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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    The cheap cure to stress

    Where are you and what’s going on around you as you’re staring at this text? Take a moment to look up from the page. What do you see? Listen carefully; what can you hear happening in your immediate environment? What kind of smells are surrounding you?

    My apologies if you’re reading this on the john. But if you happen to be sitting on Heritage Hill, and the weather’s pleasant – maybe you’re waiting for class and have no pressing obligations – then I hope you’ll pause to recognize the simply glorious fact that you’re a physical being existing in a stimulating material world.

    Yeah, I know it sounds wacky and New Age. But you know what’s wackier? Stress and overstimulation. Stress as a concept has only existed for 70 years or so, but research has already linked it to everything from periodontal disease to heart problems to cancer (see the December issue of the Association for Psychological Science’s “”Observer””). In the many forms in which stress can occur, it is almost always related to an over-intense focus on the future, and what negative outcomes it might bring. As a January Daily Wildcat feature on stress pointed out, it can be particularly difficult for college students to appreciate and live in the present moment when concerns about balancing upcoming social encounters with approaching due dates are constantly weighing in.

    Many of our stress-related problems are worsened by the intense speed at which modern technology drives us, and by our growing dependence on media stimulation. Psychologists have already published a great deal of research on the stress induced by the high demand to respond to e-mails. Just Google “”overstimulization”” and two of the first 10 hits are blog entries expressing a fear of death due to sensory overload. In a world where computers wait for us at every corner and background music is constantly required, it sometimes seems like even going to sleep is difficult without the hum of a TV screen.

    Even our common solutions to stress are characterized by stimulation and mental activity. We get in touch with our bodies on machines at a crowded gym, and bring an iPod. Or we try meditation strategies with names and rules as elaborate and exotic as Starbucks orders.

    But if you really want something wacky, check this out: Daniela Villani and others are designing stress-reducing virtual reality programs which produce “”calm scenarios”” that are “”more vivid and real than what most subjects can create through their own imagination and memory”” (reported in the International Journal of Stress Management, August 2007). Has our society really gone so far that the only way to obtain a state of inner calm is through artificial experience via a machine?

    It seems as if we are only destined to get further away from the simple pleasures of basic physical existence – according to Ray Kurzweil’s concluding Edges of Life lecture at Centennial Hall, in 20 years we will be spending 50 percent of our time in virtual reality. This makes me a little nervous, given that I sometimes feel like I miss reality already.

    After all, when was the last time you really stopped to enjoy what was going on around you, independent of electronic stimulation and the demands of a pressing student, work or even relaxation schedule? When was the last time you cleared your mind and felt pure physical life pulsing through your body, the way dogs must when they roll on the grass?

    Can you remember a recent moment in which a stimulus as simple and natural as a beetle moving over a rock, or a train’s call in the distance, was enough to hold your attention? As Lao Tzu wrote, “”Few things under heaven are as instructive as the lessons of Silence, or as beneficial as the fruits of Non-Action.””

    I for one am going to try to restore some balance, setting aside time to minimize my own physical and mental output, and see how the present speaks to me. Starting tomorrow, for each of the next seven days, I’m going to sit on the UA Mall next to the cactus garden from 10 to 10:45 a.m. and think about nothing. Should you need a break from action, you’re welcome to join me.

    And if you were on the john, I hope you’re done by now.

    Daniel Sullivan is a senior majoring in German studies and psychology. He can be reached at

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