Why Is Everyone So Stressed?

May 02, 2019
Misty mountains reflected in a lake water with title Reflections on Inner Peace, Outer Peace

A student in my last Inner Peace Outer Peace class pointed out how “stress” is such a universal feeling these days - and it really rang true to me! It seems that everyone I speak with feels either stressed, busy, or tired. Their cortisol levels are high, their nervous systems feel perpetually “on” and don’t seem to ever calm down. This state can lead to anxiety and insomnia, which in turn can turn into periods of depression when things are less intense. I get tired of even hearing myself say that I’m stressed or busy - it feels so trite these days.

There are many theories people have about why we seem to have this state of apparently universal stress - difficulties of living in major urban centers including the Bay Area, including skyrocketing costs of living, traffic, and overpopulation. My personal favorite pet theory is that it’s because of email: when else in human history have we been so inundated by so many demands around amount and speed of communication?

While it can be useful to think about causes of this collective state of stress, remedies for this state of mind are what’s needed. This constant experience of stress leads to physical inflammation and illness in our bodies, and makes us less resourced and responsive, individually and collectively.

For me, this means first making a decision that this is not how I want to inhabit the world. Not by suppressing, bypassing, or shaming the experience of stress when it arises, but by knowing that I don’t want to suffer in this way, and there are options. When we believe that this is the only choice we have, that there is no way out of this predicament of feeling constantly stressed - we suffer so much more!

Breathing into places of difficulty and suffering is a key part of practice. Noticing stress in my body, in my mind, and breathing with it for a few minutes; even 3 mindful breaths when we notice a feeling of stress can help interrupt that frequently traversed neural pathway. This creates more space around this feeling of tightness. It means we can see the stress, hold compassion for the being who is experiencing stress, rather than being the stress. One metaphor Thich Nhat Hanh uses to describe this internal space we cultivate is like salt in a body of water: when we are like a glass of water, a teaspoon of salt makes the water extremely salty! But when we are like a river, you can put in that same teaspoon of salt and the river does not become salty.

Once I breathe into this experience and create some space around it, I can gain more perspective and see other options. I used to work at domestic violence agencies and the environment can become such that everything, even minor office tasks, can feel like emergencies. It may sound flip, but I developed the mantra, “if no one is going to die, it is not an emergency.”

I often go back to this mantra 20 years later, and I encourage you to try it on as well. There are certainly situations in life that are true emergencies. And when those arise, we respond to them accordingly! But most of the time, we create emergencies in our minds, which is what activates our fight-or-flight, sympathetic nervous systems. We worry and fret not about what is happening in the moment, but what we fear could happen if we don’t hold it all together! Fretting never prevents bad things from happening, it only creates suffering for ourselves (and often those around us). When an actual emergency arises, fretting and worrying doesn’t help, either - we just respond appropriately.

We can tell a different story with our minds and our words. We can choose to stop reinforcing the “I’m so stressed” mental pathway and start laying different pathways for ourselves. Part of it is remembering that no-one’s “to do” list ever feels complete, and being able to breathe with and tolerate this state of incompleteness. My biology professor in Chinese Medicine school used to say, the only time a living system reaches homeostasis is in death. (And even then, there are so many biological processes still underway!) We need to be able to inhabit states that may feel like chaos and confusion with a sense of tolerance, and eventually peace - and then, we no longer feel chaotic and confused.

I wish all of us the experience of peace, ease, and joy in our daily lives. It is possible!

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