The Conscious Lifestyle: Facing Your Stress
Deepak Chopra MD (official)
Founder at Deepak Chopra LLC
I don't want to open the vast discussion of stress that now exists, except to make two limited points. 1. Stress isn't good for you. 2. The vast majority of people do not deal with their stress effectively. Coming to grips with these two things is important for anyone who wants to create a conscious lifestyle. To be aware is to be open, alert, ready to meet unknown challenges, and capable of fresh responses. When you are under stress, these qualities are compromised. Raise the stress high enough and they are reversed. The mind closes down as an act of self-defense. In that state it is very difficult to be alert and open.
But stress is bad for you in far more basic ways. The hormones that are released in the body's stress response, such as cortisol and adrenaline, are meant to be temporary. Their effect is to galvanize the fight-or-flight response, which is triggered in a primitive area of the brain, because fight-or-flight is an inheritance from our pre-human past. In the stress response, a privileged pathway is opened for dealing with emergencies, while at the same time the brain's higher responses are temporarily suppressed.
No one can healthily sustain the heightened alertness, quick burst of energy, rapid heart rate, elevated blood pressure, and other marks of the fight-or-flight response. Physically, the hormone rush must come to an end, leading to the opposite state - you become drowsy, lose energy, and have a hard time remaining alert and focused. So-called adrenaline junkies deliberately induce an aroused state because they enjoy being highly aroused, and they presumably value the courage, euphoria, and killer instinct that the stress response brings.
What they overlook is the down side. They may also be unaware of the physical damage done to various parts of the body, since various processes (e.g., growth, digestion, oxygenation of muscles) are temporarily shut down during fight-or-flight, which must be considered an abnormal, unbalanced state - no one would deliberately stay there. As stress experts have asserted for decades, the low-level stress of modern life fools the body into triggering a borderline condition of fight-or-flight that isn't good for us. "Normal" stresses like being stuck in traffic contribute to hypertension and coronary artery disease, along with susceptibility to infections, insomnia, and much else.
So those highly competitive types who boast that they thrive on stress are living in a fantasy world when you consider the potential for damage to their bodies. The most recent studies on the genetic effects of exercise, diet, meditation, and stress reduction conducted Dr. Dean Ornish, a national expert on reversing heart disease, suggests that a positive lifestyle produces beneficial output form as many as 400-500 genes. This implies that the same genes are adversely affected by a negative lifestyle that ignores stress management.
We are only now beginning to understand that subjective states like pain and happiness are not standardized. In fact, as we constantly reshape the brain and nervous system through everyday experience, each of us is structuring a unique response to the world, including our response to stress. This implies that there are people with high tolerances for stress and people with low tolerance, just as there is for pain. But if you put soldiers under the high stress of battle, eventually all of them will become shell-shocked unless they are given time away from the front lines. The firefighters and police who responded on 9/11, a group self-selected to go into stressful situations, suffered very high rates of post-traumatic symptoms.
Therefore, don't try to make stress your ally, either by toughing it out or turning your back on the problem. The conscious choice is to recognize that modern life is a battleground of low-level stress, sometimes peaking into high stress, that will have a damaging effect over time unless you deal with everyday stressors in a consistent, effective way.
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