Have you heard the Native American legend of the two wolves?

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

As the legend says, you need to feed the good wolf. But just as important, it is impossible to starve the evil wolf. That’s why simplistic “stress reduction” usually fails. If you don’t also feed the good wolf, escaping and avoiding stress backfires and you actually end up feeding the evil wolf.

Plopping in front of the TV, mindlessly surfing the Internet, shopping for stuff you don’t need, avoiding decisions (“What do you want for dinner?” “Whatever.”) and other ways of emotionally checking out or withdrawing do not deactivate your fight-or-flight instinct. Fight-or-flight is the protective response from your nervous system and hormones, which can become stuck “on” when you have chronic or acute stress. When your fight-or-flight system stays activated through psychological flight, you may not even notice it any more, but your health is still at risk.

Fleeing, like fighting, backfires because it feeds the evil wolf. You won’t truly relax unless you feed the good wolf. In biological terms, if all you do is escape and withdraw, your sympathetic nervous system will remain aroused. That’s what leads to sleep problems, belly fat, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, stroke and other health issues. When stress becomes a problem, you cannot directly turn down your sympathetic nervous system; you need to adopt attitudes and activities that turn up its counterpart, the parasympathetic nervous system –  nurturing the good wolf.

You feed the good wolf through attitudes and activities that grow connections with people, creation (including yourself) and your values. Social connections are a powerful way to feed your good wolf. A hike in nature or doing yoga feed him. Spiritual practices like meditation, worship and compassion also feed the good wolf. You don’t need to wait for somebody else’s help – the most powerful ways to feed the good wolf are through your own acts of generosity, kindness and trust. What you give away matters far more than what you receive. But don’t make the mistake of just getting away from the things that stress you. You cannot starve the evil wolf.