These days, it’s a given that we live with stress. Ordinary life is full of stress, and I don’t mean when something extraordinary goes wrong like illness or blizzards. Our culture sets us up for stress: our jobs demand much more than 40 hours a week; we’re supposed to work and raise families and be good citizens and care for the elderly and exercise and eat right…Isn’t your to-do list endless?
If my memory serves me right, I read a few years ago that studies of more primitive people revealed a very different lifestyle. Even in Neolithic times, it seems the quest for food and shelter could be satisfied by four hours of work per day. When Australian aborigines were asked how much time they spent “working,” they reported similar hours. When asked what they do for the rest of the time, they responded with statements like, “We make things.” “We play music.”
Traditional peoples with a whole lot less “stuff” than we have are less stressed by their lives than we are. Just like us, their nervous systems ramp up when danger is around. But then when danger passes or when the problem is solved, their bodies go back to normal. They are more resilient and more joyful than we “advanced” folks. I believe that it’s not only because they don’t work for a company that wants to squeeze every last ounce of energy out of them, but because they live in community.
Constant stress isn’t normal–that is, it’s not supposed to be. It’s not how we evolved, and it’s not what our bodies can handle. But we’ve gotten to the point that most of us don’t experience “normal” that often.
How many of these statements do you think are true for you most of the time?
I know when to say “yes” and when to say “no.”
I always get a good night’s sleep.
I know that if I need help, help is available and I don’t hesitate to ask for it.
I often get completely absorbed in something I love to do so that hours go by like minutes.
When I’m with other people, I’m aware of a full range of feelings inside myself.
I feel deeply grateful and joyful to be alive. I trust life.
I ruminate a lot; the same thoughts keep running on the same useless tracks.
I’m busy all the time.
I feel like either clinging to people or distancing from them.
I’m watchful of my environment and any threats it poses.
I have no idea what I feel.
I’m anxious, depressed, fatigued or full of aches and pains.
What these questions are getting at is the state of your nervous system. You have a potential range of activation which goes from rest and relax, to connect and engage, to vigilance and mobilization. In the last case, life often feels like it’s about “fight or flight.”
We need the “rest and relax” state for our bodies to restore themselves, to heal wounds, to process information, to come back to balance, to maintain health.
When we have just the right amount of challenge or stress without being overwhelmed by it, and we can connect with our inner and outer resources at the same time, then life gets exciting. We are able to be in the present moment, know what we are feeling, think clearly, be creative, problem solve, and get absorbed in what we are doing.
I wonder how many of us live in the states that come about because we are overwhelmed by stress. When threat is just too much, we can go to two extremes: 1. we either get tense, hyper-vigilant, defending, and/or avoiding; or 2. we go towards immobilization–depressed, shut down, feeling detached from ourselves or anything else.
If you identified more with the last set of statements in the above quiz, I would guess that your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is turned on most of the time. That’s the one that deals with danger and threat. The first set of statements in the quiz reflect when there is a balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS is “on” when we are resting, relaxing, and feeling peaceful.
The balance between PSN and SNS is what we should have in normal life so that we can engage with life in a way that feels good and is not harmful to our health. We can meet and enjoy grappling with challenges instead of feeling crushed by them. We can feel ourselves, keep our boundaries and express ourselves; at the same time we are able to fully connect to others and to the world.
So, what is life like for you? Where do you see yourself on the continuum most of the time? If you would like an expanded version of the quiz, let me know and I’ll send it to you.