Giving up stress as habit

I’m working with a healthy lifestyle coach through work to reduce my stress. Today I realized that stress, for me at least, is a habit in the same way  anger is (was) a lifestyle.

Stress initiates the same “fight or flight” response that anger does. Both release cortisol and adrenaline/epinephrine into the body. Both disrupt. They disrupt sleep, well-being, physiology, and perhaps worse of all, they disrupt communication.

Adrenaline is a rush. You can get the same rush from stress and anger as you do from downhill skiing. There are just different emotions and responses attached. The adrenaline rush can be addictive.

In other words, you can get hooked on being stressed. You may not enjoy it the way you might other addictions, but you are hooked the same way. If this happens, you start creating situations where stress develops naturally. Say, by taking on more responsibilities, creating a greater vision than you can possibly realize given real-world limitations, procrastinating, or simply by creating conflict – even if it is only through responding conflictually. You create stress to get the adrenaline, and it cycles and spirals in such a way you keep creating more stress.

This has negative effects on the body.

This also has negative effects on relationships.

For the past few months I have been working at breathing and meditation. Slowly and imperfectly. I have at least learned to count breaths as a way to manage stress in the moment. This has helped. But. I wrote a post a few weeks that makes the point that counting is an act of control. We only count things we wish to control in some manner. While there is a certain amount of value in controlling your breathing, if your goal in focusing on your breathing is “to be in the moment,” then counting seems to be the wrong way to go about it. Counting is about controlling more than it is about being. Counting is about moving on because it is always a step further away from zero on the number line or whatever axis you are using.

Counting takes you away.

So, instead of counting breaths, I count each breath. I count to one and stop. And I do it again. And again. After all, the value in focusing on your breathing in meditation is breathing is always the thing you do now. Past breaths don’t matter. Future breaths don’t matter. All that matters is this breath now. By counting each breath and starting over, I am embracing each breath as its own moment. I am not moving farther down the axis., I am staying rooted in the Now.

This is hard work though. It would be much easier to simply get rid of everything that causes stress. But I am pretty sure that would leave me very lonely and very bored. For that reason, I will stick with the things that cause stress, but continue to learn to be more aware of each moment, and less focused on what makes me feel stressed. All of this is part of developing much greater mindfulness than I am capable of currently.

Actions:

  • Continue to develop and practice attitudes that lead toward greater mindfulness.
  • Learn to pause or stop before responding. (I have a bad habit of responding immediately. Sometimes I think this is about creating more stress than anything else.)
  • Continue to give up ideas and practices of control. (Let more things be done by others. Share the wealth of opportunities that exist with all the stuff that needs doing.)
  • Identify things/behaviors that cause stress and develop workarounds.

This last thing is kind of big. I’m not a big planner. I’ve traveled across country multiple times with the only known stops to be the beginning and the end. I like the looseness of no plans and potentialities of discovery. I admit though, I dislike driving farther and farther into the night looking for a motel. So as we prepare to leave on a 4,500 mile roadtrip, I have made reservations for every night. We know what motels and hotels the first two weeks, what campsites the second two weeks. Further, I have put this is all into an itinerary and shared it with people. Most importantly, I have shared it with my wife, in hard copy. She now knows the plan. I am not always very good about sharing my plans, especially those that are all in my head, because I like the flexibility of changing my mind and not having to admit to changing my mind. Or worse, being wrong. I have bad habits of responding in irritation to questions about the plan in my head. In part, because I was typically irritated that I hadn’t told anybody so now I have to explain it – while in midst of executing it. Blecch.

It’s liberating. And it might even work. We are about to find out.

 

 

 

You can waste your summer

A few weeks ago I was having coffee with a friend following the debut weekend of “Wonder Woman.” The conversation naturally lead into further consideration of heroes, and then television and the anti-heroes of HBO dramas like “The Sopranos.”

When I brought up the series “Oz” about life within the fictional maximum security Oswald State Penitentiary,  we were stuck for a moment. You see, we could talk about the evolutionary arc of Tony Soprano and his paisanos and moments of redemption, but also with no expectation that many of the characters would redeem themselves. Least ways, not beyond their ethical structures and into ours. There was a clarity to their actions that usually took place within their basic ethical frame – “Once you’re into this family, there’s no getting out.”

In Oz, week after week, we waited for a hero. We looked to see if rare moments of redemption turned into something else. They did not.

Week after week, we waited for a hero that never arose.

Each episode simply contributed to the downward spiral of meanness, evil, and despair, that was the “normal” character development arc in Oz. The violence, the desire for control over others as the closest thing to freedom possible, the abuses of all types, and the treatment of humans as deranged animals, leave most viewers desperately wishing for a hero. We wanted someone to rise up and save at least one person, if only themselves. It never really happened though.

As the Boss said in Thunder Road:

“You can hide ‘neath your covers and study your pain
Make crosses from your lovers,throw roses in the rain,
Waste your summer praying in vain
For a savior to rise from these streets.”

You can do these things, but you are missing the fact that there are heroes all around us. I see them every day. People who fight for what they believe (@saragoldrickrab). People who try to elevate the conversation (@tressiemcphd). People who share what is seemingly unshareable (@rgayHunger is amazingly beautiful and painful). People who sparkle and strive (@googleguacamole).

These are some of my heroes. They are brave, amazing, super-intelligent, and honorable people. You know, what we all want to be.