Pack up your troubles

Lubna Abdel-Aziz
Tuesday 16 Apr 2024

Was our stressful nature born when Adam and Eve were evicted from the Garden of Eden? Our luckless race, determined to survive, carries along with it a basic anxiety — “the anxiety of a finite being over the threat of non-being”.


Our anxiety is by no means a modern phenomenon. It is part of our existence; an unavoidable consequence of life itself.

Though we have reached 21 centuries of civility, or incivility, we remain a society of down-hearted, disillusioned beings condemned to discharge uncongenial duties in our daily grind. Worrying is a constant companion, a natural spontaneous human response, hidden under a carefully constructed and artificially maintained façade.

Stress eventually turns to fear, fear turns into anxiety, and longtime anxiety breeds depression and a host of serious diseases, some potentially fatal.

Studies show that 89 per cent of us live under daily stress. That is not altogether bad. Some stress is good.

Just as severe stress can promote disease, a healthy degree of stress can promote wellness.

Winning can be just as stressful as losing, but it triggers different emotional and biological responses that are advantageous to our well-being. Stress of victory in sports, politics, academics, etc, is good stress. Happy occasions produce stress, as sad occasions do. The key to dealing with stress is to stay cool and stay focused.

Because the level of stress is on the rise, scientists were alerted to seek answers to its many threats. The turmoil and turbulence in our present lives presents a challenge even to science. Finding the proper level of stress for an optimum quality of life is no easy task. Ours is a world laden with troubles. We are bombarded with tales of anger, hatred, terror, violence, massacres, and wars, from east to west, from north to south.

Is there a small corner on the globe that is free of stress?

What is stress? It is a physical condition that occurs when we face an unfamiliar or threatening situation. Stress knows no discrimination. It affects young and old alike. The young are stressed by peer pressure, performance, exams; the old are stressed by disease, dislocation, and death.

The body responds to sudden, acute stress by alerting all systems. The hypothalamus, the part of the brain that regulates the body’s responses, is activated. It triggers the release of steroid hormones that act like an army of soldiers facing enemy fire. Troops are sent to the body’s front line, where injury or infection is most likely. Once the stress has passed, the stress hormones return to normal. If stress persists, all the body’s stress apparatus become chronically over-activated and eventually harmful.

In a controlled study, two-thirds of subjects had nearly six times the risk of developing depression within a month of a stressful event.

Depression is a serious matter and should be avoided at all costs.

Henry Kissinger’s famous quote: “There cannot be a stressful crises next week. My schedule is already full” illustrates how unavoidable stress is.

Stress is driving the majority of the population to overeat, drink, smoke, opening us to a host of afflictions from the common cold to acne, ulcers, sleeplessness, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and even cancer.

Everything seems to be stressful, every day. Stress is synonymous with change, and is this not a changeable world?

Stress is a constant. What is worse is imagined stress — worry. We worry.

Worry is as stressful as actual changes and affects us in similar fashion. The worst part is that it is self-inflicted. Uncontrolled worry grows into a fearful monster, taking complete control of mind and body. We become slaves of a ghost of our own creation.

We are reminded of Winston Churchill’s saying “I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which never happened.”

It was only in the 1970s that experts started to consider stress and its extended family. Fear, anxiety, and depression are not beyond the reach of science. If stress reaches an acute stage, we need expert help. Otherwise, there are steps we can take when symptoms appear.

One question we can ask ourselves is “Will this matter in five years?” If yes, we do something about it. If no, then we need to let it go.

We cannot live just to please others; charity begins at home. Do not beat yourself up. Confront the emotion and deal with it.

Stress should be a powerful driving force, not an obstacle. Wishing to control the future is a human failing. It is not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.

One tried and true cure for all is a healthy lifestyle; the usual, diet, exercise, etc. Bad habits can be broken. Good habits can be formed. Tension is a habit. Relaxing is a habit.

Remember Robert Elliot’s two rules: “Don’t sweat the small stuff; It is all small stuff.”

Do not underestimate the value of doing nothing — just relax and smile. Smiling can be infectious. If you smile you reduce stress and the more you smile, the more people smile back at you.

Better still, laugh. Laughter not only releases tension, but has the physical effect of reducing stress hormones.

Having committed the initial folly of losing our Garden of Eden, we are left to struggle with our vulnerabilities. Stress is here to stay. Deal with it intelligently.

“So, pack up your troubles in your old kit bag/ And smile, smile, smile.”

George Asaf (1880-1951)


* A version of this article appears in print in the 18 April, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly


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