You have probably read by now that stress-related diseases and conditions rank among the top contributors to our country’s healthcare expenses. Many sources suggest that up to 85 percent of all doctor’s-office visits are in some way tied to stress.
One reason for that: Most people don’t really understand the powerful ability stress has to decimate their health, or by what mechanisms, or what they can do about it.
Nobody teaches us that stuff. Which means that most of us have to learn it for ourselves — the hard way.
That was certainly true for me. I’ve written at length about some of my more salient stress lessons: The time my eyelashes fell out; the time I got a stubborn rash on my face; the time I broke my own foot stomping in frustration; the countless times I struggled to sleep, or felt my inner taskmaster turn into a bullying abuser of every biochemical and neurological system it could lay its nasty hands on.
I’ve also written quite a bit about the strategies I’ve used (and still rely on constantly) to reduce, manage, and offset stress. I’ll share some of those with you in a moment. But first, I want to talk about juju.
“Juju” is not a scientific term. It’s a word (of West African origin) that refers to a special sort of magic — a power believed to be associated with certain objects and conferred upon those who own or touch them.
According to the shamanistic traditions that believe in such things, there’s good juju and bad juju. You definitely want the good kind, which is thought to be protective, energizing, and happiness-bringing. The bad kind, well, it’s bad. So let’s stick with the good kind for now.
In modern-day slang, “juju” has taken on a broader, more secular meaning. It typically refers to a sort of positive, ineffable, magnetic power — an energy, feeling, or vibe that any of us can create, give off, or experience (in some cases without even realizing it). But when it’s not there, or when bad juju is present, we tend to feel drained. We sense that things are off.
Here’s what I’ve noticed about juju, healthwise: A decline in good juju both signals and compounds the decline of resiliency, as well as the onset of body-damaging stress.
When you are stressed out, your juju is one of the first things to go. You feel less positive and energetic. You are less open and receptive, more reactive and critical about everything around you. And the less good juju you have, the more vulnerable you become to stress’s physiological effects.
Feeling stressed out and run down leaves you at the mercy of cravings, temptation, and bad decisions — about what you eat and drink, whether or not you exercise, how much TV you watch, when (or if) you leave work, when you go to bed, and so on.
On the one hand, we’re inclined to think we deserve indulgent and unhealthy things as “rewards” or consolation for what we are enduring (or as an antidote to what we are feeling), even when those things (sugar, fried foods, alcohol, late nights, serial-TV binges) tend to make things much harder on our bodies and minds.
And on the other hand, we may feel that we deserve punishment for somehow not being good enough (because if only we and our lives were perfect, we wouldn’t be having all these challenges, right?).
Carrying this sense of shame can lead us to deny ourselves access to good nutrition, activity, rest, breaks, connection, sleep, sacred space, and self-care of any kind.
Meanwhile, a distracted, reactive, or urgent state of mind can also lead to rushing, carelessness, reduced body consciousness, tunnel vision, and accidents. It’s when you’re most stressed out and moving too fast that you’re also most likely to stub your toe, trip and fall, strain your back, break a glass, slam your finger in a drawer, cut yourself shaving, or pull out into traffic without looking.
Perhaps worst of all, feeling freaked out can lead us to distance ourselves from, snap at, or avoid the very people who might otherwise help us access the perspective, support, and comfort we need to recognize and break out of our stress cycle. We steer clear of precisely the people who might encourage us to pause, who might remind us what really matters, who might empower us to feel better.
As noted, all of these problem dynamics tend to be the cause as well as the result of a reduction in good juju, and thus, instigators of a vicious cycle in which your juju is continuously depleted.
So, how can you turn things around? How can you reclaim your healthy juju and get your vitality back on track?
- First, know what breaks you down. Lack of rest and sleep; lack of nutrition and hydration; lack of movement; lack of exposure to nature and sunshine; lack of connection to loved ones; lack of recovery time and margins in your schedule; lack of purpose-centered decision-making. All these things are powerful juju killers, and in combination, they are particularly devastating.
- Second, recognize that a state of chronic stress and reactivity breeds body problems. The cortisol and adrenaline overload triggered by low-juju living overstimulates the sympathetic nervous system, producing inflammation, hormone imbalances, digestive troubles, skin eruptions, tooth grinding, headaches, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and more. A lack of rest, relaxation, laughter, human connection, physical touch, and healthy pleasures further depresses the parasympathetic nervous system, undermining our immune and healing response, reducing the release of anti-aging sex hormones and feel-good neurotransmitters, and leaving us vulnerable to depression.
- Third, decide that you will make juju defense a priority. That means learning to see self-destructive tendencies when they crop up, and before they take you down. It means noticing when your juju is running low. It also means regarding certain daily, self-sustaining acts — such as eating healthy meals, drinking water, taking your vitamins, bonding with your partner, meditating, and getting enough activity and sleep — to be inalienable rights.
- Fourth, accept that you, and only you, can be responsible for your well-being. Other people’s expectations of you may always be something other than what you feel inspired to give, or capable of sustainably giving. And that tension can be the root of so much miserable self-shredding. If you feel you can’t possibly do, deliver, or produce what others are needing or wanting of you, learn to challenge your thoughts (Byron Katie is my favorite expert on that topic). Challenge your shame (reading Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly was hugely helpful for me). Become a steward of your juju, and a student of juju-related science and psychology.
Above all, know that your juju matters — not just to you, but to everybody around you. Because good juju breeds more good juju. And this multichallenged world of ours can never have too much of that.