A previous challenge considered the evolutionary basis for barefoot connection with the earth. Today, I’m going to talk to you about another evolved and highly adaptive trait humans have for dealing with threats and dangers in the natural world, but is highly unadaptive to modern living.
I’m going to distinguish between distress and eustress. Distress is what we experience when physiological responses to perceived stressors in the environment become chronic and there are no remission periods, times when we can relax and rejuvenate. This kind of stress is a typical of modern living and is a rampant killer, causing obesity, sleep deprivation, cancer, heart disease, memory loss – the list goes on.
I could go into a lengthy description of the body’s responses to chronic stress, but Robert Sapolsky explains it so much better and in a far more entertaining way than I can. I first discovered Robert Sapolsky when I bought a book just for its title than for any other reason: “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers”. I became a fan, and who could resist “The Trouble with Testosterone”?
This is a long video, but it’s well worth the watch. It’ll make you think twice about encouraging too much distress in your life.
Eustress on the other hand, is the experience of acute stress, such as you might experience when danger is imminent – say a near accident in your car. Your body is immediately flooded with chemicals which prepare you for a fight-flight response. Get out of the situation as fast as you can or stay and fight it until the stressor passes. The stress passes, you collapse in a chair and immediately your parasympathetic nervous system kicks in and your return to a state of equilibrium. This kind of stress actually helps to boost the body’s repair systems and strengthens your immune system. Our systems evolved to deal with acute stress, but not to deal with chronic.
The pressure of deadlines, traffic jams, bosses, work relationships, mortgage worries, debt… we’re not equipped to deal with this, so we look for alternative means. Exercise is the body’s natural response for ridding itself of toxic stress hormones. Relaxation techniques encourage the parasympathetic response. However, other responses are less adapative – drinking, smoking, comfort eating, taking it out on those you love…..
To encourage eustress rather than distress, we need to condition a cycle of going out of our comfort zones, trigger that fight-flight response followed by a relaxation response. The body and mind (they are interlinked) need that switch off mechanism to be more automated and habitual than the experience of constant stress.
Today’s challenge is to purposely do something which takes you out of your comfort zone, followed by a favoured relaxation technique: a meditation, bath, being with nature…. See if you can get some eustress into your life!