“IF we create conditions for the mind to be more relaxed, the body follows suit.”
|Whatever the cause of your stress (the boss, the nonexistent exercise routine, dwindling bank balance that keeps you on edge, etc.) negative effects of stress are as familiar as they are stressful to consider. Elevated levels of cortisol, known as the stress hormone, correlate with higher blood pressure and cholesterol as well as a greater likelihood of colds, flu, allergies, heart disease, and diabetes. Chronic stress can accelerate aging by shortening telomeres, the protective segments at the ends of chromosomes. And since groups disproportionately affected by stress include women, millennials, urbanites, and anyone in a demanding career, there’s plenty of room for winners (losers?) in the demographic stress jackpot.
There’s even a National Stress Awareness Month, which you may stress out about having missed. (It was in April.) Still, there’s a perverse pride in stress, fusing as it does the self-importance of feeling indispensable with socially sanctioned concerns about “overdoing it.” My personal ballad of high-tension living stretches from the thrilling (a transatlantic move, a busy writing career, a potential new puppy) to the harrowing (my father’s cancer).
I know I’m stressed—in the high-velocity, achievement-oriented, borderline-manageable sense specific to New Yorkers. But when high stress levels seem like prerequisites for so many careers (Wide-awake with deadline panic? Great—it’s good to have work!), how bad could my stress really be?”Long-standing high cortisol levels can ultimately lead to burnout,” says Florence Comite, an endocrinologist and founder of ComiteMD Age Management Specialists.
“There’s a danger in pushing yourself to such an extreme that, at some point, your body just shuts down.“In a bid to find out how tightly wound I am, Comite sends several vials of my blood to be tested by Quest Diagnostics and calls once the results come in. “You have very high cortisol levels,” she says. “A normal level is six to 12, but for New Yorkers we consider up to about 15 okay. You’re at 25.” I think back to nights of mind-racing insomnia, uncalled-for bouts of snappishness, the sense of strain that spills over to discolor nights with friends. Twenty-five: Sounds about right.I synopsize my short list of stressors, feeling increasingly like I’m making excuses for a very real problem. “You have hit almost every high point on the stressor scale,” Comite says, sounding aghast if sympathetic. “You’ve just mentioned half of the reasons for high stress. You’re coping with a lot of change, so your cortisol is very high.
“Clearly something has to give, and since I can’t control most of my sources of stress, and am unwilling to resign from those I do have a hand in, addressing my skills for handling the high-intensity episodes in my life seems a good place to start. Quickly I learn that the most oft-cited stress-management technique is mindful-ness, the idea that equipping people with the tools to respond, rather than merely react, to stressful stimuli is more effective than trying to sweep stressors from our lives.Mindfulness can be as simple as paying attention and focusing the mind on the present, typically through meditation.
“Stress comes from reactivity to what’s happening,” says Lynn Koerbel, an instructor of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. With MBSR, “the relationship between the person and what they’re experiencing begins to shift.” Classic training entails an eight-week course, along with up to an hour of daily meditation. The regimen can seem demanding, especially to time-strapped stress balls unsure how to fit everything else in their lives into the day. Ahem.
Puddicombe is a cofounder of Headspace, a Gwyneth Paltrow–approved online meditation portal dedicated to the idea that even the most harried urbanite can achieve inner peace through snack-size meditation sessions. The site’s design elements seem calculated to appeal to those more comfortable with iPhones than incense. In place of singing bowls and meditation studios there are animated videos comparing the cluttered mind to a cloudy day, and recordings in which Puddicombe, with his soothing British accent, advises his listeners to “become more aware of the immediate environment.”
Before I start the first of 10 days of guided meditation sessions, I text my mother, a clinical psychologist who has long extolled the virtues of relaxation, to fill her in on my evening’s activities. Her response is immediate and lovingly sarcastic. “You mean you need to relax? YOU?? No!!” Point taken, I click play … and the first time around, it’s the longest 10 minutes of my day. By the second, third, and fourth rounds, it’s more familiar, and by the fifth, I’m looking forward to waking up and taking 10—or, rather, to the sense of centeredness that my amateur version of meditation equips me with before I have to go out into the city clamor. “The relationship between mind and body is so strong,” says Puddicombe. “It’s no surprise that if we address the mind and create conditions for the mind to be more relaxed, the body follows suit.”
I have to venture somewhat farther off the stress-beating path to try qigong, an ancient Chinese energy-healing art that Comite urges me to explore. “It’s one of the best ways to reduce stress,” she promises. Qigong has two strands: a practiced form that looks a little like slow-mo yoga, and a therapeutic application that somewhat resembles Reiki. “Ninety-nine percent is relaxing. One percent is shocking. But you should be okay,” says Robert Peng, a qigong master with a two-year waiting list. “Just imagine that you’re a sponge, floating in a warm ocean of qi,” or energy. His goal, he tells me as I clamber onto the treatment table in his Upper East Side office, is to “empower that energy,” promoting a more fluid, restful state. Using his hands, Peng prods the energy meridians on my head, then works his way down the body, whisking away any “blockages” he detects. This begins to seem almost mystical when Peng says he’s going to give me his qi: He places his fingers on my forehead and shocks me with what feels like an electric current emanating from his fingertips. Every time he “zaps” me—on my forehead, my chin, the sides of my neck—I open my eyes, certain I’ll see a novelty buzzer in his hands. “It feels like electricity, but it’s not,” Peng explains. “It’s very powerful qi energy.” He releases me out into the afternoon. I practically float home across Central Park, my shoulders three inches lower.
Maybe my relaxed state is a function of my newly unblocked qi. Though I suspect that it could be influenced by something I had read earlier: the idea that stress isn’t the problem—at least not to the extent to which we cite it as the source of all ills. In her latest book, One Nation Under Stress, Dana Becker, a psychotherapist and professor of social work at Bryn Mawr, writes that by “elevating stress to the status of an actual disease,” we invest it with more significance than the legitimately difficult scenarios that generate anxiety. “We focus so much more on the effects of stressful situations than what’s creating the stress in the first place,” she tells me. Life can be difficult—even, at times, traumatic—and, as Becker says, “the long-term solution is not going to come in the form of doing more yoga or eating more kale.”