What is Stress Anyway?
How to go beyond managing it and actually get free from it’s grip.
Stress, Stress, Stress! If you’re like me you’ve heard about how bad “stress” is for your health over and over again. It is a well proven medical fact that stress has negative affects on the heart, immune system, digestive system and many more systems of the body. It can lead to depression, anxiety, a number of illnesses from irritable Bowel syndrome to heart disease, and a generally unhappy life. It can decrease longevity and destroy relationships. Stress, the modern day plague, is a danger to all of us. The struggle is real! Just pick up any health oriented magazine and you will find wonderful guidance about how to adopt stress management practices like mindfulness, meditation, yoga, exercise and many other lifestyle practices that are proven….and will help!
We’ve come a long way in our awareness of stress and how to “manage” it but there is another dimension to stress that is not often talked about which holds the key to allowing us to actually eliminate the experience of stress as or before it is triggered.
In order to understand all dimensions of stress and how to interrupt our chronic stress patterns, let’s take a look at what stress really is.
Most of us are familiar with “The Stress Response”. This is the automatic biological reaction that occurs when we perceive a threat to our safety. The perception of danger stimulates a neurological response in the brain which in turn stimulates the release of hormones that travel to other organs in the body to help us respond to the danger. Some of these affects on our systems include (but aren’t limited to):
- Shallow breathing
- Increased heart rate and blood pressure
- Muscular tension
- Hyper alertness, wakefulness, hyper-vigilance
- An unsteadiness on one’s feet or ungroundedness
These are only some of the direct effects of stress hormones. Indirectly, the stress response promotes systemic inflammation and interferes dramatically with immune function.
Now, if you were being chased by a bear, you would want all these things to happen in your body! They would actually help you a great deal and promote health….by promoting your survival! In our modern culture though, the little stressors we experience on a chronic level cause our nervous systems to keep our bodies and psyches poised to confront grave physical dangers like grizzly bears and attacking armies! Our poor bodies don’t know the difference between real physical threats and being late to a meeting!
Is that a Bear or My Boss?
In other words; our bodies undergo the same physiological changes when we sit with our boss for our performance review, as we do when we are attacked by a bear. And unlike bears, which (if they don’t actually eat you) will eventually go away, our modern social anxieties, like job performance and personal acceptance, are often chronic. When our nervous systems get caught in these chronic patterns, the long term affects of the stress response can wreak havoc on both our physical and our psychological health.
“Is it Life or is it Memorex?”
Just as our nervous systems don’t know the difference between a bear and a boss, eg; between a physical and an emotional threat; they also can’t tell the difference between the past and the present! We will often respond automatically in the present to situations that were dangerous to us either physically or emotionally, in the past. This is called conditioning. Social anxiety in the present may stem from rejection (actual or assumed) from people in one’s past. And no matter how much we might understand this intellectually, in order to overcome these stress reactions, we need to help our nervous systems learn to read the present situation for what it is, and not be held hostage by our past.
If You Believe You Can or You Believe You Can’t – You’re Right!
Finally, the third way these brilliant nervous systems of ours get confused is that they don’t always know the difference between an actual threat and an imagined one! We all know the anxiety that arises within us when we don’t believe we can do something that we actually can do. Our beliefs are tremendously powerful, particularly our negative ones! If we imagine that we will fail or are inadequate, our nervous systems react to that belief with the stress response! Failure is an emotional threat! And to make matters worse, our unconscious stress response will be activated by the negative beliefs we hold that we’re not even aware of!
So in addition to adopting the lifestyle changes and stress management practices to help our body-minds shift from the stress response to the relaxation response there is another powerful way to combat stress. That is to become aware of those un-conscious beliefs, memories and perceptions that cause your system to go on alert. When you become aware of your emotions; fear of rejection, anger or resentment, you can make a conscious effort to let your body off the hook of defending you. Here are some simple steps to develop this awareness and then help your body shift to a state of more openness, groundedness, calm and peace.
1.First, become aware of your body’s personal stress responses. When you’re in a stressful situaion Check to see if you hold your breath, tighten your jaw or shoulders or any other parts of your body. Do you become ungrounded or lose awareness of your body altogether?
Also begin to notice any chronic postures your body adopts as a way of going through the world. Do you collapse your chest if you feel afraid? Do you tighten your back to effort your way through life?
2. Once you identify your personal stress response, consciously release this stress posture by reversing the posture: Deepen your breath, release any help muscles, open your chest and expand whatever has collapsed. It is helpful to bend your knees and feel the weight of your body on the floor. These shifts not only induce the physiological relaxation response, they will also allow your emotional state to come into more balance and ease.
3. Identify the “threat” that your nervous system is responding to. Do you have a bear in front of you or are you afraid you are not good enough for your boss? Are you responding to the person or situation in front of you or to one in your past? Once aware of these underlying automatic conditioned patterns the most important thing to do is have compassion for yourself. It means you are human! But with awareness you have the ability to adopt new postures over time that promote freedom, balance, peace and health.
The goal of many body-centered therapies is to help people become aware of how their bodies participate and are affected by their emotions, and working with someone one on one can be a very powerful addition to physical and psychological interventions.