Most people these days feel like they’re under stress at work. If we’re not worried about losing our jobs, we’re taking on extra work because other people have left. It seems that work stress has become a fact of life.
According to Dr. Richard O’Connor, author of “Undoing Perpetual Stress: The Missing Connection Between Depression, Anxiety and 21st Century Illness,” anxiety, depression, addiction, nonspecific illness, personality extremes, and much of the worry that besets all of us — are all the tips of the same iceberg, all manifestations of our response to the stresses of contemporary life, all connected beneath the surface, all reinforcing and buttressing each other.
We Are All Chained Impalas
All animals — including humans — have highly-developed responses to stress. When we sense danger, our bodies jump into action and prepare us for flight-or-fight. Imagine an impala being chased by a cheetah. The impala’s nervous and endocrine systems send electrical and chemical signals throughout the body that increases heart rate, redirect energy to the muscular and sensory systems, shut down digestion and reproduction, send immune cells into storage depots, and deploy steroids to help the body heal from wounds. Everything going on is synchronized to prepare the animal to deal with the immediate threat.
Either the impala gets away or he is killed and eaten. If he dies, his worries are over. If he lives, he has run the race of his life. All the fight-or-flight chemicals are burned up and things return to normal. We are all built to manage this kind of short-term stress.
Now imagine a cruel experiment. Chain the impala and cheetah to the ground so that the impala is just out of the cheetah’s reach. The impala is in no real danger, but it doesn’t know that, and it can’t escape from danger it thinks it’s in. Its stress response will continue without relief. It’s brain and endocrine system will keep pumping out the neurotransmitters and hormones associated with high arousal, which will eventually lead to all kinds of problems — exhaustion, cardiac strain, muscle fatigue, anxiety, and depression.
“Humanity in the twenty-first century,” says Dr. O’Connor, “is in the position of the chained impala. Our natural responses to stress are good for helping us escape from cheetahs, but not so helpful for dealing with stresses that are more chronic — difficult career choices, dealing with a demanding boss, money troubles, family conflict…We have to live with the fact that our nervous systems have not changed much for 160,000 years since the first modern human appeared. We’re not wired for the kinds of stress we face today.”
Breaking the Chains of Perpetual Stress
So how do we deal with this kind of perpetual stress? If we listen to the wisdom of the wild impala, we might consider two strategies. The first is to keep moving. Walking, jogging and running are ancient ways to keep us free from stress. Stress will inevitably build up. The only way to keep it from eating away at us is to build movement into our lives. The other lesson from the world of impalas is to hang out with your friends. There is safety in numbers, and keeping good social relationships going is another sure fire way to reduce stress.
Instead of bringing your stress home with you, go out and walk. Even better, walk with a friend.