Stress arousal is that feeling of “low grade dread’ that we might notice. Mostly, it’s based upon nothing real.
Here’s a quote from Tom Robbins’ Still Life with Woodpecker:
Don’t let yourself be victimized by the age you live in. It’s not the times that will bring us down, any more than it’s society. When you put the blame on society, then you end up turning to society for the solution… There’s a tendency to absolve individuals of moral responsibility and treat them as victims of social circumstance. You buy that, you pay with your soul…What limits people is the lack of character. What limits people is that they don’t have the fucking nerve or imagination to star in their own move, let alone direct it.“
I did a TV interview on a Global TV show called “Body + Health” — the show was on “breathing and stress.”
Given that it’s a half hour show, my part was 6 minutes in length, during which we talked about the effects of stress on the body, and during which I showed the host how to breathe. (You can watch it here)
Anyway, other than the breathing part, I didn’t know what the host would want to talk about, so I did some mental preparation. Here’s a bit of what I thought about.
Without getting into a ton of detail, there’s “real stress” and “dramatic stress.”
“Real” stress happens when the truck in front of us slams on the brakes, and we get to react in an instant.
The effect is a total blanking of the thought process, an instantaneous upping of hormones like adrenalin, hammering heart, shallow breathing, digestive shutdown, and lots of energy diverted to the muscles, while at the same time a depletion of blood to the extremities (if you get cut you don’t bleed as much.)
You whip the wheel, slide around the truck, miss the ditch, regain the road, and drive on. We’ve all been there.
Almost immediately after the stressor is past, (and we lived, of course) the adrenalin and hormone dump is cleared, and our stomachs get all queasy, our muscles shake, we shake, and the mind goes into a “loop,” replaying the event.
We go home and tell someone the story, thank the gods or the stars, and move on.
In a perfect world, this would be our stress arousal pattern:
terror, hormones kick in, action and reaction, shaking,. Then, retelling and being done with it.
In the “dramatic” version of stress, most of the time people are walking around in a state of chronic “stress arousal.” In the “dramatic” version, we’re stuck at 30–70% stress, all the time.
You know the feeling. Slightly uneasy, uncomfortable, stomach slightly “off,” bowels grumbling or stopped up, maybe a slight headache, stiff neck, aches and pains.
Now, all of this wouldn’t be a bad thing, if only we paid attention to it. Unfortunately, what actually happens is that, at some level, we accept this “stress arousal” state as “normal.” We do two things:
- we tell ourselves that our world is really stressful and that “everybody” is stressed, and
- we tell ourselves to suck it up and get over it, which means we tell ourselves to push the stress down and attempt to ignore it.
What happens next is the kicker, and it’s what Tom Robbins describes, above.
Nothing that’s happening in your body is “unheard.” I put that in quotes, because it’s not about your ears, but rather about your brain. Your brain is monitoring absolutely everything that’s happening inside of you.
Your subconscious mind is always aware of your “stress arousal” state, and also has “normal” to compare it to.
(Of course it does. Your body has to know “normal” in order to fix things.)
It knows that you have made a decision to accept the “stress arousal” state as “normal,” which makes no sense to the subconscious mind.
So, even though you’ve made a conscious decision to “push down” your stress (by trying to ignore it or justify it) your subconscious mind is going to get involved.
Remember, it has as its goal to maintain balance in your body, and it can only do this by getting your attention. And there are only two ways to get your attention: play a movie in your head or create a pain you’ll notice in your body.
Here’s how the movie works: Your boss criticizes your work. You, if you are wise, fix the flawed work or explain how it’s right.
What actually happens for most people is that the subconscious mind sees this simple criticism as a way to justify the “stress arousal” state.
It serves up the following: “My boss hates me. She is always criticizing me. She’s going to fire me. I’m going to starve to death, as I’ll never find another job.” All of this is illustrated with imaginary scenes of devastation.
Now, the sub-conscious mind is trying for balance. You’re in a state of “stress arousal,” for absolutely no reason. The subconscious wants you to have a reason — not to torture you, but to get you sufficiently focussed to actually do something to reduce the stress.
Being a bit dumb and acclimatized, we simply watch the movie and make ourselves even more miserable, and then accept this as “new normal.” A week goes by, a month, no one gets fired, and we don’t even realize how much pain we put ourselves through, feeling like a hard-done-by victim for absolutely no reason, and then forgetting we did it to ourselves!
If you’ve read the Bodywork section of our website, you’ll know that we believe that the next thing that happens is that the subconscious mind attempts to get our attention by messing with our bodies.
Muscles tighten, pain comes, and if we are wise, we use those tightnesses and pains as indicators that we may just be “stuffing stuff.” We fix this by breathing, and through Bodywork.
Most don’t fix it, though. They blame the pain on something else and make it normal. Until something actually breaks.
This is Robbins’ point. The only way out of this dilemma is to become totally conscious of the movies in our heads – the stories we’re creating in our heads to justify the underlying anxiety. The way out means becoming the director of the drama.
I need to understand what I can do something about and what I can’t.
If my imaginings are drifting to the past or heading into the future, I need to be yelling “cut!” I need to understand that I can’t re-do the past, nor can I control the future. If I drag myself kicking and screaming to this present moment, I realize that what I can do is deal with my anxiety, pain and fear in this moment.
Stepping out of the drama requires great commitment to yourself. It requires a firm willingness to live in the moment and to see the dramas for what they are: figments of your imagination meant to explain totally unrelated feelings of “stress arousal.”
Needless to say, I think there are better ways to arouse ourselves…
Have a look at the Bodywork section, and look at the Breathwork section, and breathe. See what comes up. Be the director of your life, and let go of helpless victim stance.
It’s time to grow up, folks.
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