When I was in my 20s, smoking was allowed in bars. I didn’t smoke, but when I came home after a night out, my hair and clothes reeked of smoke.
I couldn’t smell it in the bar, though. I could only smell it when there was enough contrast with the surrounding environment.
We Are All in a Smoky Bar
Many of us right now are living in the stress equivalent of a smoky bar.
When you are in a stress environment all the time, you become unable to perceive the toxic effects of your environment.
The ways in which we poison ourselves are infinite. Television. News. Social media. Work stressors. Home stressors. Family dynamics. Engaging in conversations that trigger our heightened emotional response.
Anything that provokes uncertainty, fear, outrage, anger, incredulous disbelief, horror, judgment, defensiveness, anxiety, victimhood, blaming, that feeling of “can you believe what they did/said?”, a charged emotional response — activates your sympathetic nervous system, also known as the “fight-or-flight” response.
This triggers your body to release cortisol, the stress hormone.
In small doses this is good; it helps the body spring into action, which is helpful if you’re running from a bear.
But if you’re in stress all the time, all that cortisol becomes toxic.
Chronic stress is a trauma that has lasting effects on your physical and mental health.
If you’re in it all the time, you can’t see it or feel it after a while. It’s like the cigarette smoke at the bar, but more toxic. Because you can’t wash it out.
The more stressors you pile on, the more toxic it becomes.
The Trauma Trifecta
Right now we are all in trauma thanks to the pandemic and its attendant uncertainty. Add to that the racial unrest and looming election in the US and we are in a “trauma trifecta”: a prolonged period of uncertainty that is keeping us in sympathetic overload.
Chronic stress is arguably a bigger threat and a more widespread pandemic than COVID. Trauma gets much less attention, though, so many people don’t realize that they are living in poisonous environments. And they aren’t protecting themselves.
Over the past few months I’ve seen people who are diligent with social distancing and wearing masks get into heated discussions about politics and current events. Most of these people aren’t arguing with people on the “other side”; they are shouting into their echo chambers, egged on by people who agree with them and share their outrage.
If you use the energy and mobilize to action by joining a local protest, you arguably use the energy for a purpose. Even then, there’s a limit to its utility.
The bigger problem is the people who aren’t doing anything with that energy. Sitting in front of your television listening to anchors get riled up against the “other side,” getting caught up in the emotional charge of current events or in conversation with people who already agree with you, invites toxins into your body.
You might as well smoke a pack of cigarettes. It will be a less painful death than the slow decline from chronic stress.
Stress is the Hidden Pandemic
It has been estimated that 75 – 90 percent of all visits to primary care physicians are for stress related problems.
The stress response causes hypertension, strokes, heart attacks, diabetes, ulcers, neck or low back pain and other dis-ease. The body starts to shut down.
While we mask up to protect ourselves from COVID we ignore the bigger epidemic of stress. The best way to stay healthy is to limit your intake of poison.
How to Protect Your Health
Many states eventually realized that secondhand smoke can kill and changed laws to restrict smoking.
We can take that action on our own with respect to the things that trigger our stress response.
Like with COVID, the key is to set and honor boundaries that keep us safe.
For starters, here are three things you can do:
- Stop watching the news.
- Limit your TV and social media.
- Stop talking about current events with your friends. If the only topics you can talk about with your friends are politics and current events, then it’s time to get some new friends.
You can invest in your outrage or you can invest in your health.
Which will serve you better?
If you’re ready to invest in your health, register here to get first access to The Ritual Revolution, which is opening for enrollment this month. In this experience you’ll learn the art of setting boundaries to protect your health and productivity.