My bird, Pearl, is always freaking out about something.
Whether it is the sight of a butterfly flitting by outside, the sound of my large silver hairdryer, or the experience of watching Mommy round the corner and disappear from her line-of-sight view, the phrase I speak most frequently to my diminutive grey and white avian companion is a soothing, “Don’t worry”.
She never listens.
Freaking out is in a cockatiel’s nature, as it turns out. Every cockatiel I have ever known or owned has behaved similarly. What I marvel at is how the continual influx of stress doesn’t seem to bother Pearl much. If I spent my days freaking out as often as she does, I would be a nervous wreck. I might be dead.
But 10 healthy years into a predicted 20+ year lifespan, Pearl’s vet says she is doing just fine. She freaks, deals with it, and moves on. Like a small child or a tropical storm, the stress blows in, through, and out again, leaving no trace of its presence behind.
This is soooooo interesting to me.
What does Pearl know – and others of her kind – that we humans do not? Why is stress toxic to our collective systems, yet while Pearl experiences twice as much stress as I do (at least by all outward signs) she has to go to the vet in inverse proportion to the number of times I land in the doctor’s office annually?
Biologically speaking, repeated bouts with stress can build up a substance called cortisol (frequently dubbed “the stress hormone”) in our systems that can weaken our immune systems and leave us vulnerable to illness, disease, and death. The biological “fight or flight” syndrome that we share in common with our avian and mammalian counterparts is the trigger that causes our collective bodies to release cortisol, but that in and of itself is not negatively impactful to our health. Studies have shown that short periods of elevated cortisol levels in the body are not harmful in their own right.
What impacts our health is how quickly we can return ourselves – bodies, and especially in the case of human beings, minds – back to a state of calm once more (this is often called “the relaxation response” and represents the body’s equal and opposite reaction to the activation of the “fight or flight” response).
Pearl is quite simply better at this than I am. She freaks, then calms – observing her is like sitting on the shore watching the waves roll in and then back out again. The incoming tide is not more or less powerful than its outgoing counterpart. But for me, each incoming tidal wave generates a minor stress tsunami, both delaying a natural equal and opposite abatement response and elevating my cortisol levels to an unnecessarily extended and thus unhealthy high.
Pearl is simply experiencing “stress”, “relaxation”, “stress”, “relaxation”. What I am experiencing, however, amounts to stress to the power of stress.
So this is on my to-do list for what remains of this year, and next year, and for however long it takes to ensure I learn how to regulate both my personal biology and psychology to support staying healthy in body and mind. There are many “good” kinds of stress too that I don’t want to miss out on – but in order to have those, I have to learn how to greet stress when it arrives, and bid it adieu with expediency when it departs.
Today’s Takeaway: When it comes to stress, do you respond more like Pearl or more like me? Are you pleased with your ability to handle stress, or do you want to continue to work on this area of your life? Contemplating how we interact with the stress in our own lives can yield valuable information to help us deepen our enjoyment of life, no matter what may be going on in any given day.
Cockatiel photo available from Shutterstock
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Last reviewed: 2 Nov 2012