The late, great comedic actor George Burns said, “If you ask what is the single most important key to longevity, I would have to say it is avoiding worry, stress, and tension. And if you didn’t ask me, I’d still have to say it.” Apparently, Burns walked his talk because he lived beyond his 100th birthday.
I wonder how George Burns would avoid worry, stress, and tension if he was alive and struggling today. He would encounter modern day stressors in a different context. How would Burns deal with concerns about the environment, disease, health, relationships, the economy, prejudice, and so forth? The associated stress about these things has multiplied exponentially since his death.
Stress is not an abstract concept. We all encounter stressors of some sort each day. Many of us keep stress at bay by using deep breathing techniques, exercise, or meditation. These are great ways to help us thrive. However, they are not cure-alls. Even these might not prevent ill-effects from a surprise encounter of a life-changing event. The same can be said about a longterm siege of negative, harmful acts from others. Until a person gathers her/his wits and regains mindful equilibrium, stress is going to happen. I’m guessing that even though George Burns joked about it, he encountered stress, too.
We are advised by experts that our attitude about stimulating situations determines whether we experience them as fun excitement, or dreadful stress. This may be obviously true in the case of someone experiencing mountain climbing as a leisure activity. The need to navigate through a mountain range in wintertime as a refugee avoiding political oppression is a different story.
The ability to easily distinguish between stress and excitement is more likely to manifest in the lives of people in the “first world” than in the lives of people in the third world. Having to deal with the negative speech and actions of politicians in Washington D.C., Ottawa, or London is easy, we can just tune it out. The same cannot be said about the negative speech and harmful actions of tyrants in Moscow, Kampala, or Pyongyang.
For those of us who live in the developed world, it is less problematic to learn how to cope with truly toxic people who create situations of unnecessary strife, complexity, and stress. This is not true for citizens in many developing countries nor for many minority populations living in developed countries in North America and Europe. To cope requires more effort and imagination. We can laugh off “first world problems”. The same cannot be said about refugees from political/religiously caused oppression and war zones.
The situations in the developed world in many cases is deteriorating to situations in the developing world. The feelings of insecurity are detrimental to our sense of wellbeing. For instance, the potential loss of Social Security and Medicare causes genuine harm to elders and the disabled. Having to recoup losses or try to get by without promised pensions causes real harm. This situation fosters anxiety and stress, which spirals into serious harmful problems about mental and physical health. These types of situations can also lead to social unrest and crime.
One of the ways to foster stress is to deny or gloss over our problems. In turn, one of the best ways to alleviate stress is to face our problems and actively work towards solving them.
For those of us who are fortunate enough to live in the developed world, we have ready access to stress relief and stress control programs and techniques. On the other hand, we can do much better as a society. We need to avoid denial about meaningful immigration reform, realistically addressing global climate change, and enhancing civil rights for all people in the world.
Our individual and social problems can cause stress or they can provide all of us with the chance for renewal.