snow cave

The Snow Cave Theory of Stress Overload

By Matthew Joyce

Whenever it snowed when I was a kid I raced over to my friend Chris’s house as soon as the roads were plowed. Chris lived on a cul-de-sac where the snow plows shoved all the snow from his street into a massive 10-12 foot (3.5 – 4.5 meter) tall mountain of snow that was perfect for making snow caves.

Chris and I would burrow our way into the frigid mound and carve out secret caves where we pretended to be arctic explorers or mountaineers trapped high on Mount Everest. It was all good fun until the roof of the snow cave collapsed on us, burying us alive under what might be hundreds of pounds (kilos) of snow.

Needless to say we always managed to dig our way out. And each time we did, we learned something new about how to build a better snow cave.

But I also learned something about dealing with stress

Doctors will tell you that stress is an adverse biological response that happens when an organism is subjected to forces it cannot adequately handle.

But you don’t need a medical definition to recognize the symptoms of stress. When you are feeling stressed you might feel short tempered, worried or anxious. You might feel tension, aches or pains. You might feel overwhelmed or have a hard time concentrating. You might express nervous habits like biting your nails or pacing.

When the snow caves collapsed on me I felt fear, tension, and worry about how I’d deal with the situation. I’ve felt that way many times in my life. Mostly when I wasn’t trapped under a smothering blanket of snow.

You don’t need a load of snow on your head to feel smothered by challenges that come up at work, by tensions that arise in a relationship, by problems with mechanical or electrical systems, or just by getting stuck in traffic. When you are feeling overwhelmed, any one of these issues can trigger a stressful response.

In fact, if you’re like many people you may think that troublesome external circumstances are the cause of stress.

At first glance it makes sense

If it wasn’t for the fact that the traffic was snarled, or the plumbing was stopped up, or your neighbor was too noisy, you wouldn’t feel stress as a result.

But blaming stress on external causes doesn’t completely explain the situation

Take the snow caves that Chris and I built as an example. Some of our caves collapsed because the sun melted the snow pile, or the rain washed it away, or bigger kids found the cave and jumped on the roof to knock it in.

But more often than not those external causes were not what brought the icy roof down on our heads.

More often the roof collapsed because of what we were doing inside the cave

Our snow caves imploded because we dug them too close to the surface so the roof was too thin. Or they caved in because we dug them too big. We made the span of the roof wider than the snow pack could support. Or we got carried away wrestling inside and our flailing arms and legs cracked the walls and weakened the structure.

In other words, while there were plenty of external reasons for the snow caves to collapse, the most frequent causes had to do with what was going inside.

It’s the same thing when you feel stress

If you operate on the theory that your stress is the result of external circumstances, then the obvious solution is to try to avoid stressful situations. But in the end that will be as futile an effort as Chris and I trying to keep the sun and rain off our snow cave.

Even if you don’t get stuck in traffic. Even if your plumbing works fine. Even if you have great neighbors. Some other issue is bound to come up. Life is chock full of stressors and you’re bound to encounter them one way or another.

So if you can’t avoid external stressors, what do you do?

You work on what’s happening on the inside.

Chris and I discovered that if we wanted our snow cave to last for weeks at a time it took more than merely digging the cave the right size and right distance from the surface. We also needed to reinforce the walls with extra snow to strengthen them and compensate for the melting.

At first we did this by piling more snow outside on the roof. Sometimes that worked, but other times the extra weight of the additional snow caused the cave to collapse. So instead we began reinforcing the snow cave from the inside. We would scoop up snow from the floor of the cave and pack it firmly onto the ceiling and walls.

This internal reinforcement worked amazingly well. As the pile melted on the outside, the roof thickness remained the same, and the cave floor crept lower at the same pace. In other words, we maintained an even equilibrium.

The same principle applies when it comes to managing your own internal stress

Doctors and conventional wisdom agree that the best way to reduce stress is to reinforce yourself on the inside by ensuring that you get enough sleep, eat well, exercise often, meditate, and talk about your troubles. It’s great advice and it often works, although it often sounds easier in theory than it is in practice.

Which is why it’s important to practice stress relief regularly

Chris and I practiced digging out of our collapsed snow caves with some regularity, and over time we got good at it. But more importantly with practice we learned how to avoid the stressful situations in the first place.

So the next time you find yourself in a stressful situation remind yourself that while you can’t always control external circumstances, it is empowering to realize that you do have control over your inner circumstances.

When you regularly practice taking good care of yourself, you’ll be more resilient and better able to respond to challenging external situations. Because just like with snow caves, the best way to deal with stress is to continually reinforce things from the inside.

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4 Responses to snow cave

  1. Allison says:

    Mstthew, I so enjoyed this article this morning! It’s so timely, and so real, and so humorous!
    Thank you for this nice Friday gift.

  2. Duff says:

    An excellent metaphor, Matthew! Reinforcing from the inside is often the greatest leverage point in reducing the experience of stress regardless of outside conditions.

    In addition, I do think it sometimes makes sense to remove one’s self from outer stresses, but not as a general rule. For instance, some workplaces or bosses are simply toxic! This is like trying to build a snow cave in an oven—no amount of inner reinforcements will ever work. Better to build your cave outside, or even in the shade! :)

    On the whole though, inner reinforcements work better as a general rule if the context is adequate for what you are attempting to do.

  3. Mindy says:

    Thanks Matthew for the timely birthday gift! It really brings home the message of coping and self-control. I always appreciate your thoughts!

  4. Tracy Stevens says:

    That was a great article. I love when metaphors so clearly explain something that we often have a tough time understanding. Thanks!

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