What do we do with the stress we feel from daily life building up inside?
Do we run toward the things that stress us out? Do we run away from them?
How often do we find relief from the way we cope? Does it last very long?
Our bodies are meant to handle stress. It is actually good for the body to handle stress, up to a point, and for discrete periods of time. It makes us stronger, more resilient.
Stress and corresponding emotions (like anger, fear, disgust, sadness) rise up, triggering a whole cascade of physiological changes to take place inside the body, all aimed at getting us to take action – to fly away from the thing that is threatening, or to fight and eliminate it. Stress and emotion are not only signals that there is a threat, they are urges to take action against that threat to well-being.
When too much stress builds up in our system, or when stress remains too long, it starts to do damage to the body.
Ideally, we respond to the threat physically – flying away from or facing and fighting it – and in a short time, the sense of threat is removed, the stress energy and chemicals in our body are used up by the response, and everything inside returns to a calm, recovery state.
Some kinds of stress are easy to respond to and satisfy the urge to act. You see a snake on the path ahead and stop or step aside. The car on the highway next to you suddenly veers into your lane and we quickly slide over and slow down to stay away. You notice your bank account is almost to zero so you quickly transfer some money from savings to make sure there is no accidental overdraft and subsequent fines. Your child comes running into the house, crying hysterically, and you turn to find there is no blood or broken bones, just a broken toy, which is easy to comfort.
But in our modern, social and abstract world, many kinds of stress do not come from threats that we can directly or immediately address. The body perceives a threat of some kind, but it is not from something material or within reach of our individual power. A lot of our social, financial, and existential stress is of this kind. We have this elaborate mental world of things we care about deeply, past-present-and-future, that all feel tied to our well-being, but so much of these things are affected by causes outside our own control.
Your job is not providing enough money to cover your basic expenses and comforts, let alone any retirement. The people in your workplace don’t seem to regard you as highly as another person who has more favorable physical features. Your loved one is terminally ill, and there is nothing anyone can do to give hope of a reversal or cure.
The stress and emotions we feel inside the body are urging us to take some sort of action against this threat to our well-being. But the reality of the problem doesn’t allow for a direct or immediate solution. Many of the perceived threats are things that are just out of our control, as far as we can tell, so there is nothing we can do about the threat itself to relieve the stress. But if we let that stress remain, it will start to do damage to our body.
Yet, the stress we feel inside the body is just energy and chemicals, arranged in a certain way. The trigger for the stress may be tied to the situation outside of the body, but the experience of stress inside the body is not.
The insight here is that we can do something to burn up that energy and chemicals, in a way that mimics the fight or flight response the body is urging us to do. This will give us some relief, even if temporary.
The problem of the situation remains, and as long as the vulnerability to the trigger remains in place, that stress can be triggered again and again. But even before we know how to deal with the situation itself and remove the trigger, we are not completely helpless to suffer the stress constantly. We can do something with the stress energy and chemicals in the body. We must do something with them.
Countless times in my life I have found prolonged, strenuous exercise to help me get through periods of fear, anger, grief, or depression. If the challenge is just right, it occupies both the resources of the body and the attention of the mind. Working through difficult terrain, breathing hard, pumping muscles, air and blood, and doing it for a sufficiently long enough time burns up all kinds of energy and chemicals in the system that are begging to be consumed. I spend energy of one kind and gain energy of another kind, which then gives me a boost to face my situation with a bit more courage than I had before. Or it might just buy me a few hours of calm before the storm pulls me in again. It might be temporary, but it is far better than doing nothing.
Prolonged, strenuous exercise is not a cure for the situation that causes stress. I know some people try to hide from stressful reality by getting lost in their sport – I am not advocating for this. But strenuous exercise can be a major component in helping you endure and protect your health, until a solution or healing can be reached.
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