Stress Arousal — How Stress Happens

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:

  1. we tell our­selves that our world is real­ly stress­ful and that “every­body” is stressed, and
  2. 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.

Back to the video / index page

A “stress primer,” describ­ing the sci­en­tif­ic the­o­ry behind stress. 

Men­tal exer­cis­es for clear­ing and still­ing the mind.

A Body­work tech­nique — Pro­gres­sive Mus­cle Relaxation

Breath­work descrip­tion, pictures

Breath­work movie clips

Wayne’s books on liv­ing life ful­ly and com­plete­ly
click here

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