Stress: The Essential Condition

Adapted from The Stress Remedy book, by Dr. Doni Wilson.

Imagine for a moment that you’re an air-traffic controller at a busy international airport.  On a good day, skies are sunny and bright, visibility is great, and it’s pretty much business as usual.  On a more challenging day, a thick fog rolls in, and suddenly, your job becomes much, much harder.  And when storms threaten, or when there’s a downpour, or when a nearby blizzard causes several additional planes to be rerouted in your direction, you’re facing even more difficult challenges.

Even on a good day, though, you’re still responsible for dozens of planes carrying thousands of passengers—and no matter how well you do your job, the demands on your body, mind, and emotions are never going to stop.  There will be good days and bad days, hard days and easy ones, but even on the best, most optimal day, those planes just keep on coming.

This is the image I want you to think about because this is what life is like.  There we are, in the control tower, trying to do our best to master all the challenges that just keep coming at us—and that never seem to stop.  Some days those challenges are thrilling and fulfilling.  Other days, they may be overwhelming, exhausting, or draining.  Our challenges might be large or small, unusual or routine, satisfying or disturbing, but the essential relationship—us in the control tower, responding to a wide range of uncontrollable demands—never really changes.

To be alive is to encounter life’s demands, a.k.a. stress.  No matter who we are or how we live, our relationship to stress is the source of all our joy and all our achievements.  It’s also the source of most of our pain, sickness, and ill health.

Most medicine starts from the point of view of symptoms:  something went wrong.  We come to our doctor with a cough, or we go to our chiropractor with a bad back, and he or she explores that symptom to diagnose and treat our condition.  Depending on whether we’ve presented a cough or indigestion, a bad back or a sprained knee, the practitioner will come up with a specific theory about what caused our symptom and suggest a specific treatment for how to fix it.

Those models can often be effective—but they’re also limited.  Looking at symptoms can only ever get us to the problem’s surface; if we are to penetrate to its foundation, we need a different, more structural approach.  What I’ve discovered, in the course of 12 years of practice, is that underlying just about any health problem we might have, from acne to cancer, is our essential relationship to life:  stress.  

Now, when I say “stress,” I’m not talking about an emotional response.  I’m referring to an objective condition.  Think again of the air-traffic controller in the tower, coping with that endless stream of planes.  Each of those planes presents new demands, and being in that tower means mobilizing your resources to meet those demands.  Yes, your psychological response to the situation will probably affect your ability to do your job well.  It will be easier to do your job if you feel confident and energized, and harder to do it if you feel anxious, depressed, hopeless, helpless, or incompetent.  But however you feel about yourself and your tasks, your basic condition remains the same:  you face a never-ending stream of challenges with great rewards if you succeed and dire consequences if you fail.  You can never control the weather, the pilots, or the mechanical integrity of the planes.  But at any moment, any one of these factors—or a dozen others—could go terribly wrong, making your challenges even tougher.  That’s not a psychological problem.  It’s just life.

Objectively speaking, life makes demands on us at every moment that we’re awake.  Standing up is more demanding than lying down.  Eating is more demanding than sitting quietly.  Being hungry is more demanding than feeling full.  Digesting food is more demanding than being at that balanced point when we’re neither hungry nor in the process of digesting.  Having an idea, a thought, a wish, or a feeling is more demanding than being completely blank (which is why meditation is such an excellent de-stressor—but we’ll get to that later on!).  To be alive is to be stressed.  That’s a biological fact.

Just as I’m not talking about stress as a psychological response, I’m not talking about it as a temporary problem to be solved—something we could fix once and for all and then have it go away.  Stress isn’t a matter of working hard (stress) and then going on vacation (no stress), or of caring for sick children (stress) and then having everybody get well (no stress).  To me, the stressful job or the sick kids are like the stormy days in the control tower.  Stormy days may be more challenging than the sunny ones—but either way, the planes keeps coming, and either way, life is full of stress.  No matter what we do or how we feel, the kind of stress I’m talking about is an essential condition of being alive.

Under optimal conditions, our bodies welcome stress—in fact, they were built for it!   Part of the joy of being alive is to use your body, mind, and spirit to the fullest—hiking up a mountain, solving a challenging problem, or engaging fully in a loving relationship with a partner, child, family member, or friend.  Our bodies are made for challenge and stress the way an airport is made to receive planes.  The only way to make the demands stop and end the stress is to shut down the airport.

But under suboptimal conditions—when we are hit with more stress than our resources can handle, or when we don’t give our bodies the support they need—our bodies suffer.  Symptoms—everything from acne to cancer—is the result.