Lessons from the Monks for the COVID-19 Pandemic

When people ask me how I’m doing in this time of “shelter-in-place,” I sometimes will make an attempt at humor and respond: “I’ve always thought I could have been a monk.” 

I’ve long been intrigued by monks and by monastic living.

Whenever I’ve had the opportunity, I’ve tried to learn what I can about monks and monastic living and to incorporate those insights into my daily life. Many years ago, for instance, I participated in the sunrise chants of the Benedictine monks living at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, and this taught me something about the vitality of intentional prayer, particularly early in the morning. Since it aired 13 years ago, this On Being interview with Shane Claiborne about “a monastic revolution” has challenged me to be a “real Christian” and follow the sometimes very straightforward and radical teachings of Jesus. Similarly, I’ve been struck by this publication of “the Monk Manifesto” a few years ago, particularly principle #3: “I commit to cultivating community by finding kindred spirits along the path, soul friends with whom I can share my deepest longings, and mentors who can offer guidance and wisdom for the journey.”

As I think about this, I wonder if part of the challenge many of us are facing right now is this: we’re living sort of like monks as we “shelter-in-place,” but without the knowledge of tradition, support, or intentionality that typically comes with monastic living. 

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The Most Lonely and Isolated

Which of the following groups do you believe, in the last 7 days, have felt most lonely or isolated?

-Those aged 18-29
-Those aged 30-49
-Those aged 50-64
-Those aged 65+

If you guessed the 18-29 year-olds, you’d be correct.

In a recent nationally representative survey, 69% of 18-29 year-olds reported being lonely or isolated in the last 7 days (59% of 30-49 year-olds reported this, as did 45% of 50-64 year-olds and 39% of those ages 65+).

Of course, this isn’t a competition, and we who call ourselves Christians – and we who call ourselves compassionate humans – seek to care for those in need no matter the age or background. Still, I bet not many would guess that young people are those most struggling with feelings of loneliness or social isolation during this pandemic.

In another nationally representative survey, 66% of 18-25 year-olds said they had no one to talk to about these feelings. And, 80% felt better when a trusted adult outside their household reached out to them.

Do you know a young person – outside your household – you might connect with? Maybe a child, grandchild, niece, nephew, member of your community, or someone you barely know but feel like might be struggling?

A call, text, Facetime, or care package dropped off at their front door might mean more than you realize.

Psychological Factors in School Success

“What enables a student to be a successful learner in school, while others struggle?,” I recently asked. As I said in a previous post, part of the answer may have to do with trusting that a student can learn independently, just as kids typically learn independently before formal schooling begins. Teachers and parents can encourage students to reconnect with their “lost instincts” to learn on their own, particularly at this time when students must learn at home without as much direct supervision.

The student experience is complex, however, and often neglected. As education theorist, John Dewey, wrote in the early 20th century: “the center of gravity is outside the child. It is the teacher, the textbook, anywhere and everywhere you please except in the immediate instincts and activities of the child.”

As I have tried to understand what enables some students to thrive in school during my past 20 years of college teaching, I have returned again and again to three interrelated domains that may be most fruitful to explore: (1) mindset, (2) self-discipline, and (3) motivation. Psychological research has found these domains to be most critical in student success.

Mindset

One of the primary psychological determinants of a student’s performance concerns how they explain success and failure to themselves. In over 30 years of research, Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, consistently has found that individuals with a “fixed mindset” – who believe that success and failure reflects a certain level of ability unlikely to change no matter what is done – often show lower levels of performance over time. Dweck finds this may be due, in part, to the fact that people with fixed mindsets are less likely to seek challenge at the outset and less likely to persevere when challenges arise. In contrast, individuals with a “growth mindset” – who believe that ability can be developed through hard work or effort or trying out different strategies until one works – often show higher levels of performance over time. People with a growth mindset are more likely to seek challenge and believe they can overcome challenges with perseverance when they arise.

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Successful Learning at Home

What enables a student to be a successful learner in school, while others struggle? This question is being asked with renewed urgency, as many students work from home without as much face-to-face involvement from teachers, and with many parents trying to help their children in this new environment.

Julia Cameron PexelsThe pandemic is excruciating for many reasons, but it also contains great potential for new growth as well. In this time, we may gain an opportunity for insight into the dynamics of education and to better understand factors that help students thrive.

It may be helpful to start by considering the basic structure of our modern education system. Most schools, Paulo Freire classically observed, apply a “banking model” of education. In this system, the teacher plays the central role in what happens in the classroom. We might add that teachers are often controlled by administrators and authorities beyond them as well. In this system, Jerry Farber suggested that students are socialized to be timid, depending on the teacher’s direction more than themselves.

To the extent this is true, teachers, parents, and students may be experiencing “withdrawal symptoms” at this time. Well-intentioned teachers may be trying to perform a “virtual miracle” as they try their best to continue instructing and guiding students while at a distance. Likewise, well-intentioned parents may feel like they need to take on the full supervisory role of the teacher at home amidst many other competing demands and concerns.

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Holy Saturday

I have always loved what Christians historically call “holy week.” Part of this is because, as someone raised Catholic, I remember this week as the time in the year when church services follow a different rhythm. That is, rather than repeating the same basic structure of the Mass like most Sundays, holy week consists of services for Holy Thursday and Good Friday that feel unique, more soulfelt and dark. But, then, I’ve long believed Catholics practice sadness better than Protestants.

Interestingly, as my theologian friend, Deanna Thompson, points out in her book “Glimpsing Resurrection,” most Christian churches do not mark “Holy Saturday.” She writes:

“It is a day that is attended to only briefly in the Biblical story, a space where meaning is elusive and hope can be hard to see… This day between cross and resurrection seems like a nonevent, a time of waiting in which nothing of significance occurs and of which there is little to be said.”

And, yet, this is the day that marks how, as the Apostles’ Creed acknowledges, Jesus “descended into hell.” It is, as Deanna mentions, “a story of abandonment and separation.” 

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The Science of Happiness during COVID-19

Yesterday, I participated in a webinar on “The Science of Happiness During Covid-19” (the discussion begins at 16:14 below). In this program, Marina Tolou-Shams (Director of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry at San Francisco General Hospital) interviews my first Psychology mentor, Dacher Keltner (Professor of Psychology at the University of California – Berkeley and founder of the Greater Good Science Center) about happiness during this time of pandemic.

Dr. Keltner summarizes much of the literature on the science of happiness by discussing three important areas of individual practice: (1) coping, (2) gratitude, and (3) awe. Each of these may play a critical role in helping individuals through the various stresses we encounter during this pandemic.

Recently, I’ve written several posts about coping with this difficult time, including one the discusses much of the stress and coping literature, one that deals with self-worth, and another that discusses the theology of Christian suffering, in particular. Given this – and reflecting more of the emphasis of yesterday’s discussion – I’ll focus a bit more here on the importance of self-transcendent experience during this time.

As Dr. Keltner notes, there is an impressive research literature on the benefits of gratitude, some of which I discussed in this post about thanksgiving. Practicing gratitude during a pandemic is not meant to be pollyanna, but rather an acknowledgement that, even though the world is in crisis and we may be experiencing many difficult emotions, there also are aspects of life for which we can be thankful. Taking a moment everyday to talk or write about these good things can help shift us toward better emotional balance. For example, my family and I are taking a moment at every dinner together every night to discuss our “highs” and “lows.” The “lows” help us to express times of struggle or dissatisfaction, but the “highs” help us to be more aware of what is good, and also to look for patterns of behaviors that might be helpful for us to be intentional about implementing in the days, weeks, and months ahead. For instance, last night, all four of us had a “high” of exercising in one way or another, and this says something about how important exercise is for our well-being now.

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Finding Self-Worth in a Pandemic

I feel like I’m finally settling into a bit of a rhythm during this time of “shelter-in-place,” and most days, I start with some kind of spiritual meditation. One that has particularly struck me came from a podcast by Krista Tippett, host of one of my favorite programs, “On Being.” (I’d encourage you to listen. The podcast is about 10 minutes long.)

What initially made me pause was how Krista referred to how individuals typically gain a sense of self-worth, and how this time of pandemic is sometimes proving to be a mental health challenge because of that. In fact, research in Social Psychology by Jennifer Crocker shows how people use many strategies to find worth, some of which are more steady and healthy than others. Krista points out that in our individualistic, modern world, many of us have been taught to believe our worth comes from achievement and activity, and how this source of worth is now being threatened because we are not as able to achieve and be active as we might prefer. Others, in contrast, may find worth through their relationships with others, and that, too, may be challenged now during this time of physical distancing.

As an alternative to these sources of self-worth more likely to fluctuate – particularly in this time – Krista discusses how, at her best, she finds worth in simply “being human.” This idea is heavily referenced in Humanistic Psychology and particularly the writings of one of my Psychology heroes, Carl Rogers, who basically argued that all humans have dignity by birthright. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, this kind of inherent worth is thought to stem from the fact that we are “children of God,” “made in God’s image,” or possessors of a “Divine spark.” That means we don’t need to strive for worth; we already have it, if we’d just accept it as ours now.

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Paul Tillich

In a passage that has become one of my spiritual touchstones, theologian Paul Tillich put it this way:

“Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness… Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted.'”

Seeking Control in a Pandemic

Few of us have ever dealt with a situation that feels as uncertain, unpredictable, and uncontrollable as the novel coronavirus pandemic. At this early stage, we don’t possess good information about how people are doing psychologically, but many behavioral scientists wonder how individuals are thinking, feeling, or acting differently.

Some insight may be found in a seminal research article from 2008, in which Aaron Kay and his colleagues write:

Imagine a glass that only when full represents a given individual’s preferred level of perceived order within his or her environment. As one way to fill this glass, this individual might rely on his or her perceptions of personal control over his or her outcomes: To guard against perceptions of randomness in the world, that is, he or she can affirm the belief that whatever happens, good or bad, will be due to his or her own actions and therefore not random. Often, however, such perceptions will only partially fill the glass because levels of perceived personal control, for a variety of reasons, tend to fluctuate. Much of the time, therefore, to fill the glass completely, he or she will need to complement these beliefs in personal control with one or more external systems of control.

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Source: Anna Shvets | Pexels

In other words, we all desire a certain amount of order and control. When that is lacking in our environment – such as in a time of pandemic – we look for ways to find it. We do what we can to personally increase feelings of order and control to compensate for what’s happening around us, sometimes in some interesting ways (hoarding toilet paper). The reality, though, is we humans only have so much control over what happens in life, and when that becomes evident to us – as is the case now – we depend more on secondary sources.

Kay and colleagues interestingly studied two such sources of secondary control in their research: (1) the government and (2) God.

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Suffering in a Pandemic Age as a Christian

A few weeks ago, when the novel coronavirus was just starting to spread in the Western world – and along with it, many people’s fears – I became aware of an essay by C. S. Lewis: “On Living in an Atomic Age.” The entire essay can be found in Lewis’s collection “Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays,” but the following excerpt has been most circulated:

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

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C. S. Lewis

As noted by Aaron Earls in this response, many people seem to be misinterpreting Lewis’s thoughts here. As he suggests, Lewis would not tell us to ignore the coronavirus, to just go on with our lives by “doing sensible and human things” (in fact, that wouldn’t be “sensible”). Experiencing a daily threat of the bomb is not the same situation as experiencing a global pandemic, and our actions need to fit the situation. As the top scientific and public health experts are telling us, it’s key that we adapt our behavior to stay home and socially distance to decrease the spread of the virus to the fullest extent possible.

When I first read Lewis’s essay, I felt strangely comforted. Humans have lived through epic tragedies before –  such as during the days when there was significant threat of the atomic bomb, the great wars, and the plague – and the novel coronavirus falls in that long line of global crisis. This has helped me to connect with ancestors – including my dad who fought in World War II and likely had to deal with a lot of the same feelings as I am now – as well as many more before me. Many did not survive, but this crisis is helping me to connect with a sense of humanity common to all people across ages, races, religions, genders, etc., and that feels really important. If we are learning nothing else from this pandemic, I believe, it is that we are all far more interdependent than we previously realized.

I think Lewis’s main idea comes in his obvious point that we all are certain to die, many of us in rather unpleasant ways. Most have not really seriously entertained that thought or worked through how to deal with it. We have not yet prepared ourselves for suffering.

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What If It Was Alright Now?

“So here is my little nugget of gospel truth for you to take home. The truth is not that it is going to be alright. The truth is, it already is.” (Fredric Evans)

I’ve been chewing on this quote for the past week, and I’m still now sure what I think about it.

Of course, we need hope that this global pandemic, too, shall pass. And it eventually will. And we have responsibilities for making this happen and preventing as much suffering as possible by staying home, staying connected with each other, and caring for those in need.

But, on the other hand, from the perspective of my Christian faith, there is something deeply profound about realizing that, below the surface, some really important things are already settled. Some things are alright now and no matter what may come.

As we practice social distancing, it’s a perfect time for you to comment below and engage in some virtual discussion.

What, for you, is “alright” now and no matter what may come? How have you been able to connect with deeper truths and greater peace in the midst of this storm? Do you have a faith perspective, and has that helped” If so, how? What are you doing to connect with a deeper and more peaceful perspective intentionally in your daily life?

Spirituality and Breast Cancer, Part 2

With so much going on regarding the coronavirus crisis, it’s really important to remember that some are suffering for other reasons, such as breast cancer.
In this follow-up to a previous blog post about spirituality and breast cancer, my amazingly talented and beautiful wife interviewed me and my brilliant and wise friend, Dr. Deanna Thompson, about the trauma of breast cancer. I’ve personally learned so much from Deanna about suffering over the years, and I’m really honored to be included in an article in which we engage in “virtual conversation.”

Coping with a Pandemic

Concerns about the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) appear to be rising in tandem with the numbers of reported cases and fatalities.

Many of us are consciously or unconsciously asking ourselves: what are we going to do?

Until we can answer that question – at least to some extent – I believe our response will be wanting.

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Source: Unsplash

From the decades of research conducted on stress, one consistent finding is we need – and therefore seek – some semblance of control. When something such as COVID-19 comes along that is both threatening and uncertain, many of us experience great distress. Part of this is because our sense of control is lacking.

As I wrote previously in my blog entry called “What To Do When Stressed:”

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Spirituality and Breast Cancer

It’s not every day that my lovely wife asks if she can interview me! But, a few weeks ago, she did exactly that. The topic was spirituality, and the context was a blog series she was writing for Firefly Sisterhood on spirituality and breast cancer. You can see the blog entry here.

The Quest for Better Education

In June of 2015, my wife, two daughters, and I travelled to Vancouver, British Columbia, where I attended a 3-day international teaching conference. Remarkably, the most pivotal professional development event of this trip wasn’t the conference, however; it was a half-day whitewater rafting excursion that led me to reconceptualize much of my work with students.

On the day of our rafting adventure, we rented a car and drove about an hour north via the Sea-to-Sky Highway to the mountain community of Squamish. We registered with the outfitter and then met Shane – our witty, bearded, abundantly enthusiastic, twenty-11755286_416459531877876_7221043668631048320_nsomething guide. After a short bus ride, brief portage, and successful launch, we spent a few minutes learning how to navigate the rapids of the Cheakamus River. Shane clearly was a gifted rafting guide, but this was only a class II tour, allowing for him to have plentiful opportunities to turn his attention to the local ecology. Shane enlightened us on the glaciers observable in the stunning peaks of the nearby Coast Mountains; the frigid and moody blue characteristics of the pristine, glacier-fed river; and the rare wildlife and “bearded” moss pervasive in the old growth forests surrounding us. We were awestruck – not only by some of the most breathtaking scenery I have ever seen – but also by the extraordinarily detailed knowledge and heartfelt passion of our guide. I couldn’t help myself from asking Shane: “how do you know all this?”

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Armistice Day

A few weeks ago, I attender a Quaker memorial service for a friend named Gary. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to know Gary as well as I would have liked before his unexpected death, but that made the service all the more thought-provoking.

One thing I learned about Gary was that he was serious about following the Quaker Christian testimony of peace. Key to this testimony is Jesus’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). Gary wanted to serve his country so, when he was young, he enlisted in the Coast Guard, the branch of the American military known to be least violent and most about peacemaking. After his time of service, he joined an organization called Veterans for Peace, a group I had sadly never heard about.

Veterans for Peace sent a representative to Gary’s memorial service and made two major points, neither of which I had ever considered. First, rather than offering a typical 21-gun salute – which they believed glorified violence – this representative rang a bell, signifying the hope for peace (and moving most of those in attendance to tears). Second, the representative for Veterans for Peace noted the shift in our country from celebrating Armistice Day to celebrating Veteran’s Day, something others apparently have discussed often – sometimes with considerable frustration – but which I had been completely ignorant about.

Without going into great detail, Armistice Day was created to celebrate and commit to ongoing peace after the end of World War I. After the Korean War, the day was changed to celebrate all Veterans – and not just those veterans who served in World War I or World War II – which obviously makes sense. However, in doing so, as some have argued, the shift became more about the glorification of war; the celebration of peace was lost.

Today, with so many others, I celebrate all Veterans, including those in my family such as my dad who put himself in harm’s way to combat evil. I am thankful for this service, just as I am also grateful for the service of many others who serve our country in often unrecognized ways (such as public school teachers, just to name one example).

At the same time, I remember the original intent of Armistice Day. I pray for a day when war is no longer necessary, when men and women in the prime of their lives do not have to be deployed and put in harm’s way. I pray for those who have been hurt physically, emotionally, and spiritually because of violence. I reflect on which of my actions plant the seeds for further war. And what habits I might nurture in myself and others to plant seeds for peace instead.

Being Moved by Story

In the past few months, I have become quasi-obsessed with the experience of being emotionally moved. I reported on new research about that experience a few weeks ago, and also discussed how someone sharing something “soulfelt” often might prompt a feeling of being moved or touched in others.

I suspect when one becomes more aware of an experience such as this, one starts to pay more attention to it. And so it has been with me.

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Jennifer Isaac

A few weeks ago, my beloved college celebrated its 50th anniversary with a faculty & staff talent show. My friend and longtime collaborator, Jennifer Isaac, shared a Moth-award winning story about her brother that moved everyone in my aisle to tears. I suspect storytelling – along with a few other major modes of expression, such as music – are particularly likely to move people. With Jennifer’s permission, I share her edited story below. It’s also available by video beginning at around 1:21:00

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Flying: A Personal Story
By Jennifer Issac

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The Experience of Being Emotionally Moved

At its best, science sheds light on what was previously unknown or unappreciated. For example, many of us probably have fantasized about what it would be like to be the first person to identify a new plant or animal or even fungus or insect.

This kind of discovery process also occurs in psychological science.

Recently, an international team published new research that goes a long way toward establishing a little known and unappreciated experience as a universal emotion. They call it “kama muta,” after a Sanskrit term. In several studies across 19 different countries, 5 continents, and 15 languages, this new research shows  kama muta is a distinct emotion – different from awe, amusement, and sadness – and generally expressed similarly across cultures.

There isn’t a good way to refer to this emotion simply, which says something about how undeveloped and unappreciated it might be. In English, however, people most commonly refer to this emotion when they say they feel profoundly “moved” or “touched” in a positive manner. When experiencing this emotion, individuals often become tearful or cry; experience “goosebumps,” chills, or shivers; feel “choked up” or a “lump in the throat;” have a difficult time speaking; and often leave inspired to be more devoted or morally committed. People often connect this with a “warm” feeling in the center of the chest, which is probably why so often there are reports of experiences being “heartwarming” or, as we wrote recently, related to something “soulfelt.” Depending on the intensity, situation, and person, some of these elements may be present or absent.

The experience of being moved often seems to be most elicited when individuals increase in closeness or intimacy with what is perceived as sacred (highly meaningful, poignant, or precious). As the international team states:

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The Meaning of the Cross

Last week, my family and I returned from 9 days of touring France, including 6 days in Paris and 3 days in Normandy (click here for my updated photography page). Part of our interest in this trip was a sort of pilgrimage to visit the American cemetery near Omaha Beach, where thousands of Americans died on D-Day. In preparation, before we left, we watched the horrific opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan, to get more of a sense for what happened on that epic day.

I don’t cry very often, but when I surveyed 9,388 crosses and stars of David at the American cemetery, I wept. I replayed in my imagination what happened at this site, and I connected with the sacrifice made on our country’s behalf. Watching filmed testimonies at Pointe du Hoc only reinforced this, as survivors recounted what it was like going into this day, how young most everyone was, and how afraid.

Many talked about how they prayed, and how they felt like their ultimate sacrifice – though tragic – might be needed: for God and country.

 

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What To Do When Stressed

A few weeks ago, while watching old episodes of Grey’s Anatomy on Netflix before going to sleep, I noticed my right eye felt drier than usual. I tried different tactics to adjust to this and fix my dry eye problem, but none really worked. Then, one morning, I woke up to find this same eye felt kind of sticky. It would improve after a few minutes of heavy blinking but, about a week later, I noticed it felt grittier when I blinked. A few days later, my left eye was starting to show some of the same symptoms, and also was bloodshot. How aggravating. I then discovered some kind of yellow-headed growth on the underside of my upper eyelid of my right eye. What was that? I found that thoughts and worries about my eyes started to interfere with my ability to be fully present in my daily life. I was distracted and less effective than usual.

My eyes are on the mend now. I went to my trusty eye doctor who prescribed a few eyedrops everyday, and the inflammation she discovered is going away. The yellow-headed growth? A benign calcification. So, everything is good, really, and my problem only illustrates a minor inconvenience. Nonetheless, this story illustrates how even one small stressor can negatively influence someone’s life.

Anything requiring a new response can be stressful. Stressors can involve loss, challenge, the anticipation of loss or challenge, or even something positive. In the classic social readjustment rating scale, stressors range in severity from minor (such as a speeding ticket or major holiday) to major (such as divorce or the death of a spouse). Traumatic life events can be even worse.

When we experience stress, our sympathetic nervous systems are activated. Our bodies direct stress hormones such as adrenaline to respond. Salivation decreases, perspiration increases, breathing quickens, heart rate accelerates, digestion slows, blood pressure increases, and immune system functioning lessens. Although this fight-or-flight response often protects us when we face an immediate, tangible danger, it causes problems when chronically activated, as typically is the case with modern stressors. This helps explain why many distressed individuals regularly experience symptoms such as dry mouth, sweaty palms, labored breathing, irregular heartbeat, nausea, high blood pressure, and vulnerability to sickness. Problems such as headaches, depression, and heart disease all become more likely as a result of chronic sympathetic nervous system activation.

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