Seeking Serenity: The 10 New Rules for Health and Happiness in the Age of Anxiety

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9780451471512: Seeking Serenity: The 10 New Rules for Health and Happiness in the Age of Anxiety

In a provocative and practical look at modern stress, Seeking Serenity offers an empowering new message: Stress can serve as a guide to living our happiest and healthiest lives.  

In Seeking Serenity, stress columnist Amanda Enayati challenges our long-held assumptions about stress, painting a groundbreaking picture that separates myth from reality when it comes to what is commonly referred to as the plague of modern life. Weaving together stories, research from science, history, philosophy and diverse faiths, and everyday exercises, she crafts a fascinating tale that begins with the behind-the-scenes machinations of corporate villains and ends in the power of our stories to shape our realities.

We are living in an era of dramatic highs and lows, with lives that move at a pace and intensity impossible at any other time in history. These contradictions throw us off-kilter, out of harmony and balance, creating what we perceive as never-ending and destructive cycles of stress. But life itself has always been—and will always be—a series of fluctuations: the good days, the bad days, the excruciating days. The key to mastering stress lies in the way we experience it.

Seeking Serenity presents ten revolutionary principles developed from the emerging science of stress and reinforced by literature, philosophy and age-old spiritual wisdom that help us to differentiate between destructive and constructive stress, and to master stress in the everyday by learning how to:

  • Shift our perceptions to interpret inevitable challenges in a way that serves us better;
  • Embrace a narrative that casts stress as a pathway to adaptation and growth; and
  • Commit to breaks, buffers, and protective practices that will minimize and neutralize the adverse impacts of toxic stress.
Drawing on extensive research and remarkable case studies, Seeking Serenity presents a clear and accessible action plan to achieving more joyful and productive lives, stronger communities and a better world.

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About the Author:

Amanda Enayati is a columnist, author and speaker whose essays about stress, happiness, creativity, technology and identity have appeared widely, including on CNN, PBS, NPR, Time Healthland, The Washington Post, Salon, Reader’s Digest. As a contributor for CNN Health, she began examining the quest for well-being and life balance in her column Seeking Serenity, in 2011. She is also the stress and technology correspondent for PBS MediaShift. She lives with her husband and two children in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

 

INTRODUCTION

People often chuckle when I tell them I am a stress columnist. I will grant that it is an odd title, but the job itself—examining stress and its impacts—has become crucial in modern life.

My journey into the stress vortex began in late 2010 when I wrote two series of essays for CNN.com: one about the milestones of my brawl with cancer and the other about parenting toddlers in the wake of a health crisis. A few months after the latter, Mary Carter, who ran CNN Health in those days, asked me to give her a call.

“We are going back to the basics,” she told me. “We have sex and sleep covered. I need you to write about stress.”

Stress.

Her suggestion blindsided me. I was, in spite of my relative youth, already an old pro at full-catastrophe living—that is, constant disaster punctuated by brief periods of quiet. Because of this, stress was my default; it was the “normal” I accepted as status quo and not something to be questioned. The idea of exploring stress, writing about it and finding ways to manage and alleviate it, seemed strange. I was also far more interested in writing about other health topics. Three years out from a scrape with death, I had a bone to pick with our culture’s very linear way of thinking about health and illness.

“I want you to take our readers into the stress vortex,” she continued. “People are half out of their minds with stress. Tell them how to help themselves.”

I opened my mouth to protest, to tell Mary that I didn’t know the first thing about stress.

And then closed it.

This was not strictly true.

I was, in fact, Waldo in the Where’s Waldo of stressful life circumstances: As a young child, I had been banished from my homeland because of my faith, then virtually orphaned for years in the wake of exile. In my adult life I spent years as a desperately unhappy Big Firm lawyer, someone who was standing in the shadows of the Twin Towers on the day they crumbled, and who suffered a vicious depression afterward. And then, the final insult: late-stage cancer in my thirties. Surgery, six rounds of high-dose chemo and radiation later, the fact that I was still standing was something of a miracle, given the odds of survival I had been quoted three years earlier.

The book of my life was a virtual encyclopedia of disaster. What didn’t I know about stress?

It was a compelling proposition. I had researched and read reams across a variety of disciplines—science, philosophy, self-help and spirituality—in the wake of my various catastrophes. And all that information and advice resonated, more or less, as I read the books. But it stuck only in the way New Year’s resolutions stick—for days, weeks, sometimes months. The clarity was always somehow transient. Eventually it dissipated, and sooner rather than later. Lasting peace proved itself elusive.

In the end, it was the name of the column that clinched the deal for me.

“Seeking Serenity,” we decided after volleying several options back and forth. “The quest for well-being and life balance in stressful times.”

I remember turning the words over in my head. It was a quest—it said so in the title. No promises.

I can do this, I thought. I can seek serenity.

As for the prospect of well-being and life balance in stressful times, was that even possible? If so, I wanted it badly.

It was not until much later that I wondered at the mysterious forces that had set me on this path. All I knew then was that my editor was sending me on an assignment with stress as a road map. Two weeks later I officially entered the stress vortex. It would be the journey of a lifetime.

 

 

PART ONE

One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.

—ANDRÉ GIDE

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

The restaurant is called Café Gratitude. It originated, unsurprisingly, in Northern California. And if the vegan establishment’s name doesn’t adequately give away its bohemian spirit, the menu puts all doubt to rest.

On a given morning, you might decide to order pancakes.

“I am openhearted,” you will say.

Or a bowl of porridge: “I am free.”

“I am radiant” begets a mimosa; “I am courageous,” a coffee.

The entire menu forms a small universe of affirmations, mantras that you might whisper to yourself (cringing, perhaps) as you decide what you want to eat. Then you will repeat the mantras once again to the server. You may even giggle or blush as you say them out loud.

The idea of ordering food through sunny self-affirmations is rooted in the founders’ belief, well established by science, that practicing gratitude in our daily lives is life changing.

But there is something else there too: the fundamental truth that our words matter. That the words we repeat to ourselves over and over again surround us, hypnotize us somehow. They take shape to form our stories, the core of our beliefs, the fabric of our existence.

“Storytelling is the great democracy,” National Book Award–winning novelist Colum McCann once told me. “We all want to—need to—tell our stories. There is a certain catharsis in being able to tell your story, in confronting your demons.”

But there are stories that serve us. And stories that don’t.

What are the stories that you repeat to yourself over and over again? How mindful are you of your unspoken mantras? What are the threads that run through your everyday and, eventually, your entire life?

I am smart.

I am alone.

I am always late.

I am a fake.

Consider this mantra: I am stressed.

Think about how many times on any given day you hear some version of it thrown about, whether in casual conversation or grave circumstances. How stressful! I was stressing hard! He stresses me out! Or some other variation of the same: She is so type A.

How often do we think about stress, repeat its perverse mantra to ourselves, hear it echoed back to us from a diverse array of sources, both public and intimate, both within our heads and without, written, spoken or otherwise signaled? In what ways does stress weave itself into the fabric of our lives?

The View from the Trenches

Nor is all that stress just in our imagination. So many of us feel besieged by what the World Health Organization has referred to as the health epidemic of the twenty-first century. Between 70 to 90 percent of primary care doctors’ visits are attributed to stress, which is also said to cost American companies as much as $300 billion a year.1

The past few decades have seen increased scientific understanding of stress pathways, the impact of stress on our bodies and minds, and the populations that suffer most from stress and why. Not only have scientists grown highly adept at measuring stress, but soon even the average person on the street will be able to use his smartphone to measure and confirm just how stressed out he might be in real time.2

Americans now suffer from an array of diseases that are either rooted in or worsened by stress. We can trace its pernicious impact as the common thread that runs through some of our deadliest public health crises—obesity, diabetes, depression, suicide, cancer, among others. And the sense of pervasive stress has trickled down to the youngest among us, who are mirroring adults’ worries, but with far greater consequence and lasting impact.3

What besieges us so? The common themes emerging from polls and surveys should come as no surprise: health, jobs, finances, relationships, parenting and an ever-present sense of overwhelm regularly top the lists. A July 2014 poll by the Harvard School of Public Health, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and NPR found that almost half the public had experienced a major stress in the past year. Of those, nearly half were related to health. Others reported that too many overall responsibilities and financial problems were major contributors to their stress. Also in the highest-stressed categories: people living with chronic illness and disabilities, those with annual incomes under $20,000, people facing potentially dangerous situations in their jobs, single parents and parents of teens.

In the face of all this, is it possible to craft a meaningful set of rules to address stressful situations as diverse as job loss, health crises and disobedient teenagers on the one hand, and political discord, global warming and even war on the other? I spent those first years in the trenches writing doggedly about stress from every angle: I filed columns about relationship stress, work stress, job hunting stress, traffic stress, back-to-school stress, recession stress, stress among children, stress among the elderly . . . I wrote about lawyers gone Zen and meditating tech titans, athletes and bestselling authors. In column after column, I provided a laundry list of tips to help people through difficult circumstances.

Nearly everyone who discovered what I did for a living asked me some variation of the same question: How can I manage all this stress in my life? It was a veritable feast of distress and, at least according to a couple of surveys, I was a top influencer on the subject.

At some point my work began to take on a certain hamster-in-the-hamster-wheel feeling. With each new survey, study and product, the picture of stress grew more dismal and its impact more overwhelming.

The sense that things were not adding up began as a background whisper late in Year One and grew into a full roar as the next year wore on. Given how much I had hated being a lawyer, help came from the unlikeliest place: my legal training. In the first year of law school, students are assigned to read cases, dozens and dozens of them. When enough cases are read about a particular area of the law, patterns emerge. Eventually those patterns fit together to form an even larger context and meaning. This process is called “synthesis,” and, as you might imagine, most law students become quite adept at synthesizing cases. It becomes second nature.

I had started my assignment with the baseline assumptions shared by most of us: Stress is pervasive. It is damaging. It can disable and even kill. We must find ways to avoid and minimize the stress in our lives.

These were not unreasonable assumptions, given the vast amount of research that points to the adverse impacts of stress.

But there was more—so much more—missing from the larger conversation about this health crisis: critical context that came not just from science but also philosophy, history, religion and other disciplines. Once these new pieces entered the equation, the picture of stress—our current cultural narrative of stress—began to change and a new picture began to emerge, as yet hazy and uncertain, but something important nonetheless.

Then, one day, more than a year after I had begun my journey into the stress vortex, the pieces finally took shape for me. There, suddenly, it stood: the reality of stress.

And it was not at all what I had imagined it to be.

The Elephant in the Room

There are many variations of the tale of the wise men and the elephant. The version I heard as a child in Iran, “An Elephant in the Dark,” is by the Sufi mystic and poet Rumi:

 

Some Hindus have an elephant to show.

No one here has ever seen an elephant.

They bring it at night to a dark room.

One by one, we go in the dark and come out

saying how we experience the animal.

One of us happens to touch the trunk.

“A water-pipe kind of creature.”

Another, the ear. “A very strong, always moving

back and forth, fan-animal.”

Another, the leg. “I find it still,

like a column on a temple.”

Another touches the curved back.

“A leathery throne.”

Another, the cleverest, feels the tusk.

“A rounded sword made of porcelain.”

He’s proud of his description.

Each of us touches one place

and understands the whole that way.

The palm and the fingers feeling in the dark are

how the senses explore the reality of the elephant.

If each of us held a candle there,

and if we went in together,

we could see it.

 

For many of us, stress has become that unknown elephant in a dark room. We do our best to feel around in the dark, to understand the whole by fumbling at pieces. Ultimately it is ever present—too close for comfort and too big to ignore. And yet a sense of the beast in its entirety eludes us.

This is why most of us cannot find lasting relief from stress. This is probably why you have picked up this book. Why it may not be your first (or fifth, or tenth) attempt to address the constant sense of overwhelm in your life. Why you may well have a nightstand/bookshelf/cupboard/desk/computer/smartphone overflowing with books/articles/apps promising relief. And why you are here, at this pass, yet again.

You are not alone.

Since 2007 the American Psychological Association has conducted an annual survey called “Stress in America.” As you might imagine, the survey findings do not bode well for us. The 2013 survey reported “a scenario in which Americans consistently experience stress at levels higher than what they think is healthy.”4

We are constantly exhorted to “avoid all stress.” We do our best to follow this advice—so much so that stress and ways to relieve it have become big business. Entire industries have sprung up, simultaneously promising greater happiness and less stress.

The books, apps, gadgets and gizmos intended to help with stress relief and, more generally, happiness could fill a small warehouse. At last check, Amazon had more than thirty thousand books on the subjects. There are books by scientists, books by spiritualists, self-help books, stress reduction workbooks for women and for children; there are tomes on decluttering, mindfulness and yoga, books on stress physiology and stress management for dummies, not to mention memoirs devoted to stress relief and its first cousin, happiness.

Billions of dollars, millions of Google search results, dozens of bestsellers and self-styled gurus later, and yet the stress-free lives we long for continue to elude us. All indications are that the advice to “avoid stress” is a futile strategy when it comes to the runaway anxieties of our modern lives.5 Which only makes us doubly stressed: We are now also stressed about being stressed!

“Is ‘Stressed Out’ the New Normal?” asked the American Psychological Association in 2013.

Why?

Why exactly is stress so bad now? Didn’t our ancestors have to outrun a mountain lion or two on their way back from fetching dinner? Didn’t they have to survive plagues, floods, famines and depressions? Fight world wars? Compared with our hardy forebears, we live in relative ease. How did we end up with this modern burden of living in one of the most trying times in the history of humankind? What changed?

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

In his 1948 Pulitzer Prize–winning poem The Age of Anxiety, W. H. Auden sought to examine humanity’s que...

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Book Description Berkley Books, 2015. Hardback. Book Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. In a provocative and practical look at modern stress, Seeking Serenity offers an empowering new message: Stress can serve as a guide to living our happiest and healthiest lives. In Seeking Serenity, stress columnist Amanda Enayati challenges our long-held assumptions about stress, painting a groundbreaking picture that separates myth from reality when it comes to what is commonly referred to as the plague of modern life. Weaving together stories, research from science, history, philosophy and diverse faiths, and everyday exercises, she crafts a fascinating tale that begins with the behind-the-scenes machinations of corporate villains and ends in the power of our stories to shape our realities. We are living in an era of dramatic highs and lows, with lives that move at a pace and intensity impossible at any other time in history. These contradictions throw us off-kilter, out of harmony and balance, creating what we perceive as never-ending and destructive cycles of stress. But life itself has always been--and will always be--a series of fluctuations: the good days, the bad days, the excruciating days. The key to mastering stress lies in the way we experience it. Seeking Serenity presents ten revolutionary principles developed from the emerging science of stress and reinforced by literature, philosophy and age-old spiritual wisdom that help us to differentiate between destructive and constructive stress, and to master stress in the everyday by learning how to: Shift our perceptions to interpret inevitable challenges in a way that serves us better;Embrace a narrative that casts stress as a pathway to adaptation and growth; andCommit to breaks, buffers, and protective practices that will minimize and neutralize the adverse impacts of toxic stress.Drawing on extensive research and remarkable case studies, Seeking Serenity presents a clear and accessible action plan to achieving more joyful and productive lives, stronger communities and a better world. Bookseller Inventory # NLF9780451471512

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Book Description Berkley Books, 2015. Hardback. Book Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. In a provocative and practical look at modern stress, Seeking Serenity offers an empowering new message: Stress can serve as a guide to living our happiest and healthiest lives. In Seeking Serenity, stress columnist Amanda Enayati challenges our long-held assumptions about stress, painting a groundbreaking picture that separates myth from reality when it comes to what is commonly referred to as the plague of modern life. Weaving together stories, research from science, history, philosophy and diverse faiths, and everyday exercises, she crafts a fascinating tale that begins with the behind-the-scenes machinations of corporate villains and ends in the power of our stories to shape our realities. We are living in an era of dramatic highs and lows, with lives that move at a pace and intensity impossible at any other time in history. These contradictions throw us off-kilter, out of harmony and balance, creating what we perceive as never-ending and destructive cycles of stress. But life itself has always been--and will always be--a series of fluctuations: the good days, the bad days, the excruciating days. The key to mastering stress lies in the way we experience it. Seeking Serenity presents ten revolutionary principles developed from the emerging science of stress and reinforced by literature, philosophy and age-old spiritual wisdom that help us to differentiate between destructive and constructive stress, and to master stress in the everyday by learning how to: Shift our perceptions to interpret inevitable challenges in a way that serves us better;Embrace a narrative that casts stress as a pathway to adaptation and growth; andCommit to breaks, buffers, and protective practices that will minimize and neutralize the adverse impacts of toxic stress.Drawing on extensive research and remarkable case studies, Seeking Serenity presents a clear and accessible action plan to achieving more joyful and productive lives, stronger communities and a better world. Bookseller Inventory # NLF9780451471512

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