Illustration by Leslie Herman
I have a knot.
It lives between my shoulder blades, a little to the right of center. I feel it when I sit at my computer, when I walk through the grocery store, when I’m stuck in traffic on the Schuylkill: a small hard knot, like a kink in a cord. Twenty times a day I bend down and touch the ground, trying to untie it. Twenty times a day I stretch — this way, that way, down and around — to try to work it out.
I know what tied my knot: deadlines, bills, two kids, a leaking roof, that long hard winter. Modern life, in other words. Chances are you’ve got a knot of your own. Or maybe your problem’s in your stomach. Maybe you can’t sleep at night. Maybe you drink too much, or eat too much. Get headaches. Grind your teeth. All of the above.
We call what tied my knot “stress” — the accumulation of worries, fears and doubts that bedevil us daily. We know it isn’t good for us. We’re told we should avoid it. (Yeah, right.) The entire $27 billion-a-year U.S. yoga industry is pretty much one giant stress-coping strategy.
Every day, it seems, science implicates stress in some new bodily disorder — obesity, depression, infertility, not to mention good old-fashioned high blood pressure and heart attacks. Now, research being done here in Philly says our stress-ridden lives are reprogramming us at a cellular level, affecting mankind’s future ability to cope with worries and regrets.
Other local scientists, however, say that conquering stress is surprisingly quick and easy — and that the power lies within our own minds.
I hope so. Because right now, my knot is killing me.
LET’S START WITH A QUICK recap of high-school biology. Remember the fight-or-flight response? Bunny sees fox. All on its own, bunny’s body yanks itself out of its customary equilibrium, drawing resources away from every function except those needed for escape. No sense expending fuel on digestion, reproduction or even cognition at a time like this; all that matters is speed.
Inside bunny, a cascade of nutrients — glucose for energy, endorphins to dull pain — is delivered to the muscles via a circulatory system hyped up by “stress hormones” that quicken heart and breathing rates and increase blood pressure. Once bunny makes it safely back to its burrow, the heartbeat slows and breathing calms via a release of counteracting hormones. The body returns to stasis, and resources can again be allocated to long-term work.
Fight-or-flight is expensive, in terms of bodily fuel. But it worked well enough for our ancestors that we made it through to here. We get into trouble with stress because contemporary life doesn’t offer the same sorts of challenges the Stone Age did. Instead of encountering rare instances of physical danger, we’re bombarded by continual alerts: Phone’s ringing! Email’s beeping! Baby’s crying! Bill’s due! We’re in a perpetual state of “anxiety,” which is what we call an abnormal response to stress. And we’re taking pills for it: We spend $2.1 billion annually on anti-anxiety medications like Xanax. Psychologist Robert Leahy says high-school kids today show the same anxiety levels as psychiatric patients in the 1950s.