as releasing adrenaline and diverting blood flow to muscles. When this short-term prioritization takes place day after day, year after year, it does to our body what slamming on the breaks does to a car. Degradation is inevitable.
Chronic stress is a contributing factor to many of the illnesses that plague our modern society. High blood pressure, heart attacks, ulcers, obesity, anxiety, depression, burnout, fatigue, physical tension, and weakened immune systems, which make us susceptible to all kinds of pathogens, are just a few of the mental and physical illnesses that are brought about by chronic stress.
Luckily we do not have to be victimized by stress. Instead, we can use our will power and learn from smart people who have figured out how to de-stress most effectively. The two I will mention in this article are meditation and yoga.
Meditation is useful as a stress management tool for two primary reasons:
1. Meditation helps us reframe the stressors in our lives. When we can reframe the things that cause us stress, we can handle them much more effectively. Just feel the difference between the framing of these two scenarios-
A) I have a test coming up in school, and if I don’t get a 100%. Then I’ll never get the job of my dreams, and I will be a failure.
B) I have a test coming up, which will be difficult, but I will try my hardest. One test does not define me or determine my worth as a human.
2. Meditation helps us accept what is happening in our life. Instead of trying to fight and resist, we accept and work with it. One thing that is certain to cause you stress is a constant inability to accept the present moment. If you can’t accept the present moment, then you can’t work with reality as it is. If you can’t work with reality as it is, then you are immediately disempowered. When you are disempowered, you can’t influence your world and will struggle immensely.
Yoga is helpful as a stress management tool for two primary reasons:
1. Exercise helps us calm our nervous system by introducing acute stress. This essentially resets our nervous system and allows our body to relax. For a first-hand experience, try clenching your fists as tight as possible. Hold it for 5 seconds and then let go. Notice how different you feel before and after.
2. Yoga helps us find ease in difficulty. For anyone who has taken a yoga class, you know just how difficult it can be. Our body shakes and struggles as it moves into and out of challenging poses. But so long as we follow our breath and find comfort in the discomfort, we teach our body and mind how to confront stress and difficulty with ease and acceptance- it is important to note that yoga is not just a physical practice.
There is not one aspect of our health that can escape the negative impact of chronic stress, but be sure to notice the word chronic. Stress that is persistent is very bad for our health, while acute stress can actually help us. There are times when stress can serve its evolutionary purpose of getting us out of imminent danger.
If you were being chased by a bear (not something I’d personally recommend), having an intense, single-pointed focus on escaping is the best possible thing.
- We would want the blood to rush to our arms and legs to run faster.
- Also, we want adrenaline to flood our system, making us resistant to pain that could hinder our ability to escape.
- We would want our heart rate to increase to get blood and oxygen to the necessary places as quickly as possible.
No matter how negative stress may seem in this modern world, always remember that the stress response is one of the primary evolutionary factors that ensure the survival of the human species.