Grow or Die: A Meditation on Stress

(Photo by Jordy Meow)

(Photo by Jordy Meow)

"There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so."

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

Stress is neither right nor wrong, it is a response. It is how our bodies and minds react to challenges. Just as perceptions and opinions shape narratives, they also shape our responses to stress. Managing stress begins with changing our perceptions of stress.

If we consider stress a negative and try to avoid it whenever possible, it will consume us. Just as when we lie in bed trying not to think about insomnia, it will be all we think about. We know this feeling, whenever we try to get over an ex, is when we have the hardest time. If we are fragile, we break. Stress, however, is antifragile: the more you fight it, the more it persists. With emotional responses, it's sometimes best to let it take its course.

Many Philosophies, the Same Perspective

From the view of Eastern philosophy to Western psychology, the opposite of depression is not happiness but rather resilience. The symbolism of breaking boards in the martial arts to talk therapy in the clinical setting, the attempt is to give people the tools to overcome frustrations and promote self-regulation—conditioning them for the daily challenges of life. Psychologist Peter Kramer believes treatment shouldn't dull deep emotions and feelings. Treatment should build a protective emotional barrier for patients so they don't feel overwhelmed.

Managing Stress

We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.
— Seneca

In finance, stress management is risk management. Lack of resilience is vulnerability to risk. But whether you call it risk or stress, the idea is the same: fear of the unknown. However, stress is a loaded topic, so thinking about stress the same way we think about risk can give us objective clarity. Risk management is not about avoiding all risk, it is the optimal amount of risk for the most amount of gain. Avoidance of all risk only promotes more risk of poverty. (Likewise, if a baseball player avoids the risk of striking out by never swinging his bat, he will only ever strike out.)

Stress kills, but it also saves. Stress hormones in excess can make us anxious and sick, but it can also lower inflammation and reward our brains. Paradoxically, it can stunt growth but it is also the only path for growth. Like water, it may take us one way or another, create a calm sea or a storm, but it is always moving. And without stress, there is no movement.

See stress for what it is, a powerful conduit for change. It is evolution—aiding us, keeping us alive and alert. The problem of stress isn't stress, but the intensity. What's the difference between excitement and nervousness? The intensity. What's lacking is appropriate training in channeling and regulating that energy. (The principal tenet of martial arts training.)

A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor. Just as we wouldn't trust a sailor who's only known fair seas, we want leaders who've been through adversity. Why? Because we not only see the value of adversity, we see the necessity.

Emotions Create Emotional Growth

(Migrant Mother | Dorothea Lange) This image of destitute migrant worker Florence Thompson with her 7 children has become an icon of resilience in the face of adversity. Taken during the Great Depression, Thompson was only 32.

(Migrant Mother | Dorothea Lange) This image of destitute migrant worker Florence Thompson with her 7 children has become an icon of resilience in the face of adversity. Taken during the Great Depression, Thompson was only 32.

Any biography of a person we admire is a story of tragedy channeled into purpose. Struggles create psychic energy, we can either direct it to something important or we can let it destroy us. You have a choice: channel it to overcome obstacles or don't. How can you get anywhere without overcoming? We want significant progress without having to move, that is the paradox that keeps us trapped in the stress-suffering cycle.

The story of America is the story of immigrant families absorbing substantial risk to make a home. When asked how they pushed through, their answer: Because they had to. Ordinary people can lift cars, survive disasters, go from rags to riches, and overcome the odds—when they have to. That's the power of stress. We often hate it; that's our perception of course, but we love the results. Meaningful things are born out of tough situations. What meaning is there in a utopia?

Paralysis Rather than Progress

When we remove all obstacles, stressors, and risks, we die. I don't mean this figuratively, I mean literally, we will die. Putting aside our emotional and intellectual health for a moment, but from the immune system, the heart, to our cells, they cannot survive without stress. Likewise, the muscles of astronauts in space atrophy due to the lack of duress from gravity. Astronauts are weightless, but they are never under zero gravity. Otherwise, their ship would lose its orbit. Without gravity, we would lose the moon. Without gravity, we would leave our orbit around the sun. (Not to mention what would happen to the seas and life on earth.) There always needs to be a pull, some pressure, some stress, or we perish. That is the truth we must accept. If you deny this fact, you deny control. How do we mend a relationship unless we accept there is a relationship that needs mending? Our relationship with stress is plagued with these riddles because our relationship with stress is irrational and inconsistent.

Without an ability to cope, everything becomes stressful. A hyperfocus on not screwing up makes us anxious about everything we do. Constantly second guessing and over-thinking. Life is a myriad of experiences; hiding under a rock to avoid all the bad, also means avoiding all the good. Without natural experiences, there is no need for resilience, no reason to grow (physically, emotionally, and intellectually), and without experiences to draw from, there is no foundation for empathy.

Without stress, there is no psychic debt to channel and no rewards for our risks. Without a need, there is no reason, and without reason it will not happen. Removing ourselves from the ways of nature is equal to holding our breaths, and without breath, there is no life. Nature adapts. (Even air itself is not pure oxygen, in fact, pure oxygen can be just as toxic as toxic air. This is the absurdity of binary thinking.)

(Hebbian version of the Yerkes–Dodson law) Originally developed by psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson in 1908. The law dictates that performance increases with physiological or mental arousal, but only up to a point. When levels of arousal become too high, performance decreases.

(Hebbian version of the Yerkes–Dodson law) Originally developed by psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson in 1908. The law dictates that performance increases with physiological or mental arousal, but only up to a point. When levels of arousal become too high, performance decreases.

The fear of suffering deprives us of happiness. Stress engages us with life. Too much and we burn out. Too little arousal and we lose engagement. When we find that balance is when we perform to our capacity, while increasing our capacity. Stress can mold a person or break a person, however, some of this is within your control (so long as you believe it is within your ability to control).

Resilience Rather than Resistance

University of New Hampshire professor Paul Harvey finds that the sheltering of oneself from reality has the opposite of the intended effect. Instead of protecting people from sadness, it creates "unrealistic expectations and a strong resistance toward accepting negative feedback" and "an inflated view of oneself." Reality never matches the expectations of the self. In running from criticism, we become our harshest critics.

Our relationship with opinion and reality is noncohesive. Once we give ourselves permission to stress is when we stop being its prisoner. Stress makes us almost superhuman—so much so that it can be overwhelming. It can grow and grow but finding a purpose helps to release the excess. Purpose is not to be confused with passion. Purpose is a relationship with a greater good. Passion can often be self-serving while purpose is about service to others. The feeling of serving no purpose is called sadness. Selfishness is the bridge to sadness, it severs shared experiences. We often ask ourselves what our purpose in the world is, yet look for happiness that only benefits ourselves. (Replacing purpose with passion.) That is the great irony, we are somehow aware of the problem, yet we mindlessly reinforce the it.

People who migrated, to start over and raise their families, they had a reason to be resilient. The previous generations who survived war, factory jobs, prejudice, and sexism, they had a reason to be resilient. They didn't do it only for themselves, they did it for their families, they did it for the generations after them. We need a reason to be resilient, we need people to be resilient for.

The Effective Dosage

  • When we don't eat, we perish. If we eat less and challenge our bodies to do more with less food, we are likely to live longer.
  • Fasting triggers stem cell regeneration.
  • Our immune system reacts to stress by getting stronger. That is the nature of vaccines, they give us inert disease so we can become resilient to it.
  • Arthritis and back pain are triggered when we move, but the symptoms improve the more we move.
  • Avoiding social situations increases social isolation but the exposure to social situations is the common treatment for social isolation.
  • Poison can kill us, but in small doses, it can extend our life. This phenomenon is called hormesis.
  • Inversely, excessive hygiene, over-sanitizing the human experience, lowers life expectancy and increases the chances of illness.
  • Avoiding bacteria also wards off friendly bacteria our bodies need to stay healthy.

Stress Isn't What's Dangerous, It's the Lack of Balance

Extremism is easy because going "all in" doesn't require critical thinking. We don't have to rebalance or remain responsive, we can stick to doing it one way. (Even when it's not working.) The problem is, decreasing the exposure of one thing increases the exposure of another—we're back to square one. Yin-yang is the balancing of these elements for effective dosage. This requires daily practice and awareness.

There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.
— Hamlet

Framing things as good or bad leads to extremes. Then there is no neutral or balance because there is no choice. There is only one path, which is toward good. Not to say everyone only does good things, we are able to justify some of the worst behaviors as good because we are motivated to do so.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
— Saint Bernard of Clairvaux

Only in comics and cartoons do villains say they are evil and that they are acting on behalf of the forces of evil. In real life, everyone thinks they are a force of good, no matter how evil their action.

The soul of balance is about equals. The yin-yang has been corrupted by Western dualism and moralism. In yin-yang, there is only hot and cold, push and pull, small and big, east or west. Good or bad is the opposite of yin-yang, as it is a justification that one path is clearly better than the other, it is either-or absolutism. Yin-yang is actually one compound word, not two separate ideas. You can never have one or the other, and the only good is to have both.

Consider for a moment our senses during a meal. We can smell food or taste food. We can smell it and then taste it. But this is not to be mistaken for smell-taste, the combined experience of being able to taste something from the smell, and smell something from the taste, and blending them together to enhance the experience of eating. It is all connected. This is yin-yang (the Way), one informs the other.

A man will be imprisoned in a room with a door that’s unlocked and opens inwards; as long as it does not occur to him to pull rather than push it.
— Ludwig Wittgenstein

Push or pull, good or bad—the modern Catch-22 paradox.

Yet there is no "or" in the Way, it is always both. Moralism (dualism) is not a study of opposites, it is a study of illusory superiority. Imagine thinking of the sun and the moon in terms of good or bad. It is the improper way to think about them as there is no good or bad, they just are. If we try to see the sun and moon in good/ bad duality, then perhaps we would see the sun as good, and the moon as a burned out desolate version of the sun. One becomes clearly better than the other. It's a faulty way to think about it. "I ate this cake, I am a bad person. I didn't eat cake, I am a good person." This is completely unreasonable and harmful, yet this is a common way to think about things. But "stress is bad, no-stress is good" is just as harmful to our well-being. It shoehorns our behavior and makes us feel guilty if we don't fit into this single chute.

Right is not right; so is not so. If right were really right it would differ so clearly from not right that there would be no need for argument. If so were really so, it would differ so clearly from not so that there would be no need for argument.
— Chuang Tzu

Being half right and half wrong is not the Way, for there is no right. The Way is a holistic view that there may be many perceptions of truth. Moralism gives clear rules that one is right, one is wrong, and to only do what's right. Then there is no decision to make, no guidance needed. It is rigid, conformist, and extreme—no flow, no nuance, and no Way to be balanced. This is the notion that there is only one correct (good) path, this is predestination and authoritarianism. A simple way to control a group, but offers little help for the individual and the particular instances of his or her life. Yin-yang is a symbol that there are no right or wrong or absolutes. In modern psychology, this is the self-regulatory ability to think without value judgment. In Taoism, this is known as wu-wei—to be with ease.

As a boy, I’d learned that it’s the Latin, and maybe a Greek, word for ‘suffering’ that gives rise to our word ‘passion.’ Etymologically, the opposite of ‘suffering’ is, therefore, ‘apathy’; the Passion of the Christ, say, is a reminder, even a proof, that suffering is something that a few high souls embrace to try to lessen the pains of others. Passion with the plight of others makes for ‘compassion.’
— Pico Iyer

Several Years Ago My Sister Passed Away...

My brain was spinning, thoughts whirring—and I used this alertness. I read and studied, I used my sleeplessness to write and define what I wanted to do with my life. Everything I do now, my very livelihood, grew out of that dark night. And my life has somehow become more positive than it was prior to that tragedy. I am inspired when I speak and write. It was my choice, how I perceived this stress. It was traumatic, but it was also growth. This is not to say the ends justify the means, but how awful would it have been if the residue of my sister's life were only that of pain? We believe we must suffer because suffering is heroic. Yet it was never suffering that was heroic, someone putting a cause above themselves, that was heroic. For this, the hero often suffered, but suffering for no cause other than to suffer is irrational. It is mistaking the effect for the cause.

Psychologists call this sublimation, transferring impulses and reactions into something more positive and productive. In less clinical terms, this is called maturity, and we should never stop maturing because circumstances will never stop changing.

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
— Viktor E. Frankl

Some try to suppress trauma. Why wouldn't they if they considered it a devil meant to be hidden in the basement? We can create strength or fragility, but there is no coming out of this the same as we entered.

(Ice cave in Erebus Ice Tongue, Ross Sea, Antarctica. 1978  NOAA Photo Library)

(Ice cave in Erebus Ice Tongue, Ross Sea, Antarctica. 1978  NOAA Photo Library)

In life, you often feel like an explorer at the mouth of a dark cave. But there is no good cave or scary cave, only a cave. Monsters lurk only within our imaginations.

Traumatic Growth

By reframing my views on stress and trauma, I was able to learn from experience and grow. I wasn't trapped in my own head; I wasn't reliving the anguish over and over again. It wasn't pleasant nor easy. I allowed myself the freedom to feel however I was going to feel. I had no expectations. I didn't resist. I yielded to the experience. Difficult and painful, but ultimately those feelings flitted away...

Death is a Natural Part of the Life Cycle

Since then I've lost other family members. I started this essay while my father was in the hospital. I am finishing this from the hospital where my mother is hospitalized. I wrote this while most of the world was sleeping. I didn't stay up to write it; I wasn't going to sleep regardless; I wrote rather than stare into the abyss.

I think about loved ones daily and it keeps me driven. It's no longer sad, just... defining. Every negative and stressful event is psychic energy for what I do next, because some days I have no energy, yet this keeps me going. That's stress and it can be a good thing.

Summary

The very act of changing our perspective of stress, from an undesirable thing to a neutral or even positive thing can allow us to learn from our experiences and move on with our lives. The right dosage of stress can create positive growth. But the removal of all stress can be just as deadly as being immersed in it. It's a zero-sum game, when we reduce the dosage of one thing, we unwittingly increase another. The most dangerous thing of all isn't stress, it's the lack of balance.

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