Monday, February 16, 2009

None Of Us Likes Being Dropped Or Poked

In "Taken," a riveting thriller with poor values, a daughter tells her ex-spy father to stop worrying. "You might as well tell water not to be wet," he says. I can relate. Except for a couple of years after my ordination as a priest, I usually wake up worried. This fascinating "Newsweek" article is about good stress (which helps make us creative) and bad stress (which can make us ill).

Here's one way I make the distinction. Sometimes a person is on my mind as I awaken -- someone who needs a phone call or whom I realize I haven't seen for a while. These impulses, signs from God or the subconscious or both, are actionable intelligence. Other times, I experience the worry without knowing what I'm worrying about, like a torpedo that hasn't found a target. That's the stress I could do without and that is the focus of my spiritual discipline.

In "Newsweek," reporter Mary Carmichael tells this story about the father of modern stress research, Hans Seyle, and his work in the 1930s:
Selye had virtually no lab technique, and, as it turned out, that was fortunate. As a young researcher, he set out to study what happened when he injected rats with endocrine extracts. He was a klutz, dropping his animals and chasing them around the lab with a broom. Almost all his rats—even the ones he shot up with presumably harmless saline—developed ulcers, overgrown adrenal glands and immune dysfunction. To his credit, Selye didn't regard this finding as evidence he had failed.Instead, he decided he was onto something.

Selye's rats weren't responding to the chemicals he was injecting. They were responding to his clumsiness with the needle. They didn't like being dropped and poked and bothered. He was stressing them out. Selye called the rats' condition "general adaptation syndrome," a telling term that reflected the reason the stress response had evolved in the first place: in life-or-death situations, it was helpful.

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