A Better Answer to Chronic Stress


By Deepak Chopra, MD and Rudolph E. Tanzi, PhD

If an epidemic is defined as a disease that affects whole populations without having a medical cure, then the epidemic of modern life is stress. Itself not a disease, stress instead leads to a breakdown in the body’s internal balance, or homeostasis, and from that point onward, if the stress isn’t relieved, damage occurs from within. Ironically, most modern people in a developed country do not experience acute stress, the kind that triggers a full-blown fight-or-flight response. There is no battlefront, civil war, rampant violent crime, or struggle over food and water to contend with.

Our epidemic is silent and hidden, in the form of low-level chronic stress. The natural purpose of the body’s stress response is to trigger heightened alertness and energy for a short period, a matter of minutes or at most an hour, when fighting or fleeing is a matter of survival. When stress becomes chronic, a “normal” way of life that people believe they have adapted to, stress hormones become a drip-drip in the background of the physiology, and over time, three stages of damage begin to appear:

Psychological and neural damage, which begins with minor things like feeling mentally tired and under pressure from deadlines at work. When people say they are stressed out, they generally mean that they’ve run out of energy, which can mask mental states like being depressed, anxious, or even panicky.

The next stage is behavioral. Negative changes in behavior are likely to manifest in two major areas, work and relationships. Stressful jobs make us respond with all kinds of behaviors, from office gossip to going out for a drink after work. As stress mounts, the drinking can get heavier, the need for distraction more severe. Inevitably we take our feelings home after work, where friction easily follows.

Eventually chronic stress leads to physical damage. When the body can’t completely adapt to stress, bad effects follow without being predictable. Most people will suffer from physical fatigue. Stomachaches, bad digestion, and headaches are likely. So is reduced immune response, leading to more colds and worsened allergies. After that, the problems will tend to be associated with inflammation, whose effects can travel anywhere. One person may experience skin eruptions, another irritable bowel syndrome, yet another a heart attack or stroke. By this stage, the damage caused by stress has led to serious system breakdown.

In our latest book, The Healing Self, we go into great detail about how to personalize your own stress-reduction program. But for everyone, there need to be conscious coping mechanisms in the face of everyday stress. Let’s say you’re at the airport and find out that your flight has been canceled. The airline won’t bring another airplane into service but tells you that you must wait five hours until a flight arrives that can accommodate you. With no alternative except to comply with the airline’s mistreatment, passengers look passive as they sit and wait, but on the inside many people will react (perhaps you) with the following responses: worry, complaining, and pessimism. All are self-defeating.

Worry is self-induced anxiety. It solves nothing and blocks the possibility of dealing with things more positively.

Complaining increases tension and anger. As a display of hostility, it encourages other people to act hostile in return.

Pessimism induces the illusion that a situation is hopeless and fosters the belief that expecting a bad outcome is always realistic, when in fact it isn’t.

If you see yourself in any of these behaviors and attitudes, you are fooling yourself into believing that you are adapting to stress. As your body experiences it, however, you have become the stressor yourself. That’s because an external event (canceled flight) must go through an internal interpretation before it triggers the stress response. Unlike a crisis like losing your job, a flight delay belongs in the category of everyday chronic stresses. Which means that you have a choice to respond. Worry, complaining, and pessimism are unconscious responses. People who are stuck in them have become the victims of old reactions that became glued in place because the person didn’t reevaluate them.

Some people handle a canceled flight better than others. Just as we gave you the “baby solution” for acute stress, here’s the “airport solution” for low-level everyday stress.

The “Airport Solution” to Chronic Stress

Detach yourself from the stressor. At the airport people do this by reading a book or finding a place to be alone.

Become centered. At the airport people do this when they shut their eyes to meditate.
Remain active. At the airport this means walking around instead of slumping in a chair and waiting.

Seek positive outlets. At the airport this might mean shopping, getting a chair massage, or going to a restaurant.

Rely on emotional support. At the airport the usual way to do this is by calling a friend or family member on the phone. (A short call announcing that you’ll be late won’t give you emotional support. The key is a conversation with someone meaningful in your life that lasts at least half an hour.)

Escape if you must. At the airport, if the airline’s behavior gets too outrageous, it saves your psychology to reschedule and go home. (Of course this not always practical or affordable.)

All of these things are positive adaptations, as opposed to the negativity of worry, complaining, and pessimism. They bring awareness into a situation where falling back on passive acceptance isn’t the right answer. Beneath the attitude of “I have to put up with it” lies stress. In most everyday situations you have the option of turning the situation around by interpreting it not as bad luck but as a non-stress, to which you respond by doing things you actually want to do, like meditating, connecting with a friend, or shopping. When you become adept at this turnaround, chronic stress is nipped in the bud. You cut short a process that otherwise would have affected your body and mind negatively.

Deepak Chopra is the author of more than 80 books, a quarter of them New York Times bestsellers. His medical training is in internal medicine and endocrinology. Rudolph Tanzi is Professor of Neurology at Harvard University, and Director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital.


On Palestinian Trauma & Resilience

Article by

A response to the call of physicians Ghassan Abu Sitta and Rupa Marya to rehumanize Palestinians by reimagining healing, life, and liberation of both bodies and minds

Fear The Person: Koans

Article by

One can walk up to an abyss and turn away from it but cannot return to a ledge after stepping over

How Zionism Indoctrinated the West

Video with

Zionism is the ideology that underpins the barbarism that has been meted out on Palestinians, its latest chapter being the slaughter that is currently happening in Gaza.

#82 From Wounds to Wholeness

Podcast with

A conversation from a SAND Community Gathering with renowned Trauma excerpt on his new autobiography.

Why is connecting with my intuition not intuitive?

Article by

How do we cultivate a sense of stillness when everything in our society is telling us to do the opposite?

#79 Restoring Wholeness

Podcast with

Exploring Internal Family Systems from theory to practice.

Zionism has no space for an Arab Jew like me

Article by

The State of Israel conditioned us to see the intersection of 'Jewish' and 'Arab' as impossible — even though my family held that identity for generations

#78 The Crisis in Gaza

Podcast with ,

From a recent Community Gathering having the difficult conversations about a horrific violence in Gaza.

Support SAND with a Donation

Science and Nonduality is a nonprofit organization. Your donation goes towards the development of our vision and the growth of our community.
Thank you for your support!