Stress Thresholds and Chaos Theory

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the laws of thermodynamics, let me give you the skinny.

The Laws of Thermodynamics According to My Dad

  1. You can’t win
  2. You can’t break even
  3. Things are going to get worse before they get better
  4. Who says things are going to get better

Energy is neither created, nor destroyed. It changes form and dissipates energy. This is entropy. Entropy is the tendency for everything in the universe to move to disorganization. Entropy is always rising. So how does life evolve? How do we manage stress?

One day a scientist said to himself, self he said, “If entropy is always rising, and systems are constantly sliding towards chaos and disorganization, how did life evolve. How is it that life gets increasingly complex, not increasingly disorganized?”

Life isn’t always pretty, but we’re not primordial goo anymore. We have cells and organs and bones and muscles and advanced societies. How is it – with the law of increasing entropy which states that energy is always lost when energy transforms from one state to another, and that systems progress towards chaos – how is it that life evolved into more and more complex forms?

The scientist asked these questions, and then he did a lot of research. The results and conclusions won the scientist a Nobel Prize.

The crucial difference between the potential to move towards chaos, or increasing organization is simple. Some systems are open and exchange energy with their environment, and some systems are closed and do not. Closed systems always become disorganized with increasing entropy. Open systems can potentially reorganize in a way that can tolerate the rising entropy.

Think of a car engine. Engines burn gas and exchange air and exhaust and heat, but all these things are mechanical, not energetic. With time, with wear, and friction, things fall apart.

Now, you could argue that a human body falls apart over time, and you’d be right. My guess is that energy interactions are at the root of mortality. I would guess that any entity capable of perfect energy exchange with its environment would be immortal. But, I digress.

The human body is able to interact with its environment. It’s able to absorb and dissipate energy. When we become overwhelmed and stressed, we reach what’s called a threshold experience. It’s an upper limit of the stress we can tolerate.

Threshold experiences are super interesting because the law of rising entropy falls apart at the threshold.

At some point, an open system will become so overwhelmed that it reaches a threshold. It just can’t dissipate enough energy and continue functioning as it did.

Then one of two things can happen. Either the entire system breaks down and dies, or it spontaneously reorganizes at a higher level.

For example, the cells in your body reach a point where they either die, or divide. Cells do both in the human body. A cell can divide through a process of mitosis, or it can cease to exist.

Now, when I procrastinated in University, I pushed myself to a threshold. At that threshold, I was able to dissipate energy (thank you, cheebs) and reorganize with a new, higher threshold. I did this over and over. In some ways, procrastination spurred great leaps in my productivity.

Obviously, it’s not ideal to chronically put a system through that kind of stress. Ideally, you want to be dispelling entropy on the regular. When entropy builds up in the system, we become overloaded. There are different ways that people handle this.

People who are at the threshold can shutdown. They just stop taking in sensory input because anything more is more on the system . It’s like how people with depression don’t physically dilate their pupils as much as other people, or the way that their breathing is more shallow.

When people reach a threshold they can frantically try to dispel energy. Usually, this involves sex or drugs or alcohol or extreme sports, whatever the case may be.

Imagine you’re in a sinking boat. You can plug the hole, and this is like shutting down. Alternatively, you can bail like crazy, and this is like trying to dissipate energy.

These strategies might work temporarily. The issue with these strategies is that the next time you’re in a similar situation, you become overwhelmed again, and react in the same way. It becomes a vicious circle. What I’ve learned is that it’s possible to raise your threshold  and become capable of more than you ever thought you could handle.

Face it, sometimes life is a shit storm. Deadlines, death and illness: stress comes to us in many ways. I dealt with a lot of stress. I tried shutting myself down. I tried dissipating energy. It was all so exhausting. It didn’t feel good.

One day, my parents wound up in opposite ends of the emergency room. Momz was ill, so dad took her to the hospital. He collapsed in the ER waiting room. My life was a shit storm that day. I felt like a ping pong ball.

Finally, I stopped fighting the stress. I stopped trying to not be overwhelmed. I let it happen. I experienced it, and I moved on.

There is a difference not resisting something and agreeing with it.  I may not have enjoyed the fact that I was super-overwhelmed and I’m dealing with both parents in hospital. Nobody enjoys being in that situation, but I handled it.

I don’t think I would have been able to do any of that if I hadn’t already raised my stress threshold through prior shit storms. I am thoroughly convinced that the only way to raise your threshold is by first experimenting with reaching your threshold, and dealing with it in a not-so-good way.

Interesting to note is that my threshold was getting raised before I even understood the concept of the threshold. This means your threshold naturally wants to rise. It’s a horrible, back-handed gift.

If you want to discover where your threshold is, remember times in your life when you felt depressed, or when you acted out. Notice the patterns in your behaviour. When you notice where your addictions are, you’ve found your threshold. Temptations and weaknesses lie at the door to your threshold.

Remember the next time you’re fighting a feeling of overwhelm, or facing a time when you don’t know how you’re going to make it through, when you’re in that situation, I want you to consider said it is also an opportunity.

As much as it sucks, and as much as I feel for you going through all that, it is possible to raise the level of your threshold and become more resilient and adaptable. Become aware of these threshold moments.

Experience it, learn from it and let it go. Inside your mind, with a curious spirit say,”Interesting! There I am approaching my threshold. I can tell him approaching my threshold because of – whatever.” The point is to be aware, without resisting.

Whatever your particular threshold behaviour habit might be, start becoming aware of it. Then, stop struggling . You don’t have to like what’s happening, but resistance is the essence of pain. It won’t help you.

Stand aside in your own mind and just be aware of what’s happening. Witness it without becoming emotionally involved.

Respond instead of reacting. By curiously looking at yourself in the situation, like a fly on the wall, you will create distance. That distance dissociates or separates you from the experience a little, so it’s easier to manage your emotional state.

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