In a provocative and practical look at modern stress, Seeking Serenity by Amanda Enayati shows that even our children are affected by unneeded stress—and we can help stop it.
Early on in human history, stress played an important function. It usually was caused by a threat to one’s well-being, and would manifest itself as adrenaline to remove oneself from bodily harm (i.e., being chased by a bear signaled a fight-or-flight response). Our modern view of stress is quite different: now a flurry of emails while sitting in traffic can signal that same physiological response—without being able to expunge that extra adrenaline through action. We've gotten more and more stressed, and stress-related illnesses are more and more common.
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. And there is no better place to start than with our children.
I had a chance to interview the author to learn more.
In the book you describe how you initially felt unqualified when asked to write about stress. How did you change your mind?
Look at the turns my life has taken: from the very dramatic—escaping a revolution as a child refugee, moving to America, standing in the shadows of the Twin Towers on the day they collapsed, dealing with late-stage cancer as a young person—to the more ordinary, but also stressful: going to law school and working as a Big Firm lawyer, becoming a mother and trying to find that balance between family and work. Put all these together in one life, and I am arguably a perfect person to write a book about stress!
The thing is, when my brilliant CNN Health editor, Mary Carter, offered me a stress column on her page, I was three years out from a serious tangle with cancer. My prognosis had been poor, my recurrence chances were high, and I was sure that it was the combination of diet, exercise and mindfulness that had pushed the odds in my favor. And that is why I was so eager to tackle the importance of complementary treatments to healing. But, as John Lennon observed, life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. As it would turn out, stress was the perfect gateway to everything I wanted to research and write about.
One of my favorite things about the book is the way it focuses on a variety of elements - why did you take that approach?
You’ve probably heard some variation of the story of the wise men examining the elephant in the dark. One of them feels the trunk, the other feels the ear, the other the tusk and so on. Each describes the elephant differently. At the conclusion of his poem, “An Elephant in the Dark,” Rumi writes:
Each of us touches one place
and understands the whole that way …
If each of us held a candle there,
and if we went in together,
we could see it.
The more books and articles I read, the more experts, researchers, philosophers, historians and people of faith I interviewed, the more columns I wrote, the more I became convinced that when it comes to stress, we are trying to define the whole by its isolated pieces and coming up with an incomplete picture. I knew there was something there, but even I wasn’t prepared for the treasure map to living that would emerge when you put the pieces of stress together.
Do you feel less stressed than you were before you started writing about it?
It’s funny, ever since I became a “stress columnist,” people have asked me if I stress less. And the answer is that I relate to the inevitable stressors that happen to me in an entirely different way than I did in the past. Once you become aware of the often-unproductive stories you tell yourself about stress, your perception of everyday stressors changes. I am much more likely now to see stress across a spectrum, and to recognize and differentiate between good stress, toxic stress and tolerable stress.
I know that stress can be important, productive and even life saving, that short spurts of stress can help me focus, learn and perform better and sometimes even heal better from injury.
I welcome challenges that I might have avoided, resisted or lamented in the past, because I recognize adversity as the pathway to growth. The world’s greatest athletes willingly move into situations that test their limits. They make themselves uncomfortable and stay with that discomfort as long as they can in order to perform better. This is a very different way of looking at stress.
On the other hand, I also am aware of when the stress in my life may be becoming chronic and toxic, and I have strategies to address those circumstances as well.
What stress-relieving technique has been the most helpful for you?
There are as many stress-relief techniques as there are individuals. Nature in general makes me incredibly serene, as do books, bike rides and long walks with my children.
One of the simplest and best techniques is the deep cleansing breath. I teach this one to children: Take in a deep breath to the count of seven. Hold the breath for four counts while you imagine scrubbing your insides clean of stress, worries and negative feelings. Breathe out the “dirty air” to the count of eight. Repeat. The breath is transformative!