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*Editor’s Note: Elephant is not your doctor or hospital. Our lawyers would say “this web site is not designed to, and should not be construed to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, or treatment to you or any other individual, and is not intended as a substitute for medical or professional care and treatment. Always consult a health professional before trying out new home therapies or changing your diet.” But we can’t afford lawyers, and you knew all that. ~ Ed.
*This is an excerpt from Ashley Anne’s book, Love Yourself First: 12 Lifestyle Lessons on Prioritizing Your Person.
Humanity has come pretty far.
It wasn’t too long ago that we were slinging poo outside our windows and drinking milk that made us sick. But then we discovered little organisms called bacteria and developed ways to overcome them. We figured out more sanitary ways to manage our waste and invented technologies like pasteurization and refrigeration to keep our milk from curdling.
These upgrades increased our quality of life and allowed many humans to live healthier, longer lives. Whereas polio, tuberculosis, and what we now consider bouts of everyday diarrhea used to be life-threatening for people not so long ago, in many parts of the world today, technology, innovation, and common sense have elevated our species out of the food chain and into a reality where we don’t have to worry about the same threats to life as our ancestors.
Instead, most people in the 21st century suffer from what we call lifestyle-related disease and disorder, such as chronic pain, cancer, heart disease, reproductive problems, diabetes, depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress, and suicide.
These are ailments associated with a certain way of living—overeating, not exercising, being subjected to a life of economic and institutionalized oppression, growing up in an impoverished area without access to good food, being exposed to violence, or existing under the thumb of a government that actively attacks your reproductive rights.
While some of the factors in lifestyle are influenced by culture and institutions, the good news is that most of the ingredients in living a good life are in our control. We can control our sleep habits, exercise, and be conscious about what we eat. We can also manage stress, learn to meditate, and surround ourselves with people who lift us up. These are all lifestyle habits we know contribute to health and happiness overall. The tricky thing about lifestyle though is that it is, in fact, something we must control.
Despite what many pharmaceutical companies will tell you, there isn’t a magic pill that cures lifestyle-related disease and disorder. This is why many of the issues mentioned become chronic and life-threatening for many people.
The quickest path to health and happiness is no longer in the hands of our doctor, but instead falls in ours. The best news is that once we start taking responsibility for our lives, there are no limits to what we can do.
It’s no question that lifestyle matters. How we live life can be the difference between a journey of longevity or one that leads to an early grave, so it’s important that we understand exactly what lifestyle is.
Lifestyle is what it sounds like: the style in which you live your life. Much like we style our hair, choose our clothes, and decorate our home, we have a unique style for how we live our life. So that we can have a more meaningful conversation, let’s separate lifestyle into its two parts: life and style.
What is Life?
Life is the series of situations that we experience between incarnation and death. If you believe our souls experience multiple lifetimes like I do, then life would be the series of situations that occur between each incarnation and death. Another word to describe situations you experience is stress. On a fundamental level, stress is any situation that requires us to change.
If we feel hungry, this situation requires that we eat. If we feel tired, this situation requires us to sleep. If someone steps on our toe, this requires us to find a way to move them off of it. If a hurricane is on its way, the situation requires us to either evacuate or take cover.
The word stress describes the millions of moments we encounter every day that require a response from us. It captures everything from the minutiae of day-to-day life to the magnificent moments that change it forever.
Even though we might prefer some stressful situations over others—for example, a birthday party over a funeral—stress itself is not inherently good or bad. It just is.
Stress is a very important part of being human. As long as stress is happening, we are alive. So when it comes to lifestyle, stress is the life part of it: Life = Stress.
What is Style?
If stress describes the situations in life, style is the way we respond to those situations. Our style is how we feel, think, and act. For example, if I wake up confident (feel), I might be more likely to believe in myself (think) and finally ask for that promotion at work (act).
Each of us has a unique way of responding to situations, and this has everything to do with the style part of lifestyle: Style = Response.
“Life Style” is thus the “Stress Response.”
Lifestyle-related problems—in the form of physical discomfort, mental distress, and relational discord—develop when our feelings, thoughts, and actions insufficiently respond to the stress in life. We now know for sure that a poor stress response can make us physically, mentally, and relationally sick.
Being sick makes all of life more difficult. When the body is in pain, it can feel as though it’s betraying us, interfering with the way we want to move and engage in the world. When the mind is muddied, it’s easy to believe the thoughts of self-doubt and self-criticism which inevitably lead to self-sabotage. And when relationships are marked by mistrust, separation, and shame, it’s almost impossible to feel the beautiful belonging we all deserve.
Designing a lifestyle that keeps us happy, healthy, and whole is a critical part of increasing our healthspan (the period of time we are without illness) and nurturing longevity (the amount of time we live).
In fact, I believe lifestyle should be fun! You are a Divine being destined to create a life that lights you up. Life should be a pleasurable roller coaster of pleasant surprises—most of the time.
To make this happen, we need to optimize the stress response. Even more specifically: we need to respond to situations in life in ways that keep our mind happy, our body healthy, and our relationships filled with wealth and freedom.
As a neurocounselor, it’s my job to take complex neuroscience research and make it accessible and usable by people just like you. Early in my career, I specialized in working with survivors of trauma, and because trauma is simply the stress response on steroids, I learned all about how to support people in optimizing the way they respond to stress. Now you know that addressing stress also has everything to do with teaching people how to optimize their lifestyle.
As a result, I also became specialized in helping people implement Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes, or TLCs. TLCs are intentional and therapeutic adaptations to how we feel, what we think, and how we act so that we are happier, healthier, wealthier, and more free. How we act is an especially impactful aspect of lifestyle because action is related to how we communicate, eat, exercise, sleep, rest, connect, and serve.
Most of us know the actions we need to take to be more happy and healthy, but even the best of us can struggle implementing lifestyle practices that are rooted in wisdom and wellness. If you’ve ever tried to change your diet, begin an exercise program, or end a toxic relationship, you know what I’m talking about. Sometimes you simply cannot keep your hand out of the cookie jar.
In these moments, it’s easy to feel as though actions aren’t in our control because we act as though we’re on autopilot. That’s because we are.
The most important thing we need to understand is that all action has roots in one thing: feeling. The body is filled with neural circuitry designed to keep us alive and thriving each and every day. These are called affective systems, and they automatically turn on in response to situations in your life (remember, situations are stress).
If you see someone crying, affective systems turn on to motivate you to reach out for a hug. If you’re walking alone on a dark night and a shadowy figure appears, affective systems turn on to give you the energy to cross the street. If you’ve just won a basketball game, affective systems also create magical motivation for you to celebrate your success.
Affective systems make us feel a certain way so we will think a certain way and then act a certain way. The root of all our behavior, habits, and automatic impulses (helpful or not) is how our affective systems work. If you want to do something differently in your life, you must first learn to feel a different way.
The way we feel is everything, and if we want to change what we do, we need to start addressing feelings first. Prioritize feeling good and everything will follow.