Five days a week, 9 – 5, I sit in a chair at a desk by the window. I mostly talk to people; and write. Sometimes I talk to people while I write. At the end of the day, after I am finished with all this talking and writing, sitting and listening, I walk, briskly; at least four miles. I look forward to walking. Exercise helps to maintain my emotional and physical health – especially on days when I make myself emotionally unwell.
Like most of you, on occasion, I provoke myself into some measure of the stress response. Criticism, the ill-mannered, unfair treatment and disrespect are the perceptions I personally find most challenging. Of course, there is no such thing as criticism, the ill-mannered, unfair treatment or disrespect. These are my perceptions. Emotional events unto themselves are meaningless without my active interpretation of them.
If I can change my interpretation of events, I can change my response to events. Instead of perceiving my experiences as threats, I can perceive them as bothersome inconveniences, incommode, unfortunate events.
I know this.
Intellectual insight is not often enough. Combining knowledge with new behaviors, however, is essential to changing any habit – including how we emote. Simply knowing the right thing to do is not sufficient to make any kind of real change in how we perceive adversity. I often fail to make this connection. My sympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, never fails. My sympathetic nervous system does an excellent job of rapidly preparing me to deal with whatever I perceive as threatening.
I am sometimes my own worst enemy.
Within nanoseconds of nut-headed thinking, a corresponding metabolic process is begun, allowing us to cope with our perception of danger. Our adrenal glands release adrenaline (epinephrine); our breathing increases along with our heart rate and blood pressure, moving more oxygen-rich blood faster to our brains and the muscles – the fuel needed for fighting or fleeing. From a distance, while all of this is going on inside of me, I am just a guy sitting by the window in his chair behind his desk. In reality I am a time bomb of neuro-chemicals and hormones, fully prepared to lead a Spartan army into battle.
The Muzak overhead has no effect on me.
While in this stressed state, our unnecessary bodily functions shut down. Growth, reproduction and our ability to fight off disease (the immune system) are all temporarily put on hold for the sake of safety. Blood-flow to the skin is reduced. Over time, chronic stress can lead to obesity, heart disease, sexual dysfunction and various skin ailments. Mental illness (particularly depression and anxiety) can also result. Medical conditions that are influenced by a nervous system response such as chronic pain, IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), digestive disorders or headaches are likely to become exacerbated by stress.
At some point, we have to make a commitment to take an active role in how we process our unhealthy, self-defeating and irrational thoughts. I have made a commitment to manage my automatic bio-psycho response. And I try to keep that pledge.
So I walk, briskly and stay focused on my physical and emotional health.
I cannot expect that the way I perceive events in my environment and how I think about them can change overnight. On the contrary, thinking differently is a demanding task, likely to last the rest of my life. I can, however, begin every day by reminding myself of my pledge. I have committed to being an active player in my emotional life – an aspect of my life that can never again be viewed as a passive process.
I have found two important, yet simple, steps I can take immediately to help interfere with my stress response. These steps work wonders for me. These steps motivate me to change my nutty thinking and help return my body and mind to balance.
I pardon myself and others.
Especially, I pardon myself.
Moderate exercise and deep breathing can be emotionally and physically cleansing. Those harmful stress hormones that linger in the bloodstream can be processed and eliminated through exercise and breathing deeply. Breathing deeply, into the lower abdomen, stimulates the vagus nerves, the longest of the cranial nerves. The vagus nerves pass through the neck and thorax into the abdomen. We know that vagal nerve endings act as the heart’s pacemaker by promoting the release of the transmitter acetylcholine. Acetylcholine helps reduce blood pressure and counterbalances the effects of stress. Deep breathing stimulates the vagus nerves and promotes a return to balance.
Finally, while walking and breathing, I process the day’s stressful perceptions. Instead of looking for blame and damning others for their poor choices, I pardon myself for thinking so foolishly. I remind myself that everyone has a perfect right to behave as foolishly as they choose to behave. I forgive myself for thinking people have to behave according to my rules and I pardon others for making the choices they make.
I couldn’t possibly believe that my own mistakes are more pardonable than those made by others.
So, I walk, briskly.
I breathe, deeply.
And I pardon, broadly.
It takes the force of will to do this.