Several short stories about stress
First of all, it's all about stress! Stress is our natural state. Here's an example: think about a guy wire on a tent. There is the weight of the tent pulling the post inward. There is the post, driven into the ground, using physics and earth energy to pull in the opposite direction. In between the two stretches the thin guy wire. Properly adjusted, the forces that would cause the tent to collapse or be torn apart are brought into balance.
OK. So what? Well, doesn’t it strike you that most people are not looking for a balance between competing forces, but rather are looking for "no tension at all?"
To carry my illustration further, let’s assume the post in the ground is "the way things are" and the tent represents "the winds of change." Without change, the post is just a post in the ground. We can reflect on it and wonder as to its purpose, but there it is, doing, being nothing.
The tent, without support, will actually fall down and blow away. It is actually not a tent, but simply a piece of canvas. It only becomes a tent when put under tension. As it is with all tents. As it is with life. Not change for change’s sake. Not dull routine. Life is lived fully only under the tension of change.
Thus, there is some truth to the idea that "If it wasn't for my stress, I'd fall apart."
The Flavours of Stress
Canadian Hans Selye, considered the "father" of modern stress research, defined stress as:
"the non-specific response of the body to any demand made upon it."
He also said that stress is:
- the wear and tear caused by life.
- a state manifested by a specific syndrome of biological events and can be both pleasant and unpleasant.
- the mobilization of the body's defenses that allow human beings to adapt to hostile or threatening events.
- dangerous when it is unduly prolonged, comes too often, or concentrates on one particular organ of the body.
Stress is not:
- Nervous tension.
- The discharge of hormones from the adrenal glands.
- The influence of some negative occurrence.
- And entirely bad event.
Kenneth W. Sehnert, M.D. Stress/Unstress, pg. 19-20
Now, you might be wondering what all of that means, in lay terms.
Stress is normal. As Selye pointed out, stress comes in "flavours."
- There's distress (what we might call "bad" stress)
- there's neutral stress (day-to-day stuff that requires a response)
- and what Selye called eustress (from the Greek eu – "good" as in euphoric, good feelings) or "good stress."
Stress is personal.
- You see a building burning and get a pit of your stomach, heavy, scared, "I want to run away" sensation – distress.
- A firefighter hops off the truck and feels eustress – "This is my chance to help, to put out the fire, to maybe save someone!!"
- A Buffalo, N. Y. TV reporter sees the fire and goes, "Hmm. Another fire in Cheektowaga." – neutral stress.
This difference of opinion regarding what kind of stress one might be feeling leads to the conflicts we create (which, of course, increases our stress.) When we are stressed and others don't get it, we further stress ourselves by saying, "You don't understand!" We're right! They don't.
There is no "one path" to stress -- there are several:
- Traditional fight/flight: you're walking along, and a tiger jumps out at you. It's picked up by your eyes, transmitted simultaneously to the endocrine system and the body. The body is instantaneously flooded with hormones designed to speed up respiration, minimize bleeding, sharpen the senses and stop digestion. The brain clicks out of thinking mode to reactive mode. This situation requires an instantaneous reaction, not an "Hmm. I wonder what the best way to deal with a charging tiger might be." As soon as the threat is over, the body dumps the hormones, and you feel exhausted, sick to your stomach, and soon return to "normal."
You might think of traditional fight/flight type stress as the natural form of stress -- what stress reaction was originally designed for. In other words, this reaction was hard wired into us so that we could deal with life-threatening situations.
- The "what if" game: you're sitting in a chair and wondering how badly you'll be mauled if a tiger jumps out at you. This one starts in the head as worry or obsession. Because the subconscious cannot tell "real" from "fantasy" (that's why we don't know we're dreaming until we wake up,) the body begins to respond as if the threat is real, using the fight/flight response described above. Hormones flood the body, and you feel anxious, wired, and suspicious and start "looking for the tiger." Often, with this approach, the body goes on a "low level alert," and stays slightly stressed. This slightly stressed state is soon accepted as normal.
The idea here is that we are reacting to an imagined (and therefore imaginary) threat. Left to our own devices, we create an endless feedback loop. I imagine I'm threatened, and can't locate the threat, so I assume I'm simply missing the threat, and keep watching, while all the time saying, "Well, I feel threatened, so therefore there must be a threat."
- The "ouch" game: we're sitting in a chair and we feel pain in our body. Rather than ask, "What's up," we either go into denial or overstate the pain into a major illness. In either case, as we do not address the body, the tension at the muscular level is accepted as normal.
In a sense, you might think of your body as a boiler in a plant, one with a relief valve that's adjustable. In the "good old days," when the valve went off, someone looked around, fixed what was wrong, and had lunch. These days, someone goes downstairs, bangs on the valve and replaces it with one that goes off at a higher pressure. This keeps happening until the tank explodes.
- The "modern medical miracle" game: There is an expectation that the doctor has a pill that will make all of this go away. As opposed to our asking the question, "Why am I creating stress in my life and doing nothing about it?"