Stress relief: The only bad days are… days when I can’t prevail over human nature

My brain hates me

I’m looking for stress relief when it feels like my brain’s attacking me on bad days. It picks on me all day, finding reasons to tell me I’m no good, can never be any good. Don’t do it like that. People will never like you if… (that’s a great way to become a people pleaser isn’t it?). And so on. I listen and yawn, but the barbs slide in past my indifference.

Why does that little sucker hate me so?

Well, actually it’s only doing its best.

Let’s take a look back at our caveman days when our brains had only three tasks – seek pleasure, avoid pain and minimise effort. These powerful drivers kept us looking for food, shelter, sex and companionship. They kept us avoiding snakes, river torrents and marauding tribes. They kept us doing what we knew worked, because it was efficient and who knew where the next food was coming from? Welcome to the Motivational Triad.

Our brains tried to keep us alive and make life easier and more dependable for us. Way to go brain!

Seeking Pleasure

In modern society though, those drivers don’t serve us quite as well. Most of us in the developed world have access to unlimited pleasure from things like concentrated foods, porn and social media. These things overfeed our appetites, causing our body to down-regulate dopamine, our pleasure hormone. So next time our threshold of pleasure has gone up and we need a bigger dose to satisfy ourselves. Presto, the addiction cycle begins. Notice too that when we down-regulate dopamine, the previous ‘natural’ forms of pleasure no longer really register. Whereas the caveman could be happy with a handful of berries or a taste of honey, these days we would struggle to detect any satisfaction in that. We need more.

Avoiding Pain

Sadly, needing more does not yield the long term benefit we seek, even though we can satiate our desires. Short term pleasure comes at the cost of long term pain. We feel empty, irritable, dissolute. Our biochemistry has gone out of whack and we see-saw between highs and lows. This de-stabilisation, along with remorse about over-consumption, plays havoc with our poor brains. We experience guilt, shame and blame or self-blame. We wonder why we can’t make ourselves behave better. It chafes, the pain of which we then try to avoid… by seeking more pleasure.

Minimising Effort

Our brains plug valiantly on driving us to seek pleasure, avoid pain and minimise effort. One of the ways it minimises effort is to push most of our mental activity in to the subconscious mind, because the brain consumes around 20% of our daily calorific intake. We don’t actually need to ‘think’ very much, we can just trigger old thought habits from our subconscious mind. Like the ones that kick in when you smell a waft of bread fresh from the oven, that say “Mmm… bread… delicious”. We often don’t actively notice the urge to eat, or if we do, we suppress it as the desire may cause us pain from guilt and shame. Back to square one.

How does it feel to listen to your brain?

If your brain chatter bothers you or if you feel guilt or shame as the pleasure/pain principle plays out in your life, you’re not alone. It’s a rational response, given that you possess a well-intentioned caveman brain hidden in the body of a modern man or woman.

But you’re wishing there was an off switch, right?

Why isn’t it OK to feel bad about all this stuff?

OK so it feels bad. That’s not OK. Why the hell not?

happy familiesPhoto by Rhone on Unsplash

Well, for one thing, we’re trained to try and be happy in our lives. We’ve been sold a version of the American dream*: Try hard, get a good education, provide for yourself, be tolerant of others, do the right thing, strive to get ahead, make money, be your ‘best self’ => succeed and thrive.

* freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, as well as an upward social mobility for the family and children, achieved through hard work in a society with few barriers

Wait, there’s no place in that script for feeling down, broken, anxious or blue. And where are your so-called bootstraps now?

Well here’s the truth about humans – we have a large range of emotions some of which are perceived as positive and some negative. We will only feel positive emotions half of the time. Even if we have all the success in the world. Even if we’re already the best we can be. You cannot transcend this human experience. So half of the time you’re going to feel bad. And that’s OK. Congratulations on being human.

Being fully human

Hooray, I’m sad (or anxious, frustrated, angry or whatever). That means I’m still breathing. That means that soon I will be feeling fine again. Nothing stays the same. The only emotions we fix deeply in to our experience are the ones we resist. Those ones stick around until we deal with them.

scared boyPhoto by Dmitry Ratushny on Unsplash

Until then we are lying to ourselves – manipulating our reality to make it appear that we don’t have those emotions. Like a child hiding from the bogey man. Sounds harsh? Much of the pleasure seeking and pain avoidance I talk about in this article is predicated on this. And this approach doesn’t relieve stress, it causes it.

To be fully human is to be open to all our emotions. Available to feel any of them. It encompasses vulnerability, tenderness and courage – just to be where we are, who we are, having our experience in the present moment. No-one said it was easy. The precision instrument that is our brain, that marvellously complex and ordered organ, is innocently working against us. It yields up old ideas and habits that no longer serve us. It responds out of fear of things that no longer matter.

Natural Stress Relief

To be human is not to try to prevail over human nature. It’s to hold all of it in the palm of one hand, look at it and accept it. Take the pressure off ourselves to be super-human. See our flaws and love ourselves anyway. Just stay open to life.

Today can be a Good Day

My only bad days are the days when I want to prevail over human nature. How’s about today I get off my case and just take it as it comes? Can I choose to see the glorious wonder of nature shine out in every grey cloud, in my overbearing boss, in my crooked half-smile? Natural stress relief comes with forgiveness. Today I forgive myself for being human. Today my B- effort will be fine. How about you?

Feature image credit:  Mean Shadows on Unsplash

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