Remember the old parable about the fish, the one where they do not know they are in water? Derek Sivers talked about it in describing water as culture. And David Foster Wallace used it to start his famous 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College. I heard it again last week in the Building Resilience for Humanitarians online course, when it was used to describe chronic stress.
So the story goes like this….two young fish are swimming along in the river. A big, older fish comes swimming by and as he passes the two young fish, he asks them “how’s the water?” After they swim away, the one young fish turns to the other and says, “what’s water?” The fish do not even know that they are in water! That is how it is sometimes with chronic stress. We may not notice it as it builds up over time. We adapt. We keep swimming. We may not notice our own water.
In the last post (found here), I reviewed the three types of stress. Remember, stress is a neutral term, which means pressure on a system. Now, let us consider acute vs. chronic stress and how they might affect our wellbeing.
Acute stress is a normal part of everyday life and helps our stress response system stay prepared and ready. Acute stress is when we experience a sudden or immediate stressor that affects us physically, emotionally or mentally. For many of us, acute stress might be an argument with a loved one, or family member, or a traffic jam, or a Netflix show, like a violent moment on Ozark. It is sudden, activating, but does not last long. When I was taking the Resilience course, I thought about the clients whom we serve at the IRC (International Rescue Committee), and how many of them have suffered incidents of acute stress in the way of border check points, bombs, explosions, or terrorist activities.
On the other hand, chronic stress is longer-term, when we are repeatedly exposed to the same stressor, or many different stressors over time. Chronic stress describes the gradual build up of these low-grade stressors. For our IRC clients this could mean the chronic stress of being displaced from their homes and living in a refugee camp for many years, as many of our Congolese clients spent years in Ugandan camps before arriving in Charlottesville. Chronic stress relates to actions that occur on a daily or regular basis that take a toll and hinder our mental, emotional, or physical health. Sometimes we are aware of them, but often we may not be, just like the fish in water. We keep swimming.
Whether or not we realize it, stress affects us in many ways, physically, mentally, emotionally. Like the young fish from the story, we may not know that we are in the water at all. When we experience the water that is chronic stress, we often just keep swimming along, through the increasingly choppy or crashing waves, not knowing we are in the water. Not knowing that there are better ways to ride the waves.