Stress and the Importance of Resilience
Stress has its place as a motivator, but extended periods of stress, when perhaps we shouldn’t, can have negative effects on the physical structure of our brains. Stoic resilience may save our brains yet.
It’s no secret that too much stress is bad for you, but my wife recently shared this article, How Stress is Making You Lose Your Mind, from Huffington post that was a bit of an eye opener. To be clear, I believe stress can be an incredibly effective motivator and from an evolutionary perspective, stress is a natural response to danger. If our ancestors didn’t flee from dangers we likely wouldn’t be here. We don’t quite have the same dangers in our environment as our ancestors, but somehow, as a whole, we are still quite stressed.
In the article, Evans looks at the science behind chronic stress and the associated hormone of cortisol. Chronic stress can affect decision making, memory and our capacity to learn.
The result is a brain that is less capable of learning and memory, and more prone to anxiety and depression.
The good news is exercise can combat this. Exercise encourages the release of substances and hormones that actually counter the negative effects of cortisol. That’s great, but to me that’s more of a band-aid fix rather than getting to the root of the issue. This is where the concept of resilience comes in.
Personally, I am susceptible to falling into periods of stress at work. Dealing with what seems like constantly tight deadlines, unreasonable clients and technologies and projects that can feel quite overwhelming; I catch myself getting frustrated and angry at little insignificant things. So here are a few of the Stoic practices I try to incorporate into my day to help mitigate these feelings of frustration and keep a more rational perspective on it all.
Meditation seems to be an effective way to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness helps increase awareness of your actions and reactions; helping to correct them in the moment.
I don’t meditate, or even try to meditate, nearly enough. I’m trying to form habits of meditation through reminders. There are, however, three meditations that I have used that I find helpful in mitigating excessive stress; the morning mediation, leaves on a stream and cosmic scale. I will expand on each of these further in more posts, but the gist is as follows.
In the morning meditation I simply close my eyes and run through what I plan to accomplish that day. This is best if done when you first wake; possibly accompanied with a quiet walk out side, or simply sitting in quiet somewhere comfortable. I typically end up doing this on the bus ride to work. I list the personal and professional objectives of the day and try to imagine ways in which the plan may be disrupted, a form of negative visualization; such as the bus not coming, a client not providing timely feedback, an employee calling in sick and having to re-balance work loads. The point of this is to prepare for possible obstacles so that if or when they do occur you don’t feel annoyed or stressed.
Leaves on a Stream
This was a challenging meditation the first few times I tried it. My first exposure was through Robertson’s book “Stoicism and the Art of Happiness.” In this mediation the objective is to calm your mind and reach a state of mindfulness where you can objectively observe the thoughts and impressions that cross your mind without letting them impact you. You allow your stream of consciousness to run normally but when an impression crosses your mind you try to imagine it on a piece of paper or in a photo. You place that on a leaf in a stream and watch as the natural current takes it away. My understanding of the point of this is to realize how natural it is for your mind to receive impressions, but that it takes effort to treat them as they are, simply impressions and not inherently good or bad. What is good or bad is how you react to the impression.
My favourite meditation, where I begin with focusing very specifically on my body and the physical sensations for a small period of time. Slowly I expand my view to include my immediate surroundings; expanding further and further until I am trying to imagine of the entire universe, gaining a sense of cosmic scale. I find this incredibly effective in grounding my perspective on things. What is the true value of a minor annoyance in traffic or at work when you consider the scale of your own body to that of our planet, solar system, or galaxy? This is probably why I love science so much; I love learning about difficult to understand concepts such as gravitational waves rolling through the universe or theories of multiple dimensions. I have zero influence on these great forces of nature, which is refreshing because it reminds me that the only thing I do have true influence on is my own quality of life.
I want to be more resilient, and I have a way to go. I think we, as a society, have begun to perversely glorify excess stress. Somehow being stressed and busy is a sign that you’re working hard and going further in life. It turns out, as evident in the above research, that you’re possibly doing more damage then good.