It’s All About Stress — stress in and of itself is not a problem. Chronic stress… that’s another issue!
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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; it’s connected between the tent and a peg hammered into the ground.
- The weight of the tent tries to pull the peg inward.
- The peg uses physics and earth energy to pull in the opposite direction.
- In between the two stretches the thin guy wire, which balances the opposing forces.
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 peg in the ground is the way things are and the tent represents the winds of change.
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, and 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. “This is my chance to help, to put out the fire, to maybe save someone!!” He feels eustress
- A Buffalo, N. Y. TV reporter sees the fire and goes, “Hmm. Another fire in Cheektowaga.” = neutral stress.
That said, the person who is not a firefighter might have a terrible time imagining someone getting turned on by a fire. The firefighter likely thinks she lives an adventure-filled life and that others are “missing something.”
This is because we do not agree about what is stressful, and what is not.
This difference of opinion regarding stress leads to conflict (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. Its motion is picked up by your eyes, and transmitted simultaneously to the endocrine system and the body.
- your body is instantaneously flooded with hormones designed to speed up respiration, minimize bleeding, sharpen the senses, and stop digestion.
- Your 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” reaction.
- As soon as the threat is over, your 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 the 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: This one starts in the head as worry or obsession.
- you’re sitting safely in a chair, yet begin wondering how badly you’ll be mauled if a tiger jumps out at you.
- 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… you actually 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. We thus 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:
- you’re sitting in a chair, and feel a pain in your body.
- Rather than ask, “What’s up,” you 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 — one with an adjustable relief valve. In the “good old days,” when the valve got tripped, someone went downstairs and looked around, fixed what was wrong, and then had lunch. These days, someone goes downstairs, bangs on the valve, doesn’t look for what’s wrong, and just replaces the check valve with one that goes off at a higher pressure.
And… 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?”
Next week, we’ll look at what unresolved, chronic stress does to our bodies and minds.
About the Author: Wayne C. Allen is the web’s Simple Zen Guy.
Wayne was a Private Practice Counsellor in Ontario until June of 2013.
Wayne is the author of five books, the latest being The. Best. Relationship. Ever.
See: –The Phoenix Centre Press