COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | STAN SEWITCH

A little less stress

Is your life like the plot from the movie “Titanic”? Mine, neither. The beautiful nobility of tragic love is rare, in real life.

Is your life like “Star Trek: Next Generation”? Same here. Egalitarian, mutually respectful meritocracies freed from any monetary system exist in science fiction only, or perhaps in the imagination of anthropologists who study ancient human remains.

Utopian or romantic representations of human experience are aspirational. We would love to think that these scenarios are possible. They are inspiring and soothing, because they give us hope that we can one day escape our animal nature, our tendency to treat each other as threats. We really want peace, acceptance and freedom from worry.

We want to believe we can be more enlightened, elevated beings who are not driven by the seven deadly sins. But we choose often to pursue those sins, and just as often lie to ourselves about it. We create our own worry. Science has proven that our minds create many of our own ailments.

Not too many years ago, if someone told you that your illnesses were “all in your head,” they would have meant that there was no “real,” physical basis for your symptoms. They meant you were imagining it. And that was supposed to make it go away, the realization that it was “all in your head.” But of course, you couldn’t just change your mind, so to speak. That seemed impossible.

In recent years, there has been a great deal of research, now possible because of advanced instrumentation, which has resulted in many significant studies showing that our physiological states are greatly affected by how we think about things, how our neuroanatomy has developed over our lives and the environmental stimuli that become associated with our formation of habits. In other words, thought is chemistry, and that chemistry has a real physical impact on whether or not our health is good or bad.

In a fascinating book called “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” (St. Martin’s Griffin, publisher, 2004), author Robert M. Sapolsky entertainingly explains how genetic predisposition, environmental conditions early in our development (even pre-natal) and our exposure to stressors over time creates psychological patterns. Those patterns are identified by certain dynamics in our endocrine and nervous systems, often yielding symptomology of chronic diseases.

The fact that the vast majority of us experience no acute physical threats to our survival (we don’t have to run from lions every day), but we have the “advanced” mental capacity to anticipate and imagine threats on a daily basis, creates a constant state of fight-or-flight response.

That chronic stress over the years causes our physiological machinery of health to break down. We start getting diseases related to continually revving our defense systems above red line on the tachometer.

The seals leak, we lose compression, can’t get the damn thing up another hill: heart disease, diabetes, low resistance to infections, gastrointestinal afflictions and more.

While this chronic stress continues, we try to solve our need for peace by escapism. We seek the stimulation associated with satisfaction in order to release us from the stressors that we face daily.

Clues as to whether or not we are experiencing chronic stress above our physical ability to withstand it is whether we find ourselves frequently having a drink to “unwind,” getting sucked into multiple-volume fantasy fiction, spending hours every week in a massive multi-player online game domain, engaging in substance abuse or becoming obsessive about a new boyfriend.

These are examples of the animal in us looking for relief from the environmental stressors, many of which we probably chose.

An indicator of not being in a state of pathological stress, in my view, is whether I can spend 10 or 15 minutes not doing anything, not thinking about what needs to be done, not thinking about what I did or should have and not needing to -- 10 or 15 minutes of “zoning out” (as my oldest daughter used to say), guilt free.

If we have to work on being stress free like we work at our careers, our family obligations or maintaining our stuff, then we’re just adding more stress. If we engage in activities without that sense of compulsion, then we are flowing without friction.

To make the mind our friend instead of it behaving like a wild stallion strapped to a wagon, we can employ an old trick from the far East: the mantra. By repeating audibly a phrase that evokes imagery and emotion, those we select for their effect, we can train our neuroanatomy and establish chemical patterns that counteract the habits of our stress response.

Mantras are like teaching your puppy not to piddle on the carpet. It takes repetition and reinforcement. Throw in deep breathing and you are associating the physical state which is the opposite of stress with the mantra.

The sound or words you use aren’t as important as the association with your breathing and calm physical state.

Do it frequently enough, for long enough, and then in the midst of stress, you repeat your mantra, and bingo, the body responds to the conditioning. You “zone out” and your physiology isn’t whip-sawed by the environmental stressors anymore.

Think of all the time you’ll save by not being a spectator in life, and the money you’ll save by not drinking so much or taking drugs or buying all that gamer gear.

Sewitch is an entrepreneur and business psychologist. He serves as the vice president of global organization development for WD-40 Company. Sewitch can be reached at sewitch1@cox.net.

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