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October 31st, 2018
Do we admire other people who can handle stressful situations. Do we look at their job and listen to stories from their life and sit back in relief that we do not have to deal with such things? Do we shudder at the idea of being subjected to such a life?
When it comes to such stressful situations, where exactly is the stressful part?
Stress is something we feel. In fact the subjective experience of stress is created primarily by a steroid hormone called Cortisol.
So where exactly is the stress in a stressful situation? It’s in the body and the mind.
It’s not that a situation is full of stress, it’s that we become full of stress while in a particular situation.
Such a distinction is perfectly obvious, but there is a subtle shift we must note. By describing an external circumstance as stressful, we are defining our experience as one that is controlled by external circumstance. This is unwise, because it leaves our wellbeing to the whims of circumstantial fate and denies our own agency with regards to deciding exactly how circumstances are going to affect us.
Even though they might seem like equivalent statements, saying ‘I am stressed while in this situation’ and ‘this is a stressful situation’ are actually worlds apart. The difference in perspective contains within each a different source of agency and power. ‘I am stressed while in this situation’ can turn into ‘I am calm in this situation’ much more efficiently and quickly than if we try to change the outside world to be less stress inducing. It’s also much more difficult to perform to any degree while stressed and therefore our efforts to change a situation so that it does not stress us out will take longer and be less efficient than compared to if we were go to the root of the problem and try to mitigate the stress within ourselves first, before turning our attention to a situation that might benefit from our efforts.
At the end of the day it’s simply an inaccurate description to describe a situation as stressful. Such a situation would have to have cortisol spilled on the ground or something ridiculous like that. Such an image might seem eye-rollingly ridiculous and the distinction might seem small. But, is the distinction between two sides of a coin small? Certainly they are very very close together. We could theoretically have an extremely thin coin and say that the two sides are insanely close to one another, but does this in any way effect the fact that such sides face in completely opposite directions? If a coin is flipped to see who goes first in a sports game or who wins a bet, we certainly don’t expect the loser to claim a tie because the sides of the coin are so close together.
This is why we would do well to be a little more mindful about the way we narrate our experience to ourselves. And indeed, mindfulness meditation is a clinically validated way of down regulating the production of cortisol, that hormone that makes us feel stressed during certain situations.
Whether it be a daily practice of meditation to influence our hormonal production, or a tinkered way of thinking about reality in order to completely strip all situations of any intrinsic stressfulness, we cannot leave our future emotional states to the whims of fate, like some coin toss. We would do well to think of who we will become tomorrow, or next week, next month or ten years from now. Will that person look back on our actions today and feel loving gratitude? Best to pick the right side of practice and perspective, and start nailing that sucker down as a gift for tomorrow.
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