A Meditation on Modern Life and Stress

Homo Sapiens is, as far as we know, the only species to ever devise ways to abuse our bodies’ natural stress-responses. We are animals that have chosen to increase our stress-levels in unnatural and prolonged ways.

Our bodies are programmed to cope with stress on a short-term basis in ways that keep us alive. The various parts that make up our brains and physicals selves react to three different phases of a stressful situation.

Firstly, there’s the surprise element, then there’s the anticipation and finally there’s the denouement. So, our primitive ancestors would experience the fear when they think they’ve seen something large and stripey in the undergrowth, followed by a heightened sense of awareness while they freeze to the spot and try to see the shape lurking in the bushes, and finally the famous fight-or-flight response as the branches part and a tiger launches itself across the clearing.

Whereas modern man (and woman) faces different cues. Let’s saying your employer announces there will be redundancies (surprise) and you endure weeks of paranoia while your manager refuses to tell you you’re safe, your colleagues avoid meeting your eyes and personnel email to say they need to meet with you (anticipation). Then it’s almost a relief when the day of your personnel meeting arrives and you walk in to find your boss is there, too…

It’s not just the event itself that causes stress, it’s all the anxiety leading up to it – and lots of worrying about events that may never even be on the cards. We deliberately put ourselves into situations that are inherently stressful. But what may be fun for a fairground ride isn’t so enjoyable in a long-term situation. Whether it’s a difficult working situation or an increasingly-intolerable home life, many people have long-term stress in their lives and suffer the consequences. We are animals that can tolerate short spells of panic and fear, but the system becomes self-damaging if the stress becomes long-term or paranoia.

Now, I’m no expert on human biology, but I can understand how changes that are meant to last a short time can wreak havoc over a period of weeks and months. Our bodies react to fear by closing down non-essential functions so as to prepare to fight for our lives or run to the hills. But over the long term, this means that the digestion and immune systems aren’t being allowed to function properly and people develop gastric problems and succumb to every little germ drifting around the office.

The key to defeating stress lies at the heart of its bodily roots. Those three elements of surprise – anticipation – denouement are the killers. Most of us aren’t in a position to avoid the first or the last, but the anticipation is something we may be able to address. In a heightened state of fear or stress, we are biologically primed to see the negative, we automatically look for the next bad sign, whether it exists or not. A person in a long-term stressful situation is in highest need of some positive thinking but is rendered almost incapable of doing so, by their own physical responses to stress.

But even a basic awareness of the inherent dangers in anticipation can be enough to help.

Think about it


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