Monday, June 25, 2012


I liked the above so much I hung it at my desk.
Stress is indeed a topic on the minds of most people.  Our modern lifestyles bombard us with persuasive information that subtly suggests we are not living right.  We need to work harder, be slimmer, dress cooler, and have MORE.  We need more money, more friends, more sexual partners, more information...more, More, MORE!  The constant pressure to perform is incredibly stressful for us.

Stress causes difficulty sleeping, depression, high blood pressure, eating disorders (both anorexia and overeating can be linked to stress), heart disease, antisocial behavior/short temper, sexual dysfunction, memory loss, and the list goes on and on.  It is a silent killer that slowly eats away from us until it finally takes our lives away.  Most people are not even aware of the effects stress is having on them until it is too late.

To cope with stress, many people turn to a host of external sources to try to remove or avoid stress, not realizing that stress is an inevitable part of our lives.  We often go to great lengths to avoid stress, such as quitting our jobs, divorcing our partners, moving far away, and so on.  In the end, each of these choices merely exchanges one set of stressors for another (usually unanticipated) set of stressors.

As the above picture suggests, the difference between a flat piece of charcoal and a diamond is not avoiding stress, but rather learning to handle stress well.  So...what can you do to help handle stress?

As intuitive as it may sound, the most important factor when coping with stress is simply being aware and recognizing that we have stress. By this I do not mean a general feeling of malaise that pressure brings, but a very specific awareness of when a stressful situation occurs.  We must also be aware that stress can be real or just imagined, and even imagined stress can have harmful effects.  By recognizing the early signs of our body's reaction to stress, we can begin to take steps to cope more effectively.  We see differences in acute stress (death of a pet, loss of a job) versus daily stress, and in fact it is the accumulation of daily stress which is far more harmful to us.  This means we must recognize it as a constant force in our life that must be adjusted for rather than ignored.

2) Eat Well
When we are under stress, what we eat has an even more profound effect on our body's chemistry.  Often times, our reaction to stress is to either under-eat or overeat (especially calorie junk foods high in salt and sugar).  In either case, this exacerbates the stress reaction by putting additional strain on our bodies.  Stress often causes gastrointestinal trouble, so the best foods are healthy and nutritious without being overly spicy, salty, or sweet.

3) Get Enough Sleep
We are all very busy, I know.  Still, when under stress it is important to try to get a proper rest every day.  That means at least 8 hours of continuous quality sleep.  The hours before midnight are especially important for healing the body, so it is far better to go to bed by 9pm and wake up early at 5am, rather than going to bed at midnight and waking up at 8am.  If you have trouble going to sleep/falling asleep make sure your bedroom is completely dark (no TV) and quiet (I said "No TV!").  Try to not watch TV, check email, browse internet or other bright visual activity for an hour or two before bed.  It is also a good idea to use your bed only for sleeping or sex, and not for lounging and watching TV, so you develop a subconscious habit of sleeping (or having sex) when you are in bed rather than staying awake.  Good sleep is not automatic or inherent, it requires practice and establishment of good habits.

4) Talk About It
Men especially like to lock their emotions inside, and stress is a very emotional thing.  However, it is cathartic to talk about stressful events, and this is true whether or not the listener proposes a solution to remove the stress.  In extreme case, stress of grief, disaster, or other tragedy, it is important to seek professional counseling immediately since we can slip into depression without even being aware of the changes.

5) Music = Mood
I would not suggest there is true scientific evidence that shows that what we listen to affects our moods.  That said, dark and sad music makes me feel dark and sad.  Blues music is cathartic by having singers relate their personal traumas, and by hearing them we sympathize and feel better.  However, I think it is helpful to try to listen to upbeat positive songs under times of stress.

6) Meditation
Meditation is a key factor in coping with stress. It is important to find at least 15 minutes a day (longer is better) to do a meditation.  This need not be a religious experience (although that is OK, too).  It is at least useful to deliberately control your posture, breath, and thoughts.  This yields overall health benefits, and is particularly good during stressful periods.  I do not suggest meditating during a shootout, shark attack, or other violent situation.  However, for people with high stress lifestyles, finding time very day for meditation is very important to maintaining balance. Since stress is often linked to feeling a loss of control, the controlled environment of meditation is very comforting.

7) Reward Yourself
As we go through stressful times, it is important to set little rewards for ourselves.  Take a moment out to congratulate yourself for the small successes that come in navigating rough waters.  Small, regular rewards help avoid binges as psychologically we seek some validation for coping with the matters at hand.  Knowing that this is a basic human need will help manage it more effectively.

8) Keep Moving
Lethargy is a component of depression, and often tied to our response to stress.  Exercise is also a key factor in helping us get good quality sleep.  Under stress it is important to not let our busy lifestyles discourage us for getting regular exercise.

Shine On You Crazy Diamond!


Sunday, June 03, 2012

I Can't...

Overheard between my vegan friend and another non-vegan friend at a restaurant dinner:

non-vegan friend (NVF):  Oh, so you can't eat meat
vegan friend (VF): No, I won't eat meat
NVF:'T, right?
VF: No, of course I can, but I WON'T.
NVF: (puzzled)...I don't get it.

Many times I hear people's lifestyles (religion/diet/exercise) talked about in terms of what they "can" or "can't" do.  For example, people look at a vegetarian/vegan's lifestyle and say "Oh, you can't eat meat." They may even comment "I could never do that."  Even the Christian bible interprests the Ten Commandments as "thou shalt not", suggesting that properly practicing Christians "can't" do those things.

This type of determinism is often enforced through fear or guilt.  In the case of religion, particularly (but not limited to) Christianity, fear of Hell or the wrath of God or even social ostracism has served for thousands of years to reinforce the beliefs of things that Christians can't do.  For vegetarians/vegans, the idea is that eating meat or other animal products causes such health problems that practicioners "CAN'T" eat them for fear of risking their health.

I would argue that all belief systems that are grounded in neagtivity (fear/guilt) miss the real value of the beliefs --- the empowerment of the believer through his/her freedom of choice.

This manifests in two principal ways:
1) lack of guilt/punishment associated with the choices
2) lack of negative terminology associated with the choices

I personally think it is of critical importance that believers actively CHOOSE to follow the beliefs, rather than be manipulated into doing so through fear of repercussion or guilt and loss of self-esteem for not doing so.  To be empowered it is important that choices be framed in POSITIVE TERMS which express the benefits of making good choices, rather than the downside of making bad choices (or failing to make the expected good choices).  All of this should be underpinned by an emphasis on the will of the individual to be in control and determine his/her own path. In doing so, each person gets the benefit of developing their personal discipline and self-control.

For vegetarians, it is not that they can't eat animal products --- it is that they won't eat animal products.  They certainly could.  It's just that they make an active, concious, informed decision not to.  THEY are in control, not the belief system.  They could easily renounce their beliefs if they chose to do so.  It is through their willpower and commitment alone that they follow their chosen way and reap the benefits of it.

This extends to many many other things in life.  People say to a married man "you can't sleep with another woman".  Not true, he most certainly could.  However (we hope) he chooses not to out of love and respect for his wife and her feelings.  He gets the benefit of a fuller and deeper realtionship, as well as confidence in his own discipline and self-control.

If a belief system is rooted in negativity and focused on what followers "can't" do, the overwhelming tendency is for either punishment avoidance or escapism to creep in.  Punishment avoidance refers to behaviors where people act without commitment to the belief itself, instead simply out of fear of the punishment itself.  Once the punishment disappears, compliance also disappears.  This explains why many young people renounce religion as soon as they move out from home or otherwise are not at risk of being punished for not going to church.

Escapism refers to those rebellious behaviors which occur from a desire to express free will by doing the exact opposite of what the belief system practices.  This is often a reaction to strict discipline, especially when it is forced upon an unwilling believer.  The often-cited promiscuous preacher's daughter or the binge-drinking and partying of freshman college students who are newly living away from home and their parents' oversight.

If their belief systems were based on their own freedom of choice rather than fear or negativity imposed by others, then the urge to rebel would no longer exist.

Although the language difference between "I can't" and "I won't" seems merely semantic, the implication is very important.  "I can't" absolves us of any responsibility for the choices, ascribing responsibility to be due to some factor beyond our control.  For example "I can't lift a ten-story building" or "I can't breathe under water for ten minutes".  Most of the time, the "can't" part is conditional.  You could lift a 10-story building if you had the right equipment and training.  Likewise you could breathe under water for ten minutes if you had an air supply.

Most of our life is not about what we can or can't do.
It is about what we will or won't do.
We must take responsibility for our choices, good and bad.
Learn from our mistakes and celebrate our successes.

Find 5 things you think you can't do.
Think about them.  Is it really that you CAN'T?  Or simply that you WON'T??
Think about how different those two states of mind are.