In Step #6: Manage Your Stress, we talked about how chronic stress contributes to everything from insomnia and anxiety to obesity and heart disease.
Scientists have devoted vast amounts of attention to understanding the mechanisms of the “fight or flight” response. We know that when we’re faced with stress, a cascade of physiological changes occur triggered by stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system: blood flow increases to the muscles, lungs and other areas needed to mobilize us for action, and decreases to areas like the digestive and reproductive systems that aren’t necessary for immediate survival. Hormones like adrenaline pump through our body to make us stronger and faster. Extra fuel (glucose) is released from the liver so that it can be burned quickly for energy.
But there’s another nervous system response that’s just as important as fight or flight to our survival that’s often ignored in the scientific literature and in mainstream articles about stress. We’re not only set up to deal with stress or challenges, but also to enjoy life, to relax, to bond and to heal. This is the parasympathetic state, often referred to as the “rest and digest” or “calm and connect” response. It has the opposite biochemical effects on our body compared to “fight or flight”. Our heart rate and respiration slow down, our blood pressure drops, our blood flow increases to the digestive tract, skin and reproductive organs and our stress hormones decrease.
We’re not built for chronic stress
Both fight or flight and calm and connect are essential to life. We need the ability to meet challenges and mobilize our physical and mental resources to take action. But we also have the need to digest food, replenish our stores and heal ourselves.
In paleolithic times, it’s likely these two different systems existed in a state of relative balance. Imagine a day of mostly relaxing, interacting with others, gathering food or building shelters. This might be punctuated by an acutely stressful event, such as a hunt or an encounter with a predator. But it would likely be followed again by more “rest and digest” time, such as gathering around a fire and feasting on the day’s hunt.
Human beings are adapted to have this kind of balance between pressure and calm, stress and relaxation, sympathetic vs. parasympathetic stimulation.
But today things are different. Fight or flight isn’t usually a temporary situation – like warding off immediate physical danger or engaging in a hunt – that quickly passes. Instead it’s an almost continuous reaction to the excessive demands placed on us by modern life. Worrying about your 401k plan, watching the news, being skipped over for a promotion, getting cut off in traffic… while these don’t literally threaten our survival, our bodies react as if they do.
The problem is that chronic stress impacts us in much the same way that acute stress does. We have the exact same physiological response – only to a lesser degree. Our heart rate and blood pressure increase, stress hormones start pumping, and blood flow to the digestive and reproductive organs decreases. Is it any wonder that conditions like IBS and infertility have become an epidemic?
When fight or flight is no longer simply an acute mobilization of our body’s resources, but instead becomes our default physiological state, we’re in a state of chronic stress. And as you saw in Step 6, chronic stress wreaks total havoc on our bodies.
Pleasure: the antidote to chronic stress
In their book Feeling Good is Good For You, researchers Carl J. Charnetski and Francis X Brennan set out to review the emerging evidence that pleasure can boost our immune systems and lengthen our lives.1 According to the authors:
In every way, stress is the antithesis of pleasure. It jangles your nerves, juggles a whole host of your body’s hormones, elevates your blood pressure, and makes your pulse race… It also weakens your immune system’s ability to resist illness and disease.
If stress is the antithesis of pleasure, then it follows that pleasure is the antithesis of stress. So the best way to fight stress is with pleasure.
Our bodies secrete chemicals called endorphins when we experience pleasure. Animal research has revealed, for example, that endorphin levels are up to 86 times higher after animals experience multiple orgasms! But endorphins are also released, albeit at lower levels, in more mundane daily activities such as playing with a pet, watching a funny movie, listening to our favorite music, visiting a favorite place or connecting with loved ones.
The chemicals released when we experience pleasure do more than counteract stress hormones and improve mood. They also:
- Improve immune function by producing an antibacterial peptide
- Enhance the killer instincts and abilities of various immune components, including B cells, T cells, NK cells, and immunoglobulins
- Enable certain immune cells to secrete their own endorphins as a way of improving their disease-fighting capacity
The persistent state of chronic stress in our lives makes the counter-balancing effects of pleasure even more important. This is especially true for anyone dealing with chronic illness or pain, which are both stressors on the body.
Pleasure vs. distraction: not the same!
It might seem strange to you that I’m recommending seeking more pleasure in life. Maybe you’re thinking, “Our entire culture is slavishly devoted to and obsessed with the hedonistic pursuit of pleasure! And you want more?”
But I’d disagree with that assessment. Our culture is devoted to distraction, not pleasure. And there’s a big difference between the two.
Distraction is something that prevents us from giving full attention to ourselves and our lives. Pleasure is almost exactly the opposite. When we experience pleasure we are more fully present to life, more grounded in our bodies, more alive and aware. Pleasure activates our calm and connect system; distraction does not.
For example, watching TV and browsing the web are often distractions that divert our attention from our own experience. But getting a massage, listening to our favorite music or taking a walk barefoot on the beach are pleasurable activities that connect us more deeply with ourselves and the world around us.
It is this experience that is crucial to our health and – I would argue – our happiness.
But does that mean there’s never a role for distraction? No. I believe distraction (when used consciously and wisely) can be a helpful and sometimes even necessary way of releasing the pressure valve or hitting the reset button. Sometimes we’re too stressed out, too sick or in too much pain to experience pleasure or figure out how to bring it into our lives in that moment.
In these moments distraction can be a gift. In fact, my Zen teacher Darlene Cohen, who passed away earlier this year, had a special name for this kind of distraction: “down-and-dirty comfort”. She described it in her book Turning Suffering Inside Out:
How do we live through unbearable situations like a catastrophic disease without being destroyed? How do we deal with the mundane anguish of our everyday lives? How do we continue to live under crushing stress? And even further, how do we not just get through these things but have rich, full and worthwhile lives that we actually want to live – under any circumstances?2
The important thing to understand here is that pleasure and distraction both have a role to play in protecting us from the ravaging effects of stress. Most people these days are pretty good at distraction. In fact, distraction has become a national past-time. What we’re not so good at is pleasure.
5 ways to bring more pleasure into your life
In their book, Charnetski and Brennan examined several “pleasure inducing” experiences that have been scientifically proven to promote health and well-being.
- Music (listening to it or making it)
- Touch (including massage, sex and simple human contact)
- Humor (laughter)
- Light, sight & insight (spending time outdoors, prayer/meditation and positive attitude)
Most of us are already aware of the healing power of those things listed above – at least on some level. But in this culture, there is also an overwhelming reliance on medicine, surgery, diet and other physiological interventions to treat disease. Though we may pay lip service to the idea that stress causes illness and pleasure can prevent it, how many of us actually attribute the same importance to listening to music or watching a funny movie as we do to taking a pill? The evidence is crystal clear now that our thoughts, beliefs, emotions and behavior are all capable of inducing the same physiological changes in our bodies as foods, supplements, pills and even surgery are.
If you doubt that this is true, consider the placebo effect. It has been proven over and over again that pharmacologically inert substances like sugar pills can have identical or even greater therapeutic effects than drugs in certain cases. Even more impressive are the trials that have shown that sham surgery (when small incisions are made to convince the patient they have had the operation, but no surgery is performed) is at times as effective as the actual surgery.
Clearly this points to the power we all have to heal ourselves. If only the suggestion or belief that we will heal is enough to induce the physiological changes that lead to healing, without the presence of any “active” pharmacological substance or surgical intervention, then clearly our thoughts, beliefs and emotions have the potential to be powerful medicine.