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Stressed out? Relaaax.

I recently returned from a vacation and it was quite honestly the first time I had actually relaxed on vacation. I typically worry (hello Generalized Anxiety Disorder) the entire time about all the things not getting done, or money etc. etc. which does not, remarkably, add up to a restful week off. Quite the opposite and to come home is a relief to get back to doing all the endless

things I wasn't doing while I was away. Thankfully this time was different and I was able to enjoy myself enough that coming home I felt rested, energized and happy.

Several years ago, maybe almost 10 years now, I read the book Why Zebra's Don't Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky. It's a great, fun read that walks you through the systems of the human body and how they are impacted by stress and how stress can make us sick. Or rather, as he clarifies in the opening chapter, how stress can make us more vulnerable to gaining diseases that make us sick. He is a scientist after-all and scientists are nothing if not just a bit pedantic (I say this with so much love). I purchased the book again (previously read as an e-book) so that I could reacquaint myself with the material and write in the margins.

Not too long ago a patient asked me "what's the best way to relax?" or "how does one relax more?" and my honest answer was "probably you wanna start with doing things that are pleasurable more often which may mean addressing some of the things in your life that you don't really enjoy or are maybe neutral tasks that demand your time, attention, money, and energy." It's such a valid question though because so many of us struggle with relaxation.

I think the key point of Sapolsky's book, or one of the early made points anyway, is that a great deal of our stress comes from our ability to perceive possible, probable, eventual futures that are... grim. Humans have this incredible ability to imagine events that are in the murky future. An example he uses is a farmer watching her crop get decimated by pestilence. It's early spring, she has food right now, has money right now, but that destroyed crop translates into less of both in the future. That future may well be 6 months away, but she knows in the present moment there will be famine and poverty for her and her family. And in that present moment, her stress response turns ON.

The stress response is amazing. It is intended to be a near instant response from our body to get us out of danger fast and efficiently. Your body, in rapid succession, flips switches and turns gears to prime it for bursts of high intensity activity involving tremendous expenditures of energy. To do so, it stops spending energy on what we can call "long term building projects" like producing reproductive hormones or immune system cells. Much of the available energy (glucose, ATP, oxygen) is sent to the musculoskeletal system, heart, lungs and nervous system with the intention to fight, flee or freeze. Extremely useful if you need to run away or fight for your life.

But if you're a farmer and you know you have ahead of you a long period with no food and no money because your crop is being destroyed, the very thought of this is enough to trigger an immediate stress response. A response that is basically useless in the face of this particular stressor. You can not fight the locusts with your fists anymore than running away from them will change things. And so your body reacts to just your thoughts as though death is on the door step, imminently threatening.

Amazingly it doesn't even have to be something of obvious threat to our personhood. A difficult conversation with the boss? Stress response. Traffic that is making you late for a date with that person you really like? Stress response. Sudden unexpected car payments vs your electricity bill? Stress response. Laying back in a tent in a camp ground in Ontario worrying about money and networking and marketing? You got it, stress response.

So how do we deal with this? Well, as someone with an anxiety disorder let me be the first to admit it's not always so easy, though it is relatively simple.

  1. Mindfulness and other meditative activities can be useful for training your attention to be in the present rather than worrying on the future or regretting the past. Paying attention to the here and now and being fully present more often can help us notice what is just fine the way it is right now (and I do hope that you have things in your life that are just fine that you can focus on) and acknowledging that the future is not set in stone can be helpful.

  2. Assess your stressors. Practically speaking, taking stock of your life and what is not working that you can do something about is important too. While much of our stress really does come from our ability to imagine, that is not the same as our stressors being imaginary. That farmer is imagining a problematic future but the problems she foresees are not imaginary ones (this ability is also a big part of what has enabled us to be such a tenacious species, we can respond now to problems that may not arrive for months). There are likely things you can do, habits or behaviours that you can change or adapt to mitigate some of the stressors in your life.

  3. Connect with others. Humans were never meant to do everything ourselves yet our society, so committed to individualism, pushes us into social isolation. We fail to share our worries with others fearing judgement or just simply lacking the skills to share our strife and give our support. This connection can look like talking with friends and family, or seeking professional support from psychotherapists, counsellors, and medical professionals.

  4. Find your joy. I can't stress this enough, though stress can rob us of this, but connecting with things that make you feel happy or pleasant just for the sake of feeling happy and pleasant is so so so important. Whether that is spending time with a beloved pet, learning a new skill, reading books that are fun, being in nature, watching movies, honestly it doesn't matter, just putting yourself in the same space as the things that feel pleasant (eat the chocolate bar!!) can go a long way.

  5. Address your neuroses. Ok, this last one is for my people, my anxious, traumatized, and depressed bunnies. You're not gonna want to, probably. I have almost never "wanted" to address my poor neurotic inner bunny, but oh my do I feel better when I do. Seek support. Get a therapist, get 5 therapists if you must. Talk to your doctor about medications that could be useful. Speak to a naturopath. Read self help books (Brene Brown, Nadine Harris, Tara Brach, Kristen Neff, Nedra Tawab Christopher Germer are some great authors to look up). Watch Ted Talks. You have so much more courage than you give yourself credit for. Believe that because you are still standing, you are still here facing this thing every day and keeping up with keeping on.

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