Stress Is Crucial, So Is Learning To Decrease it

August 16, 2010
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Stress seems to be a dirty word in our culture, something to avoid at all costs, something that needs to be reduced or, even better, eliminated.

However, stress is a necessary and vital component of our lives.

To get out of bed every morning requires a stress response, albeit a mild one, to get us upright.

Bodily systems must make adjustments to blood pressure; blood flow and thousands of integrated changes take place in this simple act.

Our bodies are fantastic machines in this way helping us to adapt to myriad circumstances, especially those that are unforeseen, such as a crisis.

This is good news. The bad news is that we don’t live in a world that is ideally suited to these systems.

Our brains and stress response systems evolved around 50,000 to 100,000 years ago, long before industry and agriculture. At that time the challenges confronting humans were predators, starvation, regulating temperature, and handling social threats from rival groups of humans.

Harvard psychologist Stephen Pinker reminds us that our brains are not, “wired to cope with anonymous crowds, schooling, written language, government, police courts, armies, modern medicine, formal social institutions, high technology, and other newcomers to the human experience.”

We live in the Information Age but have brains adapted to the Stone Age.  This mismatch between brains and environments lead to the problem of chronic stress or “allostatic load.”

Leading stress researcher Robert Sapolsky notes in his bestselling book that “zebras don’t get ulcers” but we do.

Why? Because zebras live in the world they are adapted to. A lion chases them; they turn on their stress response. They escape the lion and turn off the stress response.

We, in contrast, get angry with our boss, frustrated with our teenagers, and worried about the state of the economy, and the stress system may never turn off.

This leads to chronic stress overload. And since this is not how the stress system was designed for use it can lead to a variety of serious health issues beyond ulcers, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Stress is fine. Chronic stress is dangerous.

So we need to be mindful of the role that stress plays in our lives and to notice if this stress is chronic.

Most Americans experience chronic stress overload, so chances are you are among them. There are many strategies for handling such stress. I am excited to be part of the CTWatchdog team and look forward exploring these strategies in future posts.

Arnie Kozak, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, meditation instructor, and author of Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants: 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness (Wisdom, 2009). He also the founder of the Exquisite Mind in Burlington, Vermont and writes a daily blog entitled Mindfulness Matters: Tools for Living Now!

As an expert in stress reduction, wellness, and mindfulness, Arnie will present weekly practical wisdom for transforming stress. His award-winning writing will help you to lead a richer and happier life.

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4 Responses to Stress Is Crucial, So Is Learning To Decrease it

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by George Gombossy, eMindful Support. eMindful Support said: Stress Is Crucial, So Is Learning To Decrease it http://bit.ly/du5LgE [...]

  2. [...] Part of the reason we are chronically stressed is because there is a mismatch between the environments our stress systems evolved within and the challenges of contemporary life (see my previous entry on “Stress is Crucial, So Is Learning to Decrease It”). [...]

  3. melissa manzi on August 30, 2010 at 7:37 pm

    Ulcers are no longer considered to be caused by stress but by bacteria.

  4. Arnie Kozak on August 30, 2010 at 8:35 pm

    Thanks for that reminder Melissa. While we can’t get an ulcer without H. Pylori in our gut, stress can exacerbate ulcers when the bacteria are present. Diabetes and cardiovascular disease remain closely linked to stress, however, so ulcers are not the most pressing thing to be concerned about.

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