Imaginary Stress Management
How to Handle Real Stress from Imaginary Situations
Within the past 200 years, technology has granted us comforts beyond our ancestors' wildest imaginations. On the flip side, technology has plagued us with new stressors the human body has yet to accommodate. We don't have to run 12 miles every day for food, but chronic blue light exposure rots our eyeballs and disrupts our hormone cycles. While the human body requires acute periods of stress, the modern lifestyle exposes us to chronic stress.
There are two factors of the modern lifestyle that compound chronic stress:
1) High exposure to menial stressors
2) Low exposure to rigorous stressors
This combination leaves you in limbo. You aren't exactly stressed, but you can't fully relax. This is a problem because your nervous system has two polar opposite modes of operation: sympathetic (i.e. fight or flight) and parasympathetic (i.e. rest and digest).
When you are continually exposed to menial stressors, the parasympathetic nervous system is not properly activated. Instead you are in a chronic state of mild sympathetic response, leaving you with a variety of health complications. These range from the mild - indigestion and a weakened immune system - to the severe - insulin resistance and cardiovascular damage.
To solve this, you should create an environment that aligns with your biological responses: either completely relaxed or completely stressed. This is what Nassim Taleb calls Barbell Strategy. If your stress level is a spectrum, Barbell Strategy means you maximize your exposure to the ends of a spectrum and avoid the middle like the plague.
In this spectrum, parasympathetic response lies on one end while sympathetic response is on the other. The middle ground hosts a confused, partially-sympathetic state your body isn’t built to handle. Feeling anxious or on edge is the result.
There are two steps to improve this situation:
1) Increase your exposure to rigorous acute stressors.
2) Reduce your exposure to menial chronic stressors
The first step is the simplest and can be solved in a variety of ways. Actively engage in stressful activities that last for a finite period of time. This can include resistance training, learning something new, writing about a difficult topic, and problem-solving. Embrace the Suck provides a framework to facing acute stress.
Reducing your exposure to menial chronic stressors is a little more tricky. You don't have total control over your environment. With computers and smartphones in the workplace, artificial blue light exposure is ubiquitous. You also come in contact with chemical stressors every time you sip water, consume food, and touch plastic.
There are practical ways to reduce your exposure to stressors, but there is no way to completely eliminate them. You can live in a bubble to eliminate these stressors, but this would ironically cause you more stress. Or you can choose the more pragmatic route: focus on menial stressors you can control.
The greatest form of controllable stress is imaginary stress. This is where you experience real stress from imaginary situations. Imaginary stress includes worrying about the future, worrying about what others think, and worrying about feeling certain emotions. All of which involve a retreat from the present to face an imagined struggle.
Let's explore The Rivers of Imaginary Stress to identify the five primary sources of imaginary stress.
Like rivers running into a lake, each source contributes to the depths downstream. Each source must be dammed to effectively manage the flow of imaginary stress.
1) Poor Nutrition
Aside from the obvious steps anyone with a mouth can tell you, there are a few lesser known factors in your diet that will improve your well-being. These factors can improve your body’s ability to produce and use GABA.
GABA is an important neurotransmitter that inhibits neuronal activity. In other words, it is the molecule primarily responsible for relaxation and reduction of intrusive thoughts. Many people are deficient in GABA. This is because the modern lifestyle creates constant sympathetic activation and magnesium deficiency.
Your constant sympathetic signaling causes overactivation of the nervous system. Without enough GABA, your nervous system can’t relax. As a result, you see imaginary stress, and as deficiency continues, it snowballs into anxiety and major depressive disorders.
Let’s walk through the simplified pathway below to highlight the different factors that influence GABA production.
Note that nothing I say below constitutes dietary advice. These approaches are based on my personal knowledge of biochemistry and experiences; however, I am not a licensed dietician or physician. Consult with a physician or licensed dietician before making any lifestyle changes. I am simply sharing what has worked for me.
1A) Increase Magnesium
This should be your first approach since magnesium is a necessary cofactor to convert glutamate, a known neurotoxin, into GABA. Without sufficient magnesium, glutamate cannot be converted to GABA, creating a neurotoxic buildup over time. Foods rich in magnesium include:
Sufficient magnesium intake can be difficult as evidenced by deficiency in approximately half of the United States’ population. Pair this with the fact that approximately 80% of bodily processes require magnesium, and you may find a supplement is worth considering. I take this one with tea at night, and this one with water and lemon juice during the day. With magnesium supplementation, there is little risk of overdose if you have healthy kidneys.
1B) Ensure Adequate Vitamin B6 Consumption
Vitamin B6 works together with magnesium to convert glutamate into GABA. Good sources of B6 include:
With an animal-based diet rooted in whole foods, supplementation is not necessary. If you are vegan, this is your wakeup call to get at least some form of animal-based food in your diet.
1C) Include Probiotics
Probiotics have glutamate decarboxylase, the enzyme that converts the neurotoxic glutamate into the relaxing GABA. When you consume probiotics, GABA is produced in the digestive tract. The GABA is then sent to the brain through the vagus nerve, giving you its calming effects. The following foods are rich in probiotics:
Adding probiotics to your diet is a great way to reduce stress via GABA, improve gut health, and reduce inflammation.
1D) Reduce Inflammation
This one is the most important. Inflammation is the first part of your immune response to invasive substances. Inflammation causes the release of glutamate, which unleashes a cascade of potent chemicals that destroy invaders and your cells alike.
During an immune response, the body's primary goal is to fight off an invader. It does not need GABA since it is not beneficial to be in a relaxed state. Hence enzymes that convert glutamate to GABA are turned off. While this is useful in acute periods of infection, it becomes extremely destructive over time.
Much of the modern diet is littered with inflammatory foods. To restore GABA production, these foods should be avoided like the plague:
-Refined sugar; e.g. soda, donuts, anything with added sugar. Moderate fruit intake is fine.
-Processed foods; e.g. processed meats, foods with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils (check ingredients list for these), almost anything that comes in a box.
-Industrial nut and seed oils; e.g. sunflower, soybean, canola, and peanut oils. Just about every restaurant uses these due to their low cost.
Consider only cooking with the following: butter, ghee, beef tallow, coconut oil, and olive oil (avoid at high temperatures)
-Any food you personally have a sensitivity/allergy to. Popular ones include corn, lactose, gluten, and soy.
You can take a food sensitivity test or listen to your body to learn more about your situation. A good rule of thumb: if it makes you feel like shit, you’re probably sensitive to it.
1E) Balance Copper/Zinc Ratio
Copper and zinc act as antagonistic neurotransmitters, where copper stimulates and zinc modulates activity. Since we are frequently overstimulated in the modern environment, zinc rapidly depletes. Especially if you consume adrenal stimulants such as caffeine and refined sugars.
Zinc depletion tips the scales in favor of copper dominance. Excessive copper presence in the brain creates a hyperactive state that leads to behavior disorders, depression, anxiety, and panic disorders. Hyperactivity from copper dominance is likely because of its high affinity for the GABA receptor. In other words, the stimulating copper and relaxing GABA compete for the same position responsible for feeling relaxed. Zinc helps remove copper from the GABA receptor, allowing GABA to produce its relaxing effects.
To rebalance your copper/zinc ratio, consider integrating these quality sources of zinc in your diet:
If expenses or allergies limit these options for you, a supplement may help. Exercise caution when supplementing zinc since toxicity can be fatal.
1F) Reduce Stress
Stress is a positive feedback loop. This means that stress itself can prevent you from experiencing the relaxing effects of GABA. While improving your nutrition is certain to reduce intrusive thoughts and relax you, it is no magic pill. Tackling chronic stress is covered in the rest of this essay.
This cause of imaginary stress is a direct result of the modern lifestyle: comfort and convenience are king. Many are not sufficiently challenged by their environment. And when the brain is not challenged, it seeks struggle. You can look to classical tales and myths to understand the universal desire for adventure and struggle.
While the great myths are not literally true, they offer a unique window into the human condition that cannot be found through empirical means. All great myths, fables, and stories revolve around one overarching theme.
The classics surround struggle. When a struggle is conquered, it is heroic. When the struggle wins, it is tragic. Whether the struggle is internal like Harry Potter and his fear of Death Eaters, or external like Hercules slaying the Hydra; we find purpose in overcoming a challenge. We are built to overcome.
The modern world is built around comfort and convenience, requiring deliberate effort from many to experience struggle. Why strive for something great when little effort is required for the comfort your body craves? Because the mind remains unsatisfied. It rummages for struggle until it comes up with something. “A-Ha!” It says. “I've found my struggle. I must overcome The Great Dirty Dish War with my roommate.” Meanwhile, your roommate is completely oblivious to The Great Dirty Dish War.
Your desire for struggle could be equally satisfied by just lifting some heavy ass weights or learning something new. If you Embrace the Suck, you will find no shortage of struggles to conquer. However, it isn't enough that we find struggle. In the next section, we find that struggle without meaning leads to imaginary stress.
Imaginary stress can be a result of procrastination. Think of the last time you procrastinated. Maybe you didn’t want to clean your room, file your taxes, or start a workout.
Procrastination happens when the task at hand offers a challenge but is not meaningful. As a result, your mind retreats into imaginary situations because you find them more exciting. Stress builds because you now have unsolved imagined problems and a mundane task.
Meditating on the shortness of life - and hence the value of your time - is a great way to stop this form of procrastination. In Why Do I Keep Procrastinating, I call this process the Memento Mori Cascade.
This technique helps you shake off distractions and knock out the present task. Furthermore, it helps you reflect on which activities are worthwhile and enjoyable to you. As you engage in more enjoyable activities, you don’t feel compelled to retreat into a mental prison.
Some activities are unavoidable. But life is too short to meander through meaningless tasks. A deep understanding of time’s value helps you move through them with urgency.
You may have dialed in your nutrition and found meaningful sources of struggle, but still find yourself indebted to imaginary stress. This could be a matter of how you view yourself.
Perhaps you don't see yourself as capable of handling an impending situation. So you worry about it. Or maybe you don't view yourself as a good friend. So you worry if your friends value your presence.
Insecurity stems from your identity.
In Dealing with Regret, I wrote about a tool to change how you view yourself: The Identity Change Cycle. This can be used to shift your identity away from one of insecurity and towards one of relaxation. In order to effectively use this tool, there is a preliminary step you must take first:
Don't pathologize your feelings.
Recognize that you can learn from your emotions when you don't cower in fear from them. It is important to remember that your emotions are simply indicators. Like a check engine light, emotions indicate the status of the machinery inside. As you learn from your emotions, you can identify the source of your insecurities.
Once you recognize your insecurities, you can use the Identity Change Cycle to improve how you view yourself. You can mold yourself into someone that is not afraid of your feelings. Or define yourself as someone humble enough to accept that you may make mistakes. Maybe you can view yourself as someone that is confident in your abilities; someone that can handle anything thrown your way. No matter which identity is the source of your insecurity, this tool creates lasting change.
The first step is to have the courage to be vulnerable and honest with yourself about yourself. Through confrontation, you can understand which of your identities are harmful.
Next, use your gift of reason and memory to prove your harmful identity wrong. Wrack your brain for evidence contrary to your insecure identity.
Third, consider where your insecurities have led you. What undesirable impact have they had on your relationship with yourself and your loved ones?
Then, dwell on these harmful results to the point of anger. Let yourself get mad over the ridiculousness of believing something that is harmful and simply not true
Lastly, check in with yourself. Are your insecurities still present? If yes, rinse and repeat this process. If not, congrats! You now have a new identity without this insecurity.
Dealing with Regret spells out an example of the Identity Change Cycle thought process:
1) My constant feelings of regret are caused by some harmful thought patterns, indicating I view myself as someone unworthy of living a fulfilled life. I let my past haunt me because I do not see myself as someone with the self-respect to develop from my past mistakes.
2) These beliefs are not objectively true. I am worthy of satisfaction and behave with self-respect. In fact, I took the time yesterday to improve my writing skills because it brings me satisfaction. And today, I chose to exercise and eat healthy food because I respect myself.
3) These false beliefs have filled me with regrets. These regrets have kept me up at night, causing a detriment to my physical and mental health. These regrets have created insecurities. These insecurities have blocked me from creating healthy relationships and caused harm to those I care about.
4) This is ridiculous. Why should I continue to believe such things when they are neither true nor beneficial to me? This is not who I am.
Read Dealing with Regret for more background on identity and how it relates to this technique.
Insecurity is a major source of imaginary stress, but there is one last contributing factor.
Your stress could simply be a matter of habit. Sometimes it becomes a habit to visualize the worst case scenario, which naturally leads to stress. Habits - your repeated actions - are like your insecurities. They are dictated by your identity.
Habitual imaginary stress usually results from a defeatist attitude. Meaning you feel as though you have everything to lose and little to gain. For example, you may feel like your friendship is always on the line when you're speaking with your friends. Or that you are a failure if you don't get that job you're interviewing for.
As long as you view it as a learning opportunity, failure often leaves you in a better position than you started. Obviously success is preferable. But failure never puts you back to square one or behind. You get to move forward with new, useful knowledge. As you move through life, you have everything to gain and nothing to lose. You begin life with no knowledge and learn as life goes on.
Changing your identity from a defeatist to an optimist can help you see that the worst-case scenario isn't so bad. To employ this development, consider using the Identity Change Cycle discussed in the previous section.
While experiencing stress in its acute form is healthy, our bodies do not accommodate the chronic stressors of the modern world. Imaginary stress - the real stress you face from imagined situations - is a large component of chronic stress. And it is largely within your control. Reducing your imaginary stress is a surefire way to improve your wellbeing.
There are five primary sources of imaginary stress:
1) Poor nutrition
Like a well oiled machine, your body requires a quality source of fuel. Ensuring adequate magnesium, vitamin B6, probiotic, and zinc intake can ease your stress by giving your brain and body relaxation through GABA production. Inflammatory foods prevent GABA production, so its avoidance is crucial to stress relief.
One of the primary components of the human condition is struggle. We all crave it, as evidenced by its continuous theme in the classics. When you don't have substantial problems to solve, your brain creates problems. Enrich yourself with challenging activities to curb any imaginary stress from sneaking in
Sometimes you face problems that are challenging, but they are simply not meaningful to you. This absence of meaning manifests itself through procrastination. And when you procrastinate, stress builds from both imagined problems and your stale task looming over you. Meditation on the shortness of life can help you focus on activities that are meaningful to you.
Insecurity also leads you to stress over imaginary situations. Maintain a receptive attitude towards your emotions so you can begin the Identity Change Cycle. This cycle provides the methodology to remove any identity that underlies your insecurities. The Identity Change Cycle involves confronting your faulty identity, proving it wrong, considering the damage it has caused, and getting angry about said damage. Later, you evaluate if the insecurity continues, and repeat if needed.
The last source of imaginary stress is habit. Sometimes everything is going well for you, but you just have the bad habit of visualizing the worst. Changing your identity from a defeatist to optimistic attitude eliminates this source of stress. Use the Identity Change Cycle to convince yourself that you are not someone who worries about what could go wrong.
Blocking each of these streams is a bulletproof way to reduce your imaginary stress over time.
Stress management is vital for your health. And its skillset can quite literally change your life. In an age where you are constantly bombarded with stressors that wreak havoc on your body, consider the following question:
What is your plan to manage your stress levels?
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