Beijing, January 2008

Acute vs. Chronic Reactions

When I joined the Peace Corps, I was stationed in a small rural town named Comitancillo in the highlands of Guatemala. The population of the town was about 2,000; in addition, Comitancillo served as a commercial hub for thousands more people who lived in various villages. The most common mode of transportation was walking. The most common home was made of adobe.

After living in Comitancillo awhile, I was called back to Guatemala City to the Peace Corps central office. It was about a six-hour ride by chicken bus (the second most common mode of getting around after walking, chicken buses were de-commissioned school buses from the U.S. redecorated and repurposed to transport the population of Guatemala). I remember coming into the outskirts of Guatemala City and feeling culture shock from the number of vehicles on the road as well as from the signs and buildings. There was so much commerce, so many people, so much wealth…I remember feeling it in my body, a weird twisting sensation accompanied by disassociation.

I felt it even more acutely later on my way back to Comitancillo. Perhaps it was the same trip, perhaps it was a later trip. I had stopped in the city of Quetzaltenango (Xela for short) and I went into a shopping mall. I hadn’t been in anything like a shopping mall at any point in my training or during my time in Comitancillo, so it had been months since I had had the mall experience. Again, I felt it in my body — a faint nausea and lack of ease, apparently brought on by the fluorescent lighting, loud sounds, crowds of people and signs of commerce assaulting my senses.

I realized that I was having an acute reaction to the mall, and to the capital city, because I hadn’t been around them for so long that I had regained my sensitivity to them. I compared it to the reaction a non-smoker has to a cigarette versus a smoker’s response — the non-smoker has an acute reaction, whereas the smoker has a chronic one. I wondered if, similar to how a smoker gets used to the taste and effect of tobacco, going from coughing and grimacing to craving and enjoying, I had gotten used to the fluorescent lights, noise pollution, crowds and commerce that are a part of “civilized” life. Perhaps similar to tobacco, exposure to them had repercussions to my health that were more obvious to me when I was having an acute reaction to them rather than a chronic reaction.

Since then, I always look to the acute reaction to something to gauge how it’s really affecting me, since the chronic reaction only tells part of the story. Granted, bodies really do change and adapt, so it’s not like the acute reaction is the “truth” and the chronic reaction is a “lie”. When I go running for the first time in six months and my body has an acute reaction to the physical exertion, that is one part of the truth; when I go running for the 100th time in six months and my body is used to the physical exertion, that is another part of the truth.

Going back to my original example, when I go into a city, my acute reaction is physically unpleasant; over time, my body becomes used to the sights and sounds, and I don’t even notice much how the city is affecting me chronically as long as I’m in it. When I go into the country on the other hand, my acute reaction is physically enjoyable — I notice how good the air tastes, my eyes bathe in the greens of the plants and the blues of the water and sky, and my body feels energized and happy. Over time, my body gets used to the sights and the sounds, and I can go hours or even days without noticing how beautiful nature is, or how good my body feels being in it.

Acute reactions are good because they remind me of the starting point of something; chronic reactions are good because they show me how adaptable my body is to whatever circumstances I put it in. I use acute reactions to show me which situations have the most underlying health — I know I’ll be happiest when I am in a situation that encourages me to pay attention to nature rather than one that requires me to ignore the noises and light pollution of a city. I use chronic reactions to show me what’s possible over time — I can adjust to pollution, I can adjust to exercise, I can adjust to the noise of my neighbor’s roosters. My chronic reactions show me the wide range of life I’m capable of living, while my acute reactions point me in the direction of best living.

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