Several short stories about stress — a way to look art stress that will help you to find your way and to let go of hurting yourself.
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 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 the pull of 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 grounding from the post, 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.
There is some truth to the idea that “If it wasn’t for my stress, I’d fall apart.”
The Flavours of Stress — short stories about 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.
Short stories about stress — 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?”
The effects of distress, or chronic stress.
As we’ve noted, all stress begins the same way. We are confronted with a “confusing or threatening” situation, and our bodies react well before our minds get involved.
We’re wired that way.
This wiring is ancient, and comes from a time when life was short, harsh, and brutal. Our forebears were the ones who survived long enough to breed. And they survived by having sensitive stress triggers.
Something (like a lion or tiger… oh my!!) flashed in their periphery, and their “fight or flight” mechanism clicked in. The third option, “freeze,” usually led to a dead relative.
The most important thing to get is that the “FoF” (fight or flight) reaction is chemical. Your brain, for the most part, just checks out and comes along for the ride.
Because thinking slows you down.
“Hmm, I think I saw a blur. I think it was orange and black, and something was glittering… could that have been teeth? Gee, I wonder? Was that blur a tiger stalking me? Maybe I should run away, or pull my sword… I wonder…”
Snap. Crunch. Lunch.
OK, so you get it. The chemical process that causes “FoF” is instantaneous, for a good reason.
The problem is, most of us in the 21st century are not dealing with lions or tigers, so the need for big reactions is limited.
The threats we face are more subtle.
But the body still reacts — An Anatomy Of Stress Inside Your Body
We all know how our bodies feel when under stress. Regardless, it is good to visualize what is going on inside the body.
The Heart And Blood Vessels
The heart is a muscle in the purest sense of word; a healthy heart has very little fat, and is extremely efficient, contracting and relaxing like clockwork for the duration of your existence.
However, stress hormones change all this. Under their influence, the heart starts to beat much more rapidly, partly in response to the stimulating action of these hormones, but also because blood vessels have become constricted.
To understand this, think of a water pump.
You can use a one-half inch pipe to supply water, or a one-inch one. When using the half-inch size, the pump needs to work harder to push the same volume of water. It is similar with your heart, except that it has a quota to maintain to make sure your cells don’t die from oxygen starvation.
The Digestive System
You ever notice that when under stress or anxiety, you feel “butterflies” in your stomach, and find it difficult to hold your food — or bowels? This is directly the result of stress hormones.
Under stress, the stomach produces more acid, which either helps speed digestion (and the desire to empty your bowels) or creates acid reflux and heartburn. This is why stomach ulcers are more frequent in people who are under high stress.
In the intestines (since food seems to move faster than usual,) nutritional deficiencies can occur, along with diarrhea.
The Respiratory System
Respiration is tied intimately to our circulatory system. During exercise, your heart pumps faster and you breathe faster. This is because your body needs (is expending) more oxygen. For most people this is not a problem, but for asthmatics or those with pulmonary disease, stress can precipitate asthma attacks, or constriction of the airways, making it difficult to breathe.
Hyperventilation is also common, and a characteristic of a panic attack.
The Reproductive System
Nothing wrecks one’s sex life like stress, as millions can testify. This isn’t just psychological, however, but also physical. In men, the stress hormone cortisol interferes with the normal production of testosterone, so the sex drive crashes. In women, menstrual cycle disturbances occur, which can cause painful periods or wildly fluctuating hormone levels throughout the month.
The Endocrine Glands
Endocrine glands are those body parts (including the adrenal glands, the liver and pancreas) that produce hormones, which are then deposited into the body’s blood stream.
Under stress, the adrenal glands produce more cortisol and adrenaline — the two key stress hormones. In response to this, the liver may begin releasing stored glycogen in the form of glucose, as a response to your seemingly agitated state. The pancreas may also begin producing more insulin, and if the stress response resolves, everything goes back to normal.
If the stress response does not resolve, the hormones continue to circulate, and the feeling of low-grade agitation continues.
A stuck Body Leads to a Stuck Brain
So, all of that quivering, tight, tensed up stuff is the first bodily reaction to a stressor. To say it again, this reaction is normal, so long as it “goes away” along with the stressor.
Modern life, however, seems to have created a “stress state.” By this I mean a perpetual state of agitation. From a biological point of view, the stress hormones never turn off completely.
Just a drip, drip, drip.
Our bodies are designed to seek balance — homeostasis — BUT can be tricked by circumstances to have a “moving checkpoint.” It’s like how our eyes adjust to bright lights… ouch, then… normal.
I used to see this a lot during Bodywork — a client would assure me that their body “wasn’t that tight.” I’d look and think, “Wow! Tight!” So, I’d push, and suddenly it was, “Ouch, ouch, ouch!”
Or I’d use moxa (A Japanese herbal substance you light like incense and apply to the body) and boom, there would be red spots, indicating “blockages.”
The key here is to get that stress is not required. The settings your body and mind are “at” are arbitrary. There are ways to reset things… and from there, to notice what “real normal” feels like.
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