I once knew a woman who blew out the engine on her car without even leaving her parking space. Audré was extremely impatient, a highly competent perfectionist, and stress was her normal state. It was winter. Her car wasn’t warming up fast enough, so she whaled on the gas pedal. Pop went the weasel—in this case, a six-cylinder gasoline-powered engine. I’d never heard of this happening. Her reaction? She was mad at her car. Lesson to learn: The yin and yang of stress.
Ongoing stress is kind of like what Audré did to her Taurus: constant pressure with no transmission engaged to create motion.
Audré was using all yang energy: She wanted to get someplace, and she wasn’t listening to her car. Yang energy is the hands-down champion for exerting energy and executing. When we want to accomplish something, we use yang. Yin likes homeostasis, maintaining the equilibrium of all the vital processes that keep us alive. That’s how yin nurtures yang on a biochemical level.Yin—feminine, giving energy—is a bank that yang borrows from, and yang must stop from time to time to allow yin to replenish what was used up. In our current hopped-up yang society, where get-it-done energy is king, fueled by double espressos and caffeine-loaded energy drinks, this leads to all kinds of problems for our bodies—and our psyches. You see, filling our heads with can-do doesn’t leave room for thinking, mulling, and creativity—or anything faintly rejuvenating, like rest or relaxation or just being. We always think we can override our female energy in favor of doing. And when we are stressed, we use yang energy to keep our attention on what we’re concerned about—it might cause more anxiety to forget to worry about something.
Most of us are attached to our stress. We crave stress-free lives, we dream about lying on a beach somewhere away from everything and doing nothing but listening to the surf. Yet we are afraid to let go of the perpetual cycle of worry, anxiety, and running in place that we think is getting us somewhere.
There is a good reason for this: We think we need it to survive.
When something is looming, whether it is a project we want to excel at, a potential financial disaster, a series of medical tests, or anything we could be apprehensive about, we go into fight-or-flight mode. Yang energy is ready to deal with the threat; that is, yang wants to do something so it doesn’t upset homeostasis. But it may be weeks or longer before whatever it is can be resolved. Meanwhile, we are continually stressed out—revving the engine, pressing down on the gas pedal, but not able to put the car in gear and drive. This is when stress starts to have bad effects on our health. And when something in our lives is truly important, it is very hard not to think about it. It’s also almost impossible to have a rich quality of life when we are constantly in a yang state of I-need-to-do-something or I-need-to-keep-worrying.
In disentangling from the octopus of stress, we need to realize that until it’s resolved, our stressor will always win. It will always be there in one guise or another, while our bodies, being human, will break down. The situation doesn’t end when we’re sleeping. It’s there when we are eating, playing with our kids, showering, or talking with friends.
We can choose to remain in a heightened state of yang energy—on guard—or we can decide that we will deal with it the best we can, and then drop it to live our lives and engage in activities that restore and renew. When we do go back to dealing with our issue, we will be better able to focus if we have nurtured our yang energy.
I have seen both alternatives many times in family, friends, and patients. We’ve all been there. When we are living through stressful times, the one thing we have to do is treat ourselves like athletes in training. This means getting enough sleep, eating really well, exercising, and not doing anything that could damage our health, because we are already in a compromised state. At some point there may be an opportunity to make a situation better, and we need to be ready to take advantage of it.
Keeping our yang energy balanced with our yin is a healthy and effective way to forestall the negative effects of stress. The first step is to recognize the place yin and yang energy has in our lives, give our bodies and minds a break from the onslaught of yang, while we power down and yin out.