Friday, December 3, 2021

The Best Medicine

Your heart pounds so hard it hurts. Your breath rasps. Your mouth is dry. Your blood in your ears roars. Your insides feel scorched by the constant rushes of adrenaline. You might complain about the weight on your chest. 

It's either a heart attack or it's stress. In the US with its pathological worship of busyness, it's probably stress. We've built a society that's really, really good at piling it on and one pathetically bad at releasing it. Science tells us all the time that chronic stress causes and exacerbates disease. It really is in our best interests to figure out how to turn down the dial on stress. 

The funny thing is: Stress evolved to be a lifesaver. Trust humans to turn it into a killer. 

Stress isn't supposed to be a bad thing. It's supposed to help, not harm. But to help, stress needs to be a cycle - a cycle that gets completed. At the dawn of humanity, a critter charged you. Stress dumped flight or fight or freeze chemicals into your body. If you were going to survive, you either ran or you fought. Either way, living meant physical exertion. Once you either defeated or outran the critter trying to turn you into a snack-pack, you returned to your tribe, told your story, and celebrated living another day. Defeating stress in the modern world means recreating those steps. Burnout by Emily and Amanda Nagoski lays out the means of doing just that. 

I'm not going to talk about exercise, because yeah, yeah, we all know. No, I want to focus on that last bit: Celebrating.

What happens when you recount some amazing feat to your friends? Wide eyes, appreciative, empathetic, maybe sympathetic noises from your listeners. Amazement, broad smiles, and laughter when your story concludes with triumph. Or at least with you not being made a chalk outline by some saber-toothed something. 

Laughter. You know. That stuff that's supposed to be the best medicine. Because laughter signals your system that stress is over. It's at an end and the alert system can relax. 

When the stress gets to be too much, I break out the cat toys and the catnip. There's nothing like a bunch of drunk cats butt wiggling and pouncing on string (and one another). Brown paper is also a good source of feline comedy.

If laughter feels too far away, affirm life in some fashion. Our ancestors made art. They drew on cave walls, or put up hand prints - something to say 'we're still here', 'we survived another day'. Watching the last of this season's monarch caterpillars change into butterflies does the job for me. Getting to release a brand new butterfly into the world dumps cold water on stress. It's pretty tough to stay keyed up and agitated when an endangered bit of technicolor beauty takes her first flight.