I just got out of the hospital—again—for a stress-related physical illness. I get these from time to time; I have ever since being struck by lightning 23 years ago. I’m sort of used to them by now, and while they cause physical agony and fever and nausea and a host of other symptoms, they are a fact of life for me.
My condition is an inflammatory condition that reacts to stress, I am told. My doctors tell me, “lessen your stress; try to live as stress-free as possible.” But how the heck does a person do that?
I mean, seriously, docs: have you looked up the word “stress” in the dictionary? Merriam-Webster defines it like this:
stress: a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation; a state resulting from a stress; especially : one of bodily or mental tension resulting from factors that tend to alter an existent equilibrium <job-related stress>
Not very helpful is it, that definition? Especially the part where they say stress results from stress. Clearly, the people at Webster’s weren’t paying attention in class when their English teachers tried to teach them not to use a word to define that same word.
So I turned to Wikipedia, which defines stress thus:
stress: a negative concept that can have an impact on one’s mental and physical well-being, but it is unclear what exactly defines stress and whether or not stress is a cause, an effect, or the process connecting the two.
The only part of that definition that works is the first 14 words. And that’s the problem. If it’s unclear what exactly defines stress, how is a person to lessen, or avoid, stress?
Let’s agree with Webster’s that stress results “from factors that tend to alter an existent equilibrium.” In other words, stress takes you from a neutral, Zen-like state into something else. But it doesn’t specify that alteration is necessarily caused by something bad. Yes, we experience stress when our car won’t start, when we run out of money three days before payday, or our child is sick. But we also experience stress during the supposedly joyful holidays, when we’re excited about an upcoming vacation, or we get a new puppy. These latter things are good things, but they still alter our “existent equilibrium.”
So in order to avoid stress, as my doctors advise, I have to be neither overly happy nor sad. I have to avoid anything that will make me angry, but at the same time, I must avoid anything that makes me happy. I’m sitting on a swing, but I’m not allowed to swing it.
Doctors, it’s impossible not to experience stress. For example: my neuropathy in my arm has flared up badly the past 24 hours because of a low-pressure system that has moved into Southern California. That’s bad stress—it has caused me physical pain. So, I heat a hot pad in the microwave and put that on my arm, alleviating the pain, taking me back to neutral momentarily. But then the pendulum swings the other way—the hot pad works; I feel great! I’m happy! Whoops … good feelings = happy state = non-equilibrium = stress. Then the hot pad cools off, creating pain again, and the pendulum swings back.
Forget the hot pad. Maybe I can forget the pain if I become absorbed in a good book! I pick up Cry of the Kalahari, a book about a young couple who set out to study the brown hyenas and jackals of Botswana’s Kalahari Desert. That should maintain my equilibrium, right?
Wrong. I get emotionally involved in these people. I feel fright (bad stress) when Delia almost gets bitten by cobra, and excited (good stress) when jackals Captain and Mate have puppies. So, I better not read.
I decide to write instead of read. I can always get into a state of Zen when I write, and hours fly by on the words flying off my fingertips. I start writing a blog, but theN THE CAT STEPS ON MY CAPS LOCK KEY ANd goofs up my fonts. Amusing (good stress)? Yes. Annoying (bad stress)? Most definitely!
I’m finally hit with the hard truth: it is impossible to permanently lower your stress level. It is not possible to live a stress-free life. Yes, some things may be less stressful than others. It’s less stressful, for example, to buy a bottle of shampoo than to pick out and buy a new automobile. But since both involve traveling to a store and making a selection, both cause some change in our equilibrium. Both cause stress.
Life is that pendulum I mentioned. We swing one way, then back the other way. When we hold still, become static, we are no longer living, because to be static is to experience nothing at all. And I don’t want to experience nothing at all! I want to smell the newly unfurled rose that is covered in raindrops! I want to go outside and see why the ground squirrels are fussing at the scrub jays! I want to eat the soup Scott made me yesterday, and savor a slice of his home-baked apple pie! I want to plan our next road trip, work on one of the book projects I’m doing! I don’t want to sit on a static swing. I want that swing in motion.
So when I return to the doctor’s office next week for my follow up visit, and when he asks me if I’m trying to live stress-free, I’ll answer him truthfully, with a resounding “No.” Stress-free is boring. Stress-free is static. Stress-free is death. And I prefer life, even if it means some physical pain and the occasional trip to the hospital.
It sure beats sitting on a swing that doesn’t move.
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