by Bruce O’Hara
November 4, 2022
I will confess up front I’m writing this as much for myself as for anyone else.
When I was writing about anhedonia last week, I realized there is a second way the pandemic has interfered with our ability to feel pleasure.
Stress and pleasure are natural antagonists. The more stressed you are, the more your body will consider pleasure of any kind to be an unnecessary frivolity. A stressed-out body will literally tamp down your pleasure circuits to protect you from dangerous distractions.
I think it would be fair to say the pandemic was very stressful experience for most of us, and that those stresses went on for a very long time.
In a past life, I taught stress management workshops. I will say to you now what I used to say to people back then: Much of what I will say to you today, you already know at some level. But knowledge is useless unless you remember, each and every day, to put what you know into practice.
You may be immersed in a cybernetic world, but you live in a Stone Age body: Human genetics changes very slowly, so your stress responses are still optimized for the Stone Age. Though most of the threats of the modern world are mental, your stress responses are designed to help you physically fight or flee. For instance, if you get really stressed, your muscles will tighten to form a natural armour, the blood vessels in your skin will constrict, and your pain sensors will all dial down. That way a cave-bear will find it harder to rip you open, you’ll bleed less if it does, and pain will not prevent you from spearing the bear or running away. (Like I said, we’re built for life in the Stone Age.)
Stress is contagious: We’re wired to respond unconsciously to the stress levels of those around us. If your Stone Age tribe-mate got freaked out by a close encounter with a saber-tooth tiger, it probably increased your life expectancy if you immediately became wary yourself. Lockdowns were stressful. The mainstream media did it’s level best to terrify us all into compliance. So you’ve not only had your own stresses to deal with – you’ve also been surrounded by people who were stressed out, which amplified whatever stress you were feeling.
Stress is habit-forming: The higher you climb the Staircase of Stress, and the longer you stay up there, the harder it gets to climb down. We’ve all lived through two-plus years of higher-than-normal stress. Living that long in an abnormal situation has probably left your stress systems more than a little trigger-happy. It may take a while to mellow out fully after that long emergency. In the interim, paying more attention to how you manage your stresses is probably a worthwhile activity.
Stress increase our resources and capacities, but at a cost: In the short term, stress beefs up our immune system, raises our level of alertness, speeds our reaction times, increases our stamina. Unfortunately it does so by draining our reserves, and neglecting the body’s maintenance, regeneration and repair activities. Long-term stress leaves the immune system weakened, and the body depleted and exhausted.
Self-monitoring: The higher you climb on the Staircase of Stress, the harder it is to climb down. It’s good to figure out what your personal early warning signs are. For me, there’s a particular tightness in my neck that tells me I’m more than a little stressed. Eating to comfort myself is another dead give-away that my stress levels are elevated. If I feel impatient and irritated with my children, that often says more about my state than it does about their behaviour. If I can hardly taste my food that’s a huge red flag. (If I ignore the warning signs for too long, my back going out becomes a non-negotiable demand that I pay more attention to my stress levels!) The earlier I recognize that my stress levels are rising, the easier it is to bring them back down.
Periodic Climb-downs: Everyone has their own little ways to calm and relax themselves. For me, paying full attention when I’m eating food helps me to mellow out, as does cuddling with my wife, breathing deeply, small-talk, listening to music, and allowing myself a few minutes to do absolutely nothing. Little climb-downs over the course of the day go a long way towards keeping me mellow. Bigger climbdowns for me are being out in nature. Feeling the sun on my face. Dancing. Yoga. Old Star Trek episodes. Internet fasts. Camping with my family. Hanging out in the garden. Hanging out with a good friend. (Your list of small and large climb-downs may be very different from mine. What’s important is that you have such a list and go to it when needed.)
Vigorous exercise tricks your body into relaxing: If you exercise hard enough to work up a sweat, your Stone Age body assumes you’ve fought or fled from whatever threat you faced, and it cancels the red alert.
Pleasure sounds the all-clear: Telling my stressed-out body to chill out has no effect. But if I laugh, smile, or feel good in any way, my body takes that as a signal that whatever emergency triggered my stress has been reduced, and it relaxes accordingly. So, if you have a massage when you are highly stressed, you’ll enjoy it much less than if you were not stressed, but the massage will lower your stress levels enough that you’ll be more able to enjoy more whatever comes after the massage.
Be Here Now: Though I’ve read a lot about stress-management over the years, the single practice I personally have found most useful is the Buddhist discipline to live in the immediate present. Ninety-percent of what causes me stress in the world is risks and threats out in some imaginary future. Yes, I have a duty as a citizen to try to nudge my little corner of the planet in a positive direction. Yes, as a parent I want the very best for my children. But making those responsibilities a 24/7 burden serves no-one, least of all me. The simple truth is that if I open myself fully to this moment, here and now, I have everything I need to be happy.
One last confession. You’ve probably noticed I’m only producing one post a week these days.
It’s not as though there’s a shortage of material for me to write about. Every day there’s more and more information coming out on excess deaths, slumping birthrates, and mad scientists creating new FrankenCOVIDs. The old narratives are crashing so fast that people who were just months ago clamouring for the unvaxxed to be confined to quarantine jails are now asking for amnesty – for themselves!
There’s so much going on, in fact, that it’s easy for me to forget to pay attention to my own wee life. (At its worst, obsessing about the world’s problems is a way for me to avoid dealing with my own.)
So, yes, I’m deliberately limiting myself to one post a week so that my own life gets the attention it deserves. Though I’m itching to write more, it wouldn’t serve me to do so. If there are weeks you don’t get around to reading these posts from me for the very same reason, believe me, I understand.