Did you know that when a work project is past due, or a massive truck veers in front of you on the highway, your body flips on the same physiological responses as if a lion was chasing you? Our physiology kept us alive as a species when we had to escape predators on the savannah, but now this chronic triggering takes its toll on the human body.
While thirty lions might not chase you every day, you might have thirty worries that send the stress-response system into overdrive. The fact that we can anticipate catastrophe before it even occurs is one of the best and worst things about being human. Thinking ahead keeps us alive, but it also keeps us up at night, with worries tipping over like dominoes in our anxious heads.
In the popular book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, biological researcher Robert Sapolsky explains that our response to stress is more damaging to our health than the actual crises in our lives. “If you experience every day as an emergency,” he warns, “you will pay the price.”
In today’s world there is no limit to the number of ways we choose to cope with stress, but the “Treat Yo Self” mentality that we take can do just as much harm as it does good. As good as it tastes, chocolate cake is not a coping skill, so here are a few alternatives to reducing your body’s stress response.
1. Engage as much as you retreat. When we’re anxious, our focus narrows, and quick fixes become more desirable. And the quickest fix of all is to distract. Distracting yourself looks like overeating, drinking, mindless Internet surfing, overspending, and many other disengaging behaviors.
While escaping into the fantasy world of a novel or a Netflix marathon might seem harmless enough, it’s only a temporary solution to the anxiety. So as a rule of thumb, you should try to engage your anxiety as often as you hide from it. Believe it or not, anxiety won’t kill you in the short term. Sitting with stress might look like not checking your cell phone at a red light, or practicing mindfulness as you walk down the street. For others it might mean turning your computer off at a reasonable hour, or standing up for yourself in an awkward situation.
2. Maintain contact with difficult people. Hanging around obnoxious or anxiety-provoking people might sound like the worst possible advice to dealing with stress, but distance (physical or emotional) can be just as deadly. All too often when a family member is dysfunctional or a coworker is overbearing, our instinct is to sever the relationship or maintain a comfortable distance. But that anxiety doesn’t disappear. It’s an invisible umbilical cord, tethering us to the person we’re trying to avoid.
But if you can practice being thoughtful and nonreactive with difficult people, then you might be surprised to find that chronic anxiety will decrease. The most successful people in life have a talent for making conversations productive, even when emotions run high. They attempt to understand how other people see the world and what they are trying to accomplish, but they are also able to communicate their own thinking calmly and effectively.
3. Skip the venting. Any family therapist will tell you that a problem seldom stays between two people. When things get tense, we tend to draw in a third to hear our complaints or to side with us, and this often takes the form of venting. Maybe you whip out your phone and call a friend when you fight with your girlfriend or bring a long list of complaints about your boss home to your spouse.
Support and empathy are basic human needs. But sometimes you have to stop and ask yourself, “What would it look like if I took responsibility for my own distress?” This could mean taking the problem back to the original person, and fostering that one-to-one relationship. Or it could mean calming yourself down until you are able to tackle the problem responsibly.
4. Don’t function for other people. Often a small act of kindness is more about managing our own anxieties than actually helping out another. Perhaps you choose not to delegate at work or end up finishing your child’s homework every night. As a general rule, you shouldn’t do for others what they can do for themselves. Sitting with anxiety means being able to experience the frustration of watching others make mistakes as they work toward a goal.
There are multiple ways to practice this tenet. If a friends texts you a question that is easily Google-able, it might not be your responsibility to answer. If I’m teaching a class, I choose not to send out a dozen reminders to students that they have a paper due. Taking responsibility for yourself means letting others do the same.
Living in emergency mode is almost a given in modern times, with 24-hour news networks and the Internet alerting us every day to the price of being human. But we can earn some flexibility in our response to anxiety if we observe our own reactivity to daily worries and start engaging them. When your body is swimming in stress, anything that can help you poke your head above the water and gain a little perspective is worth pursuing. With enough practice, your brain and your body might find that the lurking predators ready to pounce are not so scary after all.