Elissa Epel, PhD. (University of California, San Francisco)
It wasn’t easy to find the time to read this book – in fact, it was getting a bit, well, stressful.
However, as soon as I started, Dr. Epel’s [https://www.elissaepel.com] words had a calming effect, for a number of reasons. For instance, she makes the point that stress, “will always be a part of life – anything worth doing will have aspects of stress…But what we can change is our response to stress.”
And when that happens, in addition to feeling more relaxed, we are likely to be more successful in our work, whether it is looking after our children, organizing for peace, or just enjoying a walk.
To help the reader cope with life’s demands, Epel takes a comprehensive approach which focuses primarily on two themes: first, psychological insights that put the issues into a proper perspective; and second, specific practices that can help reduce stress on a day-to-day basis.
To do so, she does not simply recite a few obvious bromides, like, “Always look on the bright side of life”, or “Put on a happy face”. Instead, the reader is offered a thoughtful overview of the problem alongside practical and effective exercises based on a weekly schedule.
Epel, who co-authored, The Telomere Effect with Nobel Prize-winning scientist Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, begins by pointing out that having a hard-wired stress response is important because it can “deliver the physical and mental resources we need to meet a challenge.” She then makes the vital distinction between the occasional stressful situations that are inevitable but brief, and chronic stress, which, “can change the structure of our very cells, right down to our telomeres” – the “caps” that are at the ends of our chromosomes. “Chronic stress, the type that goes on for years and years, has a toxic effect on your body. It wears out your cells prematurely…Having short telomeres in our blood cells predicts earlier onset of diseases and death.”
Chronic stress also makes us feel terrible and will often cause otherwise nice people to be mean to others. Indeed, constant anxiety from day-to-day plays a significant but usually unrecognized role in the growing tension and polarization in society.
What to do? Epel’s first point is to expect the unexpected, and to accept the Buddhist insight: “everything changes, and nothing lasts, including our own lives…”
She adds that we can change our minds and bodies for greater resilience, leading to, “longer, healthier lives that we can enjoy for the time that we’re here.”
Sounds good, eh?
That process begins with remembering to NOT be stressed if you do not have the time to jump right in and start practicing these exercises today, and/or if you don’t follow the plan every day. In other words, just do the best that you can without worrying about it.
The week-long program has a different theme every day, such as: do what you can and let go of the rest; training for resilience; and reconnecting with Nature as an effective way to relax. In the latter case, Epel recommends full immersion in a forest, a lake, or similarly soothing places. She suggests that you: “Walk in silence, slowly…let your senses be fully engaged…Listen for birds, breezes, movement, water.”
And remember that YOU are part of Nature too.
This approach is very effective in reducing what’s known as, “nature deficit disorder”, while also reminding us that it’s impossible to thrive, either as an individual or as a species, in an unhealthy environment.
Epel includes many insightful ideas with each daily theme, along with ways to make them part of one’s routine. The richness and variety of these suggestions allows every person to explore a wide range of options for each day, finding for themselves which are the most appropriate.
Throughout, Epel weaves in stories about difficult times in her own life, and that of other people dealing with very serious problems. She recounts some of the situations when she found herself over-reacting to stressful challenges and how she needed to practice mindfulness, exercise, or other techniques that helped her to return her nervous system to its baseline – what she terms, “deep rest”.
To be clear, she does not suggest that these techniques and perspectives are the answer to some very distressing situations that so many people face, such as poverty, oppressive jobs, or the loss of a loved one. And Epel does mention some existential problems that we need to confront, the climate crisis being the most serious.
The role of such problems in creating stress is profoundly illuminated in Dr. Gabor Maté’s latest book, The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness & Healing in a Toxic Culture. [https://drgabormate.com]
Maté defines culture as: “the entire context of social structures, belief systems, assumptions, and values that surround us and necessarily pervade every aspect of our lives.”
His book examines what exactly is “toxic” about our societies, and he stresses that the global health problems that we face, such as, “burgeoning stress, inequality, and climate catastrophe” have been created by a culture of “globalized capitalism” that condemns countless numbers of human beings, “to suffer illness born of stress, ignorance, inequality, environmental degradation, climate change, poverty, and social isolation.”
(It’s important to note that a number of studies have shown that, when people work together in a peaceful and respectful way to make a better world, they experience many positive feelings, including a real sense of connection and purpose).
For his part, Albert Einstein was more than just the most famous physicist in the 20th century. He was also an astute observer of human nature, and he had a deep understanding of the importance of social and economic factors in shaping – and potentially damaging – human consciousness. In 1949, he wrote that:
…the personality that finally emerges is largely formed by the environment in which a man happens to find himself during his development, by the structure of the society in which he grows up, by the tradition of that society, and by its appraisal of particular types of behavior. The abstract concept “society” means to the individual human being the sum total of his direct and indirect relations to his contemporaries and to all the people of earlier generations. The individual…depends so much upon society—in his physical, intellectual, and emotional existence—that it is impossible to think of him, or to understand him, outside the framework of society. It is “society” which provides man with food, clothing, a home, the tools of work, language, the forms of thought, and most of the content of thought…” [https://monthlyreview.org/2009/05/01/why-socialism]
In modern societies, almost everybody is traumatized to a greater or lesser extent. In Einstein’s view: “This crippling of individuals I consider the worst evil of capitalism.” (ibid)
As individuals, the practices that Epel suggests can help make our bodies and minds more relaxed and improve the quality of our relationships, as well as making our lives more thoughtful, and perhaps even more meaningful.
And that’s a good start.
Note: I was introduced to Dr. Epel’s work in a powerful National Geographic documentary, “Stress: Portrait of a Killer”, which highlights the insights of Stanford neurobiologist, Robert Sapolsky: [https://topdocumentaryfilms.com/stress-portrait-of-a-killer]