Life isn't stressful...

By Arden Martin

It's just full of demands. Your job, commute, family, and environment all place demands on you, and the state of your brain and body determines how you respond. Demands aren't a bad thing; they're a neutral and non-negotiable part of modern life. It's impossible to avoid demands if you want to have relationships and make contributions to the world. We come to know demands as stressful because of how our physiology reacts to them, but the good news is we have the power to change this. Instead of resenting or avoiding demands, we have the most success when we gain the tools to deal with them elegantly. There are plenty of people out there who don't find their jobs, commutes, or partners stressful at all. This isn't because they don't face demands, it's because the physiological state of their bodies allows them to face even the most intense demands with ease. Wanna be more like that? Read on.

So we each have a unique set of proverbial buttons that get pushed by different triggers, right? Most of our loved ones know exactly how to push those buttons. There are also triggers in our environment; for me it's public speaking, for others it might be air travel. When our buttons get pushed, we each have a different reaction pattern, whether it's withdrawing, crying, confronting, or freaking out in some way. These reactions are a form of the fight-or-flight response (aka acute stress response) that happens in our bodies in the face of something mentally or physically terrifying. 

What happens to the body in fight-or-flight mode?

  1. Our normally alkaline skin develops an acidic pH, which makes it less tasty to potential predators.
  2. The body dehydrates by sweating and eliminating waste (bowels and bladder evacuate) so it's light enough to fight or flee.
  3. The peripheral vision narrows (aka tunnel vision), because the brain needs to reserve its computing power for more important functions. 
  4. The body produces stress chemicals like cortisol, adrenaline, norepinephrine, and plasma lactate and pumps them through the veins and arteries. 
  5. The immune system stops functioning because fighting cancer and other diseases is not an acute priority.

We evolved this response eons ago for an important reason: to prepare the body to either fight an attacker or flee it. The ultimate goal is to survive in life-threatening danger. This protective mechanism helped our ancestors defend territory and survive predatory attacks. It's pretty amazing that our bodies can access a sudden flare-up of intense energywe didn't have a moment ago. The fight-or-flight response is still relevant and adaptive in the modern world; it can help us spring to action in the face of an oncoming car or similar dangers. 

The problem is, most humans today don't face many legitimate survival threats, but we've been conditioned to go into fight-or-flight whenever something unexpected happens. It's become normal to have an acute stress response to situations that are NOT life-threatening, and this isn't healthy. Eckhart Tolle explains why in his awesome book, A New Earth: "We have a buildup of energy, but since the danger is only a mental fiction, the energy has no outlet. Part of it is led back to the mind and generates even more anxious thought. The rest of the energy turns toxic and interferes with the harmonious functioning of the body."

When we have an extreme stress reaction to modern demands, like a dead cell phone battery or a layoff at work, this is is a decidedly maladaptive response. Our mental clarity in fight-or-flight mode isn't great - if you've ever panicked and felt your mind race uncontrollably when you miss a flight or oversleep your alarm, you know this to be true.

So by the time we reach adulthood, we are walking around with layers of accumulated stress, which affect everything about our daily experience - how we feel physically, how we feel about ourselves (our self-concept), our way of interacting with others, and our general ability to meet the demands we are faced with. And the more stressed we are, the more tired we are because being stressed is exhausting. It drains the body of adaptation energy, and we're left with less energy to deal with future demands. So each time we interact with a demand that we don't have enough adaptation energy to face elegantly, we accumulate a bit of stress. It's an unpleasant cycle. Not surprisingly, the stress response leads to rapid agingbecause it's super demanding on the body. 

NOW WHAT DO WE MAKE OF ALL THIS?

We face modern demands much more successfully when we stay cool, calm, and collected. In fight-or-flight, this is not an option. What's more, we don't seem to be able to choose whether or not we go into fight-or-flight; it happens involuntarily. If we were able to decide how we react to each demand that comes our way, no one would ever choose to experience a pounding heart and sweaty palms when their cell phone falls in the toilet.

So how do we prevent ourselves from going into fight-or-flight when we're not actually in danger? By meditating regularly - it really is that straightforward. And if you haven't learned yet, it's simply a matter of doing so with a qualified teacher. Each time we meditate, we shed a layer of accumulated stress and free up more capacity for navigating life with ease.When a demand arises, our bodies get a drastically different message from the brain. We are able to distinguish situations that actually threaten our survival from those that don't. A much healthier perspective is gained, and we end the cycle of knee-jerk reactions. All of this adds up to a life in which you walk around feeling calmer, happier, and totally unstoppable.