Stress and Agency

Dejected man sitting on sofa

Photo by Nik Shuliahin, Unsplash

In our reactions to this virus, we have ended up with a number of stressors that are literally sickening. For example, researchers have been telling us for a long time that isolating for long periods is correlated with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, weakened general immunity, a panoply of mental health problems, and susceptibility to dementia. We simply aren’t meant for it, in body or mind. Not receiving a paycheck can obviously be extraordinarily stressful, as is suddenly having to mind school-age children while also losing the social benefits of an office to work in. It seems that the cure might possibly be as bad or even worse than the disease.  (See “The Parable of the Coronavirus.”)

Medical doctors (and everyone else) understand very well, in biochemical terms, that stress has a huge impact on the health of the body’s various systems. We’ll point out for now that stress activates biochemical substances that create all manner of harm, and that is already plenty.  Therefore, we are being enjoined to do things that take the stress off: to take walks, exercise, enjoy some sun, and so forth. All good stuff.

However, many of us would note that we still feel very stressed. Like every feeling, that one has a purpose. One possible purpose, I think, is to let the body/mind complex know that there is something that must be examined, changed, and/or healed. But what is it? There are general and obvious answers to be sure, but for each of us there is often a deeper, very personal answer. To heal the deepest roots of fear and stress as they are lodged in our individual bodies, agency matters.

We are not likely to ever know, with this epidemic, what proportion of victims would never have gotten the sickness in the absence of profound stress.  For anyone who is personally fed up with all the illness-creating fear I have a few thoughts, none of which is particularly controversial but all of which require agency.

  1. Find a meditation practice or prayer practice that works for you, and a time to use it. The right practice will be transformative and you will never look at your life the same way again. You will look forward to it! You will find the grip of the news media loosening, and you will find yourself relaxed more often. You will have a resource to help you relax whenever you need it. You will be closer to your inner wisdom.
  2. Turn off the TV. It is an enemy of agency and a profound stressor (of course, depending on the particular programming). Similarly, monitor your internet habits. People often go searching for confirmation for the rightness of existing thought patterns on the internet, however distorted those may be. By normalizing stress, division, and fear, too many media outlets clear a pathway for illness. Don’t touch those with a six foot pole!
  3. To replace those stories and the place they occupy in your life, seek out books, YouTube videos, or recordings that get you mulling over ingredients for a more meaningful and satisfying life. Enjoy the pleasure of an opening mind. Read books that cause you to be reflective, that put you in touch with your feelings, maybe that inspire you to journal. I think any informational source that strikes you as capable of positive spin on your life is likely a good choice for you.
  4. It is worth giving some deliberate consideration to social media. Reports that they are stress inducing (and therefore degrade the immune system) are widespread. If you were to really observe the emotions that come up for you when you use them, I wonder what positives, and what negatives, you would notice. Only you can put an end to the roller coaster ride of social media!
  5. Remember that creative outlet you used to love so much? Drawing, playing the viola, woodworking, etc., etc.? The one you are afraid to return to because you think you won’t be good at it anymore? Forget perfect, and remember what it’s like to work creatively just for the joy of it. Our culture tragically discounts this, but ignoring creative urges can be literally sickening.
  6. Enjoy nature. It is soothing, it affords opportunities for exercise, to enjoy sun or maybe a cool breeze against the skin, the delightful sounds of rustling leaves, rushing water, the calls of birds and insects, etc.. The experience of beauty, wonder, and awe is critical to human wholeness (is it possible to believe otherwise?), with “whole” and “health” etymologically related.
  7. De-stress with some form of exercise that gets your heart pumping. (It is my responsibility to remind you to consult your health professional first.) Cardiovascular health is incredibly important for righting the wrongful, unhealthy states your body may have gotten into. Through the pumping of blood, oxygen as well as innumerable informational and health-conferring substances circulate through the body—like endorphins! (I personally have found bicycling to be an enormous resource during this trying time: it doesn’t require a gym and it puts me outdoors.)
  8. Instead of fear, spread appreciation and gratitude. It feels good, and it counters stress. Taking a few moments to appreciate someone will make a difference to them and you. These kinds of gestures literally create greater health for both parties. We really are in this together!

As in the previous page, nothing is particularly controversial here. It’s not surprising that nutrition and intentional stress reduction would positively influence human health, and the course of this pandemic.  Why so many pretend otherwise is a question worth thinking about.

On to more Vitamin A if you dare!


American Psychological Association. “Stress Weakens the Immune System.” 2006.

Richtel, Matt. An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System: A Tale in Four Lives. William Morrow, 2020.