Let’s face it folks—life isn’t always a picnic.
We have to deal with nature vs. nurture, and I think we all can agree they both have their challenges. Whether we blame our childhood or our genes, we all have something or someone we can conveniently pin our shortcomings and problems on. The question is: How do we choose to deal with those shortcomings?
While we might handle the tribulations of being human differently, far too many of us do share one thing in common: The vices we use for coping with stress potentially become devices—and then we have a problem, Houston.
Addiction continues to be a global epidemic, and it’s hard to argue the fact that over the years it seems to have become white noise. The word “addiction” has taken on a broader context, perhaps because, on some level, we are all addicted to something.
As a whole, our society drinks too much, smokes too much, gambles too much, exercises too much, eats too much, works too much, spends too much, and so on.
Yet, despite all the information readily available to us, we remain stuck in our self-depreciating ways. Sure we want to be better—do better—but we are creatures of habit, and we just can’t help ourselves because nature wired us that way.
Our autonomic nervous systems are far more interested in protecting us from potential danger than improving ourselves. The bottom line is that life can be really hard sometimes, and we all need a way to cope with it.
We know we could do better, but here is how the self-talk typically goes: “Tomorrow I will stop eating junk food—this time will be different, I swear!” (Same goes for any of our devices.) But then we get stressed out at work, get snarled up in rush-hour traffic, come home to more stress, and suddenly all of our good intentions get filed in the “Tomorrow Box” which is pretty much never opened.
Next day, there we are again, standing sheepishly in line at Dunkin’ Donuts for a jelly roll. It is only after we gobble down the sticky delight that we realize we didn’t even really enjoy it because of that oh-so-familiar self-loathing voice hissing at us.
“What happened to all those good intentions from yesterday?” We guiltily ask ourselves, licking our fingers. “You really believed that this time was different, but you said that last time.”
And other people are virtually no help. “Aww, don’t be so hard on yourself, you had a rough day, you deserve that donut.” They rationalize for us. We know how that reciprocal kind of denial works, because next time it will be us supporting someone else’s bad behavior to justify our own.
No one ever says, “Good God, if you eat that donut your ass will get even bigger!” Nope, we tell each other what we want to hear and just swim around in a sea of collective denial.
In recent years, neuroscience has shed some light on our complicated human brain; the main discovery being that man is wired by nature to be more negative than positive in order to survive. In other words, things really don’t make us happy, and fear is primarily what drives and controls us.
It appears that nature has been working against us from the start, because on the most basic biological level our bodies are wired to avoid and adapt to potential danger.
And because we are continually bombarded by the threat of crime, war, poverty, genocide, unemployment, terrorism, natural disasters, famine, sex trafficking, global warming, and so on, our bodies have adapted to the ever-present threats. It’s as if each of our personal fear switches have gotten permanently jammed in the “on” position. (Danger, Will Robinson, danger!)
With all of these potential dangers threatening us at every second, it seems reasonable to surmise, and perhaps even expect, that our stressed-out species deserves our vices. After all, the animal in us needs some kind of refuge from the never-ending barrage of threats.
Let me just state, for the record, that there is not necessarily anything wrong with escaping every once in a while. It appears that many experts agree that having a healthy vice when we are stressed can, in fact, be a good thing as long as those vices don’t become devices. Repeat after me friends: “Vices good. Devices bad.”
So what are we poor humans to do if we are basically just animals driven unconsciously by inborn biological impulses? How can we ever be freed from our natural inclination to escape pain when there is plenty of danger around us?
First, we must accept right down to the core of our little beast that, thanks to the way natured wired us, we will always be motivated by our inborn primal instincts. We then must vow to stop allowing ourselves to be slaves to this biology and do our best to nurture our nature and embrace our inner beast.
The goal isn’t to ignore our hard-wired animal instincts, but rather to step back with understanding and consciously take responsibility for our actions so that we may become more than our biology.
Here are just a few of the tools I have found helpful in embracing my inner beast:
1. Limit the exposure to negative stimuli.
We have to control the amount of time that we watch the news or violent imagery. More importantly, we must control when we watch them. Stop watching or reading about murder and mayhem right before bed. Turn off the television or phone 30 minutes before bed and read. Create a positive, calm routine so the mind can rest easy. The news will all be there waiting in the morning; I promise.
Meditation is my spiritual Prozac. I have completely turned my life around by spending 30-45 minutes a day in deep meditation. Studies have shown that the areas of the brain where pleasure is generated are more developed in monks who meditate long hours than any other human being. Create a ritual that works uniquely for you.
3. Reach out and touch someone.
Nature has given us some pretty awesome brain chemicals. One of them is a little dandy called “oxytocin” which gets released when we touch another being. So make love, cuddle, snuggle, kiss, and hug often—especially before bed. It helps us rest deeper and better. When you feel stressed, get a massage instead of heading to Krispy Kreme.
4. Make love, not war.
There are plenty of jerks in the world who are ready to start crap, but we always have the power to ignore our own egos and end it. Negativity is like a wild fire, which takes just one spark to ignite and then grows quickly out of control. Human kindness, compassion, and altruism are more powerful than our need to be right. Be positive and always look for the good in others.
5. Be part of the solution, not the problem.
Nature wired us to seek out pleasure and avoid pain, but there is just too much pain out there in the world these days to have the time to even look for pleasure. Yes, you will have to try a little harder to not get sucked into all the negativity. Practice radical optimism. Be like the little girl in a room full of pony poop, pick up a shovel and never stop digging!
6. Don’t sell what you wouldn’t buy.
If we don’t don’t like the beast within, then no one else will. Accept and embrace the animal part of yourself instead of trying to pretend it doesn’t exist. Repeat after me: “I love my beast.” The more we resist our inner-beast, the louder it will growl (grrrr).
7. Laugh as much as possible.
Laughter is one of the greatest ways to combat stress. I know it can be tough to laugh when you are feeling bogged down by life, but just try. Being silly and having a good laugh is nature’s medicine for stress. Simply thinking about something funny can lift our spirits and shove negativity right out the door. Who can be stressed out after watching Lucille Ball roll around in a vat of grapes?
Nature may have the upper hand when it comes to how we deal with the environment, but that doesn’t mean it has to win. Albert Einstein argued that we use only 10 percent of our brains. Who knows, maybe somewhere in all of that uncharted grey matter lays the key to releasing us from the prison of our own biology.
In the meantime, it is what it is, and it’s up to us to work with the hand that nature dealt us. We might be driven by our animal instincts, but we still have 10 percent of our brain.
So the next time you feel stressed out and find yourself automatically reaching for a jelly donut, let that 10 percent do its job and practice tough love with your inner beast.
Patiently remind it that too much of a good thing is bad no matter how good it feels in the moment, and then give it a big civilized hug.
Author: Michelle Brunetti
Editor: Danielle Beutell