dali persistence of memory
Dali, The Persistence of Memory

Stress can, if we are not careful, be our undoing. Modern stress, unlike that faced by prehistoric people, is often chronic (recurring, or never going away) and ‘unmanageable’ (there is no obvious, immediate action we can take to respond to it and hence discharge it). It served its purpose when we needed adrenaline to flee or fight predators. But now, it just makes us physically and mentally ill — our bodies just have not adapted to cope with ‘civilized’ stress.

It has been a momentous few weeks for me. I started my new position. I completed and submitted my book manuscript. And I have grappled with a whole series of small problems — I cut a corner too tight in an underground garage and badly scraped the side of my car, the swimming pool sprung a leak, we had a grass fire caused by a faulty circuit breaker, someone accidentally damaged our side gate.

The combination of all these things in rapid succession would have been too much for ‘the old me’ to handle. Sudden dramatic change, time pressure, and unwelcome surprises are all major stressers in our lives.

How does resilience help us cope with all three of these sources of stress?

  1. Sudden Dramatic Change: If it’s not an unwelcome change (if it is, see point 3) sudden changes should be joyous. A new member of the community, a new love, a new career — these are things to cherish, to celebrate, not to get stressed over. We should take our cue from what happens when we fall in love: Time stops, goes away. We are there in the moment, and it lasts almost forever. So the change over this infinite time is so gradual it is no noticeable change at all. Love change, embrace it, slow it down, make it last, and the stress disappears.
  2. Time Pressure: Time pressures are, like time itself, illusory, self-imposed. You either have sufficient time to do something or you don’t. Worrying about whether you have enough time changes nothing. You can reduce the worry by not creating expectations (in others or in yourself), expectations that you have enough time to do something when you don’t. This is the agony of the procrastinator — the tendency to put things off until there is almost, or perhaps, not enough time to do them. This is human nature (we do what we must, when we must, and not before; we are preoccupied our whole lives with the needs of the moment). But in the modern world it is unhealthy. You’ll get it done or you won’t. So put away the stopwatch, just do it, and enjoy every moment of it. I ended up rewriting a lot more of my book than I expected, and adding a lot more. For three weekends I worked twelve hour days, and loved every second of it. I didn’t care about the deadline, as close as it was. So there was no stress. The work took as long as it took, as long it had to take.
  3. Unwelcome Surprises: This is the toughest of the three stresses, the one that still gets to me — sometimes. The flood and the fire stressed me briefly, because they could have been disastrous, if they’d spread to the house, the wetlands, or the neighbours’. You can tell yourself rationally that it’s absurd to get stressed about what could have been, that it’s a fiction, and so not worth worrying about or getting angry about, but it takes practice to do this. The car accident didn’t stress me much at all (although I was annoyed at myself, because I wasn’t paying attention). And the fence damage only annoyed me because the guy who did it didn’t admit it right away — I had to approach him. We can get better at handling the stress reaction to these things, I think, with practice putting it behind us, adapting it it, letting it bounce off us, flow through us. But what if it’s a truly horrific surprise — the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, a bankruptcy or an involuntary move? Can we ‘learn’ to let such crises flow through us as well, without remorse for what we might have done differently, for the fiction of what could have been? I’m not so sure.

I’ve also been fortunate not to have faced a fourth source of stress — a longer-term adversity, such as having to look after a loved one (or worse, someone I don’t love), or putting up with constant pain or disfigurement or a life-altering disability. The people I know who face such stresses have told me they don’t feel courageous or like martyrs: What seems to us to be courage, they say, is simply not having any other choice — we do what we must. Nevertheless, to me, this would be a form of imprisonment, and, like all of nature’s creatures, imprisonment is what we fear most, the form of stress that has no resolution, no relief, no way of coping through resilience.

Those who are imprisoned, regardless of whether I think, or anyone thinks, that imprisonment is real or self-inflicted, are the unhappiest people, I think, in the world. It is no wonder they seek escape, solace, through drugs or religion or suicide.

So now whenever I experience one of the three transient stresses above I imagine being imprisoned — with no escape, no way of coping by slowing time down or just doing things in the moment or rationalizing that ‘what could have been’ is absurd to be unhappy about — and it’s the gratefulness I feel at realizing that my stressful situation will soon pass, vanish backwards into the fiction, the exhaust of the past that is disconnected from Now, that discharges my stress most quickly and powerfully.

But that realization and that gratefulness also resurfaces my unbearable grief for Gaia, because I am, we all are (those of us who feel it, anyway) connected with all-life-on-Earth, and hence with every creature who is imprisoned, who is suffering not just for a brief moment but all the time of their life without escape.

It is a paradox that that realization fills me, at once, with such sadness, and yet strengthens the growing joy and resolve that fills my life, a joy I never felt when I was disconnected. So we cope with transient stresses through resilience that comes from practice, from self-awareness and gratefulness and connection, but the by-product of all those things is grief for those whose stresses are not transient, but enduring and unrelieved, and that grief is, in a way, another source of stress, not personal or intense but sympathetic, chronic, a part of us all until the end of the world.

Category: Let-Self-Change
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6 Responses to Grateful

  1. Amanda says:

    What sort of strategies would you advise for those dealing with fourth source stress factors?Currently, I’m of the group in the predicament of having to take care of a loved one. My mother’s health has been on the brink for approximately two years; and during this time, due to either no health insurance or incompetent doctors, it has increasingly worsened. For the last two months I have witnessed my mother waste away. She is now in the hospital, doing better than she was a week ago, but in her state, this offers little to be hopeful about. I’m 20 years old, and I swear it feels like I’m just a child. I don’t know what’s worse: having to be more responsible than you know you actually are, or having others who depend on you applaud and take solace in your illusory responsibility. I have to take this semester (and more than like next as well) off, and will be starting a second job in two weeks. I had just settled on a major (and minor, too) and discovered a-too-good-to-be-true college I was planning to transfer to next fall. Instead, I will be making coffee and washing cars for 60+ hours a week.

  2. Dave – this post evoked a lot for me – and in me…Before reading the whole post I already had in mind to send you and share this poem “The Joy in Sudden Disappointment” by Rumi can never have enough Rumi in your life)The second part I wanted to respond to is the idea of Joy and grief when one feels part of the whole interconnected life that is our world…it evokes a Chassidic story I have done work on from time to time about the Baal Shem Tov, Master of the good Name, and his quest to journey to israel to bring about the messianic time…thrice he tries and thrice he fails…and yet, like the tom robbins type hero, he is one who teaches about being connected to nature, being in joy and learning from simple people who work and live and love the land…one of my greatest lessons from it and at the moment is that there is also a danger in ‘saving the world’- that it comes by working on our responses and life – that Earth can and will look after itself. if water needs more space, it will take more space. If Gaia has a temperature, she will try to cool herself down. If she is cold, she will warm herself up. The same, however, can’t be said that she will look after humans, after us…and that then is our role…in that respect I started to understand that we can only undertake our own role, our own responsibilities, at the levels we are each ready for…that doesn’t mean we get to be selfish and focus only on ourselves- on the contrary it means growing as a person to impact and be healthy and health-ful in all our interactions – with this earth and with those on it……ok that is my rant, hope you are enjoying your new positionnatalie

  3. Chaitanya says:

    I think “savasana” (corpse pose) is one of the yoga exercises that could help deal with stress. wikipedia article doesn’t fully describe savasana. I found an excellent discussion around savasana in Dr.David Coulter’s book “The Anatomy of Hatha Yoga”. Dr.Coulter goes into very interesting details on what really happens when one does savasana.Let me quote from Mel Robin’s book “A physiological handbook for yogasana teachers”), which talks a little bit about savasana, hypertension, stress etc:”Assuming that hypertension is rooted in the excessive stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system [245] that one often encounters when living a fast-paced and stressful lifestyle, it is clear why yogasana practice is recommended for hyptensive student. Through the action of yogasana on the lungs and its effect on breathing, through the action of yogasana on the brain through thought control, and through the action of yogasana on the muscles through relaxation, one can reverse the associations that drive high blood pressure. Yogasanas performed to reduce the blood pressure at first should be very relaxing and devoid of inversions, with elements of challenge added only as the tension in the vascular system resides [399].The efficacy of yogasana practice towards relieving hypertension has been demonstrated in several medical studies [108,399, 418a]. Thus following yogasana training, heart rate, respiration rate, metabolism rate and blood pressure in the resting state were all decreased while the alpha-wave activity in the EEG increased. All of these changes are consonant with increasing dominance of the parasympathetic nervous system. Of the poses vajrasana, sirsasana, sarvangasana, vipirita karani, setu bhandasana, and savasana, the last of these was found to be most effective in lowering the blood pressure.”From what i understood, stress causes “fight orflight” responses, and stimulates sympathetic nervous system. Savasana helps in dealing with this by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system which is more associated with relaxation.Anyway, just thought i’d bring this to attention of anyone looking for ways to deal with stress. Iam not a medical doctor by the way, so please do your due diligence before starting on savasana. The two books i mentioned above are indispensable if anyone wishes to understand yogasana from western medicine perspective. Hope this helps.

  4. Mariella says:

    Dear Dave, Just like death speaks to us about life…. I deeply agree with:”Those who are imprisoned, regardless of whether I think, or anyone thinks, that imprisonment is real or self-inflicted, are the unhappiest people, I think, in the world. It is no wonder they seek escape, solace, through drugs or religion or suicide”. People imprisoned inside their own heads, their own thoughts and beliefs…. without the resources to habilitate resilience for themselves , or to imagine options…the most limiting of all human life possibilities.

  5. lisa says:

    I find this line of thinking unsettlingly dismissive. I can’t help but feeling that you are writing the following:”You have a long-term condition. Oh well. You’re in prison for the rest of your life. Sucks to be you.”My partner broke his back a year and a half ago, and sustained a spinal cord injury. Will he ever regain “normal” mobility? Will we ever go hiking together again? Will he experience pain and spasms for the rest of his life? Maybe. Maybe not. Do we feel like we are in prison? NO WAY! One lives the life one has. One extracts the maximum joy from life. And one does not, under any circumstance, dismiss other people as being caged, trapped, prisoners, or convicts. That implies hopelessness or worse, a punishment that they somehow deserved. People don’t deserve this sort of outside judgment.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Lisa: I am sorry you interpreted my comments as dismissive or judgemental. It certainly was not my intention to ‘blame’ anyone for their lot. I was writing in this article and the Thursday followup about the important difference between transient and chronic stress, and about my own experience, my father’s, and those of a few readers who have shared their stories of coping with chronic stress with me and asked me what I thought they should do. They are unhappy people, people for whom I feel great sympathy (in the sense of ‘feeling with’, not ‘feeling sorry for’) and love for, and who I would not presume to offer advice to, because as you note everyone’s situation is different. I think it’s wonderful that you and your partner have been able to accept his accident as positively as you have.

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