Are we willingly killing ourselves?
Hello again. It's us! This is the second edition of FSW out loud. The response to our first missive proved popular and we're hopeful you'll find this entertaining, illuminating and worth the few minutes you may devote to reading what we think and then sharing your response by commenting. That's what this is all about - promoting thoughtful, considered conversation. You may find the tone of this piece slightly different in that we found ourselves in the odd situation of being, generally, in agreement and so we were less fractious. Be assured this will not always be the case as we move forward.
DON: Witnessing the phenomena that have been Brexit, the American presidential race, the demise of the Harper regime in Canada, the plight of Syrian refugees, and the growing tone of rancor that exists on social media, I was given to think about the level of stress that we seem to willingly accept. Indeed, not only accept but pursue and embrace.
Why do we do this?
Stress has become the plague of our time; a global epidemic that is spreading. The World Health Organization raised the alarm 20 years ago and reported that stress had become the biggest health issue of the 21st century.
Stress leads to increased conflict, decreased morale and puts a strain on families and working relationships. It decreases performance and productivity and most of the time we are unaware of the degree to which stress is taxing our resources. In fact, much of our lifestyle is undermining our health, exhausting us physically and mentally without our being consciously aware of it.
Some scientists believe many of us tend to spend more time ruminating about negative stuff as opposed to celebrating the small positive stuff. Rick Hansen, a well-known neuropsychologist says it's because:
“OUR BRAINS ARE LIKE VELCRO TO NEGATIVE EXPERIENCES AND TEFLON TO POSITIVE ONES"
Interestingly, he connects this tendency back to our earliest ancestors...
Hansen writes, some of our earliest mammal ancestors, over time developed nervous tendencies in order to notice potential threats and remember painful experiences (part of the survival mode) and then passed those genes on to us...that same circuitry is active in our brains today.
In complete contrast.... according to Hansen and Mendius (Buddha’s Brain: The new neuroscience and the path of awakening. Fall 2007) much of our day-to-day positive experiences are processed through standard memory systems and actually need to be held in our awareness for between 10-20 seconds for them to sink in.
As I pointed out in our most recent joint posting ( https://www.bebee.com/producer/@don-kerr/does-social-media-have-a-future-or-is-it-just-a-stepping-stone-to-the-next-big-thing ) given that our attention spans are now about 8 seconds, how can we linger on what is good for us?
So the argument goes, this kind of hard-wiring has a negative impact on many of our experiences and increases our stress.
Curious about your perspectives and possible explanations/remedies.
KEVIN: This is indeed a timely season for this topic Don given the upcoming election in the US, and the beginning of the retail season we call Christmas (it is no longer a religious holiday for most) where we buy things with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t like, which becomes a major stressor for many people.
We seem to have jettisoned the very things that would relieve us of stress in the pursuit of goals and aspirations that have been forced upon us by society (I won’t go so far to say media and marketing since there is a high percentage of my esteemed colleagues who have been in the business).
“Work hard!”, “Play hard!”, “Buy more!”, “Move up the ladder!” The messaging from society and media is that we should never be satisfied with what we have, and where we are in life. As such, we spend our time and energy in this unachievable pursuit.
I’m talking about the concept of rest (not sloth), restoration and relationships (3-Rs). When I was a kid, every business in town was shut up tighter than a drum skin on Sundays – essentially creating space for family activities. Today, in most families Sunday is busier than ever – filled with shopping, kid’s sports, and preparing for the upcoming week.
You might disagree with me, but I believe that we ourselves are a major cause of our own stress by willfully filling our calendars with activities. My wife (who is significantly smarter than I) has always said “If you want to know what’s important in someone’s life, check out where they choose to spend their free time”.
We sometimes shoehorn quiet time in the gaps between activities, but even that time is now gone, replaced by time on our ‘smart’ phones.
In my experience, the people who seem to handle stress well have figured out how to build in the times for the 3-Rs, so they can better deal with the external stress-inducing factors that bombard us every day.
Getting off the crazy train is not easy, and it takes time to learn to prioritize rest and restoration so that we can handle the rest of the wild ride we call life.
PHIL: I think you guys have it backwards — or upside down, or sideways — whatever. Because you have the issue framed in terms of what we do or don’t do. Whereas, to my mind, it has much more to do with how we approach life. (Wow, that sounds pretentious, doesn’t it?)
These days we’re inundated with bad news, not because the news is much worse than it was three or four decades ago, but because we hear about it from the time we get up in the morning to the time we fall asleep in the evening. Over and over again. On our TVs. On our iPads or other tablets. On our laptops. Our car radios. And on our smart phones. On news and documentary programs. On “realistic” dramas. On talk shows. On social media.
Not only what’s wrong in the world, that is, in every nook and cranny of it. But also what will be wrong with it. Tomorrow. Next week. Next month. Next year. Next decade. Next century.
And we do it to ourselves. By never leaving any byte of information on the plate uneaten.
Consider that, when I was in primary through high school, my parents thought about my grades twice a school year — at the end of each semester, when I brought home my report card.
If the report was good, it was looked at, then cast aside without muss or fuss. Doing well in school was simply assumed, and not worthy of much mention.
These days, my wife checks my daughter’s grades online daily. If my daughter has a bad quiz day and drops 0.2 points in a couple of courses, all hell breaks loose at my house. Because getting into a decent — decent, not first tier — college these days depends primarily on one’s GPA, and that bad quiz day just lowered my daughter’s GPA by .01 points. And if that doesn’t seem so bad, consider that my daughter is in her first freshman semester at high school. High School.
Somewhat more than a decade ago, I was the chief executive of a 600-employee company, and for several years, faced a million-dollar payroll every month. A hundred important emails a day. Big sales negotiations to lead. Multi-million dollar deals to close. And contracts to review and sign. Talk about stress up the wazoo. Nearly killed me.
Although what doesn’t kill you may not make you stronger, it does teach you to manage stress. Here are a few things that I learned:
1) Creative procrastination — do not seek to deal immediately with every issue or problem that comes up. When resolution does not need to be immediate, put it on a list for future action. Often, by the time you get around to doing something, the matter has already resolved itself.
2) Background processing — think about a potential solution or alternative solutions, then put the issue out of your conscious mind, and allow background processing (the bulk of your brain’s activity) to do its job. Often, a solution will come to mind seemingly out of the blue.
3) Selective concern — in my experience, at least 50% of all identified potential problems never actually come to pass. Jim will say 80%, based on his 80/20 general rule of everything. But even if we take the dimmer view that only 50% of all anticipated potential problems will not actually develop. If we worry about everything that might happen, we will end up worrying 50% of the time about nothing. If you train yourself to only worry about real, not potential problems, you will achieve an immediate and huge reduction in your stress levels.
JIM: I have developed a certain amount of knowledge about stress. Mainly for my own self-preservation. Back in the 80s, I was diagnosed with a condition known as Tic Syndrome. It’s a nervous disorder that is actually a mild form of Tourette’s Syndrome, which is a pretty nasty thing to have.
I asked the neurologist who diagnosed me how I can best control it. He told me that I could use Lorazepam when I got stressed. But he told me that the best controls of all were exercise and avoiding as much stress as possible.
I was already exercising but had no idea how to avoid the stress. My life at that time way pretty much wall to wall stress. I was trying to become a writer which was a 24 hours-a-day occupation because I was still a few years shy of my ten-year overnight sensation status.
I worked in a bullshit ridden ad agency during the day, where everything you did had substantial financial implications for somebody or some company. And was writing screenplays and lyrics at night as well as doing freelance work for extra money so my wife could stay home and be a full-time mom to our kids.
So one of the first things I did was sit down and have a long hard think about the nature of stress and how to reduce it in my life.
One of the conclusions I came to, despite still being young and stupid, was that a lot of stress that people feel in their lives is over stuff that they cannot control. You cannot control how other people feel about you. You cannot control a sadistic or vindictive boss. You cannot control the inhumanity you see all around you. You cannot control the forces of nature or the way the world works.
This lines up perfectly with one of Phil’s tips above because it’s a true thing.
All you can control is the path you are on. And when you look around, a lot of what you see is people who have no idea of even how to control that.
I was lucky because I actually could control that with my intellect. During this period I came to realize that I could eliminate a lot of stress in my life, simply by applying my intellect to developing my skills as a writer. As I did this, and it did take a while, and I went through some shit, I was able to, by focusing my concentration, eliminate or at least park on a back burner a lot of the unnecessary stress.
The net result was that this sharpened my mind. I got better at all the different kinds of writing I loved to do (even advertising), and slowly the goals I had for myself came into clearer focus.
I didn’t stop caring about all the stuff I used to stress over; I just approached it in a different way. I examined these things, came to conclusions about them and either filed them away or dealt with them as necessity dictated.
Teaching myself to compartmentalize these things, and focus mainly on the stuff I thought was important probably actually saved my life because while it did not actually eliminate the stress, which I don’t think is possible anyway, it kind of replaced it with other things.
I guess you could call it passion. That’s what I call it. And when I started thinking about the work I do both for other people and for myself, I realized that all stress really was, in my life at least, burning energy in a negative way, as opposed to a positive one.
I have lived this way ever since. I learned to sidestep agency politics for the last ten years of my agency career by only working with friends. For the past 20 odd years, I have managed to develop relationships with people I genuinely like and who like me. And I have been quick to eliminate the people who carried around sacks of bullshit with them.
I’m not saying that this will work for everyone, because everyone has their own intellectual and psychological baggage. But this approach worked for me, and at the end of the day, that’s really kind of the best you can hope for.
DON: Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky comments, "Primates are super smart and organized just enough to devote their free time to being miserable to each other and stressing each other out. But if you get chronically, psychosocially stressed, you're going to compromise your health. So, essentially, we've evolved to be smart enough to make ourselves sick."
What we can all learn from this conversation is there is no single answer to achieving lower levels of stress. Each individual creates their own stress levels - albeit with external influence - and then determines how they choose to manage its impact.
What is universal however is this: we can choose to be reactive to stress, or we can learn to respond to stress.
As Phil so accurately and succinctly points out, “If you train yourself only to worry about real, not potential problems, you will achieve an immediate and huge reduction in your stress levels.”
The problem most of us have today is figuring what is a real problem vs. a fantasy.
I will end with this piece of advice I received a long time ago from Dr. Peter Rechnitzer who was the camp doctor at Camp Mazinaw.
“When you encounter a potentially stressful situation stop first before reacting. Ask yourself, ‘is anyone going to die?’ If the answer is no - chill. If the answer is yes - act appropriately.’
Afterword from FSW: This is a pretty long piece, and we thank you for sticking with it.
One of our objectives here has been to show how authentic engagement on social media is more than honey-coated expressions of mutual admiration — that it can involve respect for others and trust in their underlying goodwill, without shying away from divergent viewpoints and conflicting opinion.
You are sincerely invited to join the conversation. Try it, you’ll like it. — Phil Friedman, Jim Murray, Kevin Pashuk, Don Kerr
© 2016 Don Kerr, Phil Friedman, Kevin Pashuk, Jim Murray. All rights reserved.
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