We’re thinking about stress all wrong. “Pain is our absolute best teacher, because it forces us to change something.”
I’m reading a book right now that is absolutely blowing my mind. It’s called When the Body Says No, by Dr. Gabor Maté. It’s about how stress can make you sick.
Well, I do yoga, so I knew that already. My body and my mind are not separate, and what happens in my mind will inevitably affect my body. No problem: I’ll just never have any stress again in my life, ever.
Of course, it doesn’t work that way. I was thinking about stress all wrong.
I always thought stress meant those times when you feel scared or uncomfortable because you are working too much or going through a difficult period. This short-term, acute stress is what Maté calls “nervous tension.” According to the medical research, though, the short-term stress of completing a project that’s important to you or being challenged can actually boost your immune system, and in at least one case, sent a composer with leukemia into remission:
We need to recall here that the temporary elevation of cortisol that occurs in episodes of acute stress is healthy and necessary. Not healthy are the chronically elevated cortisol levels in chronically stressed persons. [Béla] Bartók, in exile from his native Hungary and stricken with leukemia, was commissioned by the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Serge Koussevitsky, to write a new piece. The composer went into spontaneous remission, which lasted until the work was completed.
Maté goes on to explain that chronic, physiological responses to real or perceived threats is the kind of stress that can really make us ill. This chronic stress can become so deeply ingrained in us that we don’t even realize it’s happening. The doctor goes through many case studies: scleroderma, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, colitis, dementia—the list goes on. Over and over again the factor these subjects have in common is repression of emotion, and most commonly, repression of anger.
I’ve been having my own experience of anger over the past two weeks. For what seemed like the the first time, I really let myself feel it, let it talk to me, and it granted me a surprising amount of clarity. Mostly in my life, I haven’t considered myself a very "angry" person. I thought this was a good thing: peaceful demeanor, people-pleaser, conflict avoider. Turns out, this may predispose me to cancer. Maté quotes a 1974 British study:Our principal finding was a significant association between the diagnosis of breast cancer and a behaviour pattern, persisting throughout adult life, of abnormal release of emotions. This abnormality was, in most cases, extreme suppression of anger and, in patients over 40, extreme suppression of other feelings.
This connection between illness and emotion isn’t New Age woo-woo: Alternative healing modalities have been working by trial and error for centuries, and in some ways it seems like Western medicine is just catching up. Maté writes,
Repression of anger increases the risk for cancer for the very practical reason that it magnifies exposure to physiological stress. If people are not able to recognize intrusion, or are unable to assert themselves even when they do see a violation, they are likely to experience repeatedly the damage brought on by stress.
Yoga is known as a great prevention for modern illnesses like cancer. In some ways, though, I think yoga culture actually contributes to this plague of emotional repression.
The messages we get from the inspirational quotes you see on yoga shopping bags and advertisements tell us that yoga is supposed to make us peaceful, loving, compassionate, and wholly positive beings. Obviously I love yoga for a lot of reasons, but sometimes when I’m upset, I don’t want to hold Triangle pose for 10 calm breaths. I don’t want to think about things I’m grateful for and slap a smile on it. I want to run around screaming.
I’m reminded, again, of John Friend and Anusara Inc.’s recent moral collapse. Anusara Yoga is a corporation whose tagline is “Yoga. Shri. Community.” Shri means “beauty” in Sanskrit, and everything that is gorgeous and charming and sweet and lovely. What the value structure of the corporation seems to be missing is that where there is Shri, there must also be Kali, the black, destructive power of life. Similarly, where there is Kali, there is always going to be Shri. They are two halves of a whole, so it makes sense that an organization based around beauty and positivity was brought down by the human foibles (sexual misconduct, financial misconduct, drugs) of its worshipped leader. Whose last name is Friend.
It’s not healthy for any of us to ignore the Kali side of life: anger, depression, grief, and pain all have important places in our well-being and survival. Pain is our absolute best teacher, because it forces us to change something. These emotions are not the problem: The problem is that we label them “negative,” ignore them, or worse, learn to not even consciously feel them anymore.
Yoga can be an incredible tool for connecting to your emotions, accessing them, and sometimes even expressing them. Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge and honor the power of our uncomfortable emotions. And/or collectively decide to make it normal to run around screaming. That would work too.