photo credit: Danis Lou

Change Happens When the Pain of Staying the Same is Too Great to Bear

What is a typical day in your life like? When you wake up, what are the most pressing matters in your head?

For Shin Dong-hyuk, living in North Korea meant that torture, chronic hunger, and executions were a normal part of life. Born in a political prison camp, his everyday experiences included back-breaking labor and harsh beatings.

In order to survive, prisoners are encouraged to inform on one another and taught not to show affection towards others, including their own family members. Because of this, Shin felt little loyalty to his family and later watched his mother and brother were publicly executed.

He was later assigned to work at a textile factory, where he was forced to meet daily quotas under threat of physical punishments. But it was at the factory where he met a fellow prisoner who would change his life: Mr. Park. Unlike the young Shin, Mr. Park was a well-educated 40-year-old man who had visited places outside North Korea, including Germany and China.

As they worked alongside one another, Mr. Park told Shin stories of the outside world. Overworked, starved, and deprived of clean clothing, Shin clung onto Mr. Park’s descriptions of life beyond the camp. He especially craved the food that seemed so luxurious compared to his measly diet of cabbage and corn gruel.

These images of food fueled Shin to plan an escape attempt with Park. Shin managed to escape — Park didn’t. Through a series of lucky breaks and an ability to adapt, Shin eventually made his way to the China northern border, where he was able to bribe hungry border guards using bartered goods.

What Spurs Us to Change?

Shin is one of the few people born in a North Korean political prison that escaped and survived to tell the story. In the biography Escape from Camp 14, journalist Blaine Harden describes Shin’s journey, including his travels from China to South Korea, and eventually to the United States.

Without a doubt, it is a powerful story that is both heartbreaking and courageous. It’s almost impossible to imagine living in such brutal conditions and then attempting an escape that no one else had succeeded in.

One thing that stood out to me though, was the concept of change. What forces are strong enough to make someone risk everything, including his life, to head towards the unknown? And if that person made it, how could he survive in a completely different environment that forced him to abandon all the things he had learned before?

After all, there are times in our lives when we face hardships that push us to muster up all the energy and resources we can to pull ourselves out of them. Other times, we find ourselves in sub-optimal situations that we gradually become accustomed to. After a while, we may become afraid of change, even if for the better.

Why does stress sometimes push us towards action, while other times it makes us complacent? Researchers point to the reason being that we react differently depending on the type of stress we encounter.

Two Types of Stress: Emergency and Anguish

Let’s say that you want to discuss a pay raise with your boss. As you prepare yourself for the meeting, you can feel the familiar symptoms of a stressful event. Your breath becomes shorter, your heart beats a little quicker, and you mentally brace yourself for possible conflicts that may arise.

The thought of talking to your boss is nerve-racking, but at the same time, you feel some relief in knowing that once done, the ordeal will be over. This is an example of acute stress. It’s sharp, intense, and also short-term.

We run into acute stress often in our lives, from an upcoming deadline to that feeling just before boarding a long plane flight. Small doses give us feelings of excitement, while too much can lead to exhaustion and fatigue.

The other type of stress is chronic. Unlike acute stress, chronic stress isn’t exhilarating. It can be found in people who are worn out by an unfulfilling career, stuck in a toxic environment, or those who can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.

photo credit: Clay Banks

This type of stress is mild, but long-term. In these situations, people can become worn out and accustomed to their situations. There’s likely little to no incentive to change, since someone experiencing chronic stress doesn’t know or has forgotten other possibilities. Someone might not realize their energy sources have been depleted until it’s too late, leading to a breakdown.

So, while acute stress gives us an alarming sense of emergency, chronic stress can leave us in anguish.

Stress Can Be Something We Run Away From or Stick By

We normally think of stress as someone dealing with a crisis and trying frantically to deal with it. But it can be much more subtle than that. In Shin Dong-hyuk’s case, he was in a state of chronic stress for the first 22 years of his life.

He and everyone else around him were expected to work over 12 hours a day in only one set of clothes, with a measly portion of corn as reward at the end of the day. People’s backs would hunch over as time passed due to poor nutrition, until they died from illness at around 50 years of age. Though it may sound horrific to us, it was normal for those living in the camp.

And while their struggles aren’t something that we can easily relate to, being stuck in an unhappy situation is a common phenomenon anywhere in the world. So common, in fact, that we often just accept it because it’s so ordinary.

But here’s the danger in staying a dead-end routine: a daily pattern of mild stress is more damaging than periodic moments of high stress. Those high stress moments create an incentive to change, while regular, mild stress slowly chips away at us. We’re aware of acute stress because it’s sudden and new, but we might not notice chronic stress because it’s familiar.

In a way, we deal with both similarly by steering away from change. For acute stress, we try to get rid of the source of stress that has disrupted our lives. For chronic stress, we don’t remove the source of stress because it’s a part of life.

By now, it sounds almost as if being in a chronic state of stress is impossible to escape from. But that’s not true. While difficult, it’s possible to get out of it.

Set Your Norm

The first step in improving a situation is to acknowledge it. Whether from denial, familiarity, or fear, it’s easier to stay stuck in one place than to go somewhere else. Often, recognizing an undesirable state means that being exposed to something new.

Sometimes, it takes seeing something beautiful, awe-inspiring, or even worrisome to make us want to change our environment. In Shin’s case, hearing Mr. Park’s stories changed his perception of life inside and outside Camp 14.

In his words: “I still think of freedom as roasted chicken.”

Being exposed to something different is the first point of changing your norm. It can be a person, a place, or an event. One way my norm changed was when I went to Japan. There, I noticed that saying “thank you” was very common, from simply visiting a store to paying for public transit. Now, I find myself saying “thank you” more, while practicing gratitude more often in my life.

Other times, those moments are only one part of inciting change. For instance, talking to a successful business owner may lead to feelings of inspiration, but that alone isn’t enough to create an idea. In order to change those thoughts into something tangible, you need a sense of urgency.

Deadlines create urgency. They turn the feelings of chronic stress into acute stress, which can be useful in small amounts for accomplishing tasks. It’s equally as important, though, to pick the right goals for your deadlines. Saying “I want to double revenues by the end of the year” sounds nice, but it isn’t a goal that’s within your control.

Using a more action-based goal, such as “I am going to email three people today to meet with them” makes more sense because this goal is within your control. Once you start performing new tasks over and over, they become a habit, which is the second part of setting your norm. It’s about reaching the outcome you want by making yourself more comfortable with it.

If You Could Just Reach Out

Life in a prison camp is a prime example of chronic stress. Prisoners are used to undernourishment, beatings, and most don’t know anything about life outside the camp. Shin had little incentive or even opportunity to escape.

But once he did, he ran. He kept running until he reached freedom, and has become a human rights activist in the years since. His story is a reminder that there are more possibilities than you think, if you could just reach out.

Sometimes you just need to inspire yourself to get started.