He may be one of the biggest villains of our time. Mean, undesirable and bad in every way. He’s responsible for much of our suffering; be it physical, emotional or mental. Mostly a combination of all three. Science warns about its harmful effects and innumerable therapies, medicines, strategies and products have claimed to fight this villain effectively. Stress: the less we have of it the better.
The Stress Equation
This is so widely known that you must have heard it before, multiple times. Our bodies have developed an efficient system to deal with stress: we secrete hormones that supress certain bodily functions in order to improve others, such as speed and strength. If a major stress comes our way we can respond effectively by either fighting it or running away from it. This is a physiological reaction that was designed to help us perform physically well when it comes to the matter of life and death. Certain bodily functions like digestion and wound healing will be temporarily supressed as immediate survival takes over. This powerful mechanism presupposes a following strong physical exertion, which would burn off the effects of the hormones and eventually, after some recovery, reset the system in a healthy way. That is, if we have survived the original threat of course.
What happens nowadays is that the stress that comes our way is not necessarily physical by nature; the fight or flight response is not only triggered by a big scary animal or a bus coming our way. Stress is caused by the obsessive behaviour of bosses, by deadlines we cannot meet, by an accumulations of tasks we feel unable to complete, by relationships that structurally leave us unsatisfied and frustrated, by an overflow of information and triggers and the list goes on. All of this stress is received by our body, which responds dutifully, making us ready to fight or run away. But what follows is not a fight or an escape, just some mental and emotional struggle, and more of the same situations that triggered the stress in the first place. And so, stress that was supposed to be temporary becomes permanent, and because there is no physical reset we keep on supressing functions that should not be repressed continuously. Additionally, being constantly prepared for battle and for running leaves us depleted and weak simultaneously, while developing a nervous system that is unprepared for other options. Stress is such a villain! We all want to live a stress-free life.
Organic X Inorganic
But do we really want to live a stress-free life? If we stop associating stress with bad for a moment, and just look at the pure definition of the word, we might get a different picture. The first definition of stress is “exerted pressure or tension”. When we apply tension to our muscles when exercising, we are literally stressing those muscles. When a masseur applies pressure to an area of our body, she is applying some stress to that area. Is that bad? Of course not. In fact, the only way to make muscles stronger is by stressing them. If you sit around all day, avoiding as much stress as you can, the results will NOT be a happy, relaxed body, but a weak and deteriorating one. If we do not stress our brain with information and study, we will not be care-free beings, just undeveloped ones. If we don’t stress our immune system, we won’t be able to deal with certain threats from outside. Stress is in reality fundamental to organic life. There is virtually no growth, development or improvement without some stress.
And here there is an important distinction to make: organic and inorganic matter respond to stress in opposite ways. Inorganic matter, like a paper clip, will become increasingly weaker as you bend it in different directions, until it breaks. A car tyre will wear off with use, a rock will get smoother as water crashes over it. All this happens because when stress is applied to inorganic matter it becomes weaker.
But organic matter responds to stress by getting STRONGER. As we said before, this is the principle behind every exercise, every study and every practice. You need to stress muscles, bones, neurons and immune cells if you hope to make them stronger. If you walk barefoot, eventually the skin in your feet will get stronger. If you stress your brain a little, eventually you will learn something by heart. Examples are everywhere.
But what happens if you stress your muscles too much? They can be damaged. If you stress your immune system too much, you get sick. In short, if we apply too little stress, we become weak and deteriorate and if we apply too much stress, we damage and degenerate.
That leaves us in a much more interesting equation. Instead of seeing stress as a villain we need to fight at all costs, we can start to see that it is the quality and quantity of stress that will determine whereas this stress is a hero or a villain. The right amount of stress leaves us stronger (even if we may need a little while to recover), more resilient and more efficient. After a great physical practice, you may feel achy and tired but in the long run you get stronger. When we stress our immune system in the right way we may get a little sick, but will rebound back with added immunity without much trouble. A lot of people come to yoga to de-stress and so they should as it works; this desirable result is achieved exactly by stressing the muscles, the tissues and the brain in just the right way. Yang and Yin are opposites and complementary after all.
Yang & Yin
So, here comes the tough bit, how much is the right amount? That is, truly, the most important question to ask. And if you’ve been following our blogs and posts you will already guess that the answer will not be the same for everyone. The same amount of stress that leaves one person brimming with energy may leave someone else totally exhausted, yet another utterly bored. We all have different temperaments, physiologies and needs, and they have to be part of this equation too. Someone may find a specific class calming while their neighbour may find it stress inducing. And it gets even more complicated, because we have unconscious motivations too, like laziness or ambition, which might sabotage our search for the right amount of stress. As with everything, our honesty and the quality of our intention are tantamount for this process to unfold.
This brings us to what may be the most important element when dealing with stress: the intention behind it. Doing your push-ups is a good stress for the muscles of your upper body. If your intention is to beat your body into submission or win an imaginary and aggressive competition, that intention will be added to your stress and may eventually bring you harm. If your intention is to generate health and strength for the best of your ability, the same amount of push-ups may have a very different effect.
I am a true believer in the capacity to kick ass with love.