Why Stress Arises – And What You Can Do to Control it
The Chinese sage Lao-Tse once remarked that: ‘The biggest problem in the world could have been solved when it was small.’
This certainly holds true when it comes to stress. In my lectures I sometimes set fire to a small piece of paper to demonstrate how easily the flames can be extinguished with just a few drops of water.I then point out that, had the flames been allowed to get out of control, setting alight the furnishings and drapes it would have required professional fire-fighters to extinguish the blaze.
It’s the same with stress. If you can train yourself to detect the physical and mental changes early on then combating its effects is usually fairly easy. If you do not a point may be reached when it will take expert assistance, in the form of a psychologist, to help bring the situation back under control.
When Stress Burns Out of Control
Excessive stress is a curse that makes it far harder, sometimes indeed utterly impossible, for anyone to lead an enjoyable life or achieve their desired goals.
A job or promotion candidate wants to stay cool, calm and collected when being interviewed, an executive while making a presentation before colleagues, a student taking an exam or an unassertive individual trying to stand up against a bullying superior.
What happens when stress takes over and anxiety soars?
The heart races, the stomach churns, the mouth goes dry and the mind goes blank! Excessive stress leaves that victim feeling feel sick and giddy, sweating, trembling and feeling like a drowning idiot. When sufficiently intense these physical symptoms may spiral out of control into a full-blown panic attack.
At the same time, the mind is bombarded by negative thoughts: ‘I can’t cope’, ‘I’m losing control’, ‘I’m going to faint’, ‘Everyone is staring at me’. Concentration falters, memory is impaired, routine tasks become harder to perform and more demanding challenges may defeat them entirely.
Stress and its attendant anxiety, does not always attack both body and mind. Some people become physically tense but remain clear headed. Others, although their body remains relaxed, become extremely mentally confused.
I’ll explain why all this happens in a moment.
But first the good news.
You can learn to control your anxiety and turn that increase in mental and physical arousal to your advantage. Below are some of the basic tools you will need to achieve this highly desirable goal.
Let’s start by examining why this happens in the first place.
The Law of the Jungle in the 21st Century!
Imagine being back in prehistoric times and taking a stroll through the wilderness. Suddenly you hear a noise in the undergrowth. It may be the wind or a small, inoffensive creature; equally it could be a wild and hungry carnivore with a meal in mind. There is no time for deliberation about whether or not the noise spells a genuine danger.
If there really is a man-eater in the undergrowth, such a debate would have a fatal outcome. Survival depends on moving almost instantly into a state of high arousal.
To fight or to flee efficiently the limbs require increased supplies of food and oxygen. These are carried by the blood, so the heart starts to pump more vigorously. At the same time breathing is increased so as to draw more oxygen into the body and expel carbon dioxide. Blood is diverted away from less essential areas, such as the skin and digestive tract, to make additional supplies available to the arm and leg muscles. The brain, too, needs increased oxygen and glucose in order to think more rapidly.
For our ancestor this instinctive response to a potential threat might well have meant the difference between life and death. Even today, there are occasions when we are under physical threat and it is at such times that the fight-and-flight response truly comes into its own.
At such times we may discover remarkable and previously unrealised reserves of stamina, speed and strength as this ancient survival system takes over. The trouble is that these programs are seldom appropriate to the kind of dangers confronting us in the twentieth century, since we are much more likely to face threats to our psychological well-being than our physical safety.
We may feel very anxious, for instance, when faced with somebody who is verbally aggressive, even though there is no risk of our being physically attacked. In such situations the brain responds as if faced with an objective threat to survival.
Step-Up or Step-Down?
We possess two nervous systems. One controls voluntary actions. We use it whenever we intend to perform some task, such as turning on your computer or getting up to make a cup of tea.
The purpose of the second is to take charge of those routine yet vital bodily activities, such as digesting food, pumping blood, breathing, and controlling temperature. Imagine attempting any of those if, seventy times each minute, you had to order your heart to beat while commanding the lungs to inflate as you supervised body temperature, and instructed your gut to digest your last meal! This branch of the nervous system is called the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), often referred to as the fight, flight and freeze mechanism. Once switched to emergency running your conscious mind cannot easily or rapidly countermand any orders from the subconsciously controlled ANS.
Even though you realise that there is no reason for alarm your body continues to respond as if facing an urgent and immediate threat to survival. It doesn’t help to tell yourself to calm down and keep cool. Indeed because such instructions have no chance of being obeyed, what usually happens is increased anxiety as you realise that your feelings are out of control.
The changes which have been brought about by the ANS, increased heart rate, rapid breathing, more sweating and so on, can only be corrected and the body returned to normal running by the same mechanism which speeded them up in the first place, that is the autonomic nervous system.
This is possible because the ANS has two branches which, most of the time, work in harmony to create a state of normal arousal. The two branches of the ANS may be compared to the reins of a horse. To keep the animal moving forward in a straight line, the rider applies equal pressure to each side. If more tension is applied to either rein, however, the horse will turn in that direction.
In the ANS these reins consist of two mechanisms. One, which increases arousal, is known technically as the sympathetic branch while the second, which slows the system down again, is called the parasympathetic branch.
As you sit at home watching TV and feeling relaxed and stress free, the slow-down, or parasympathetic, branch is exerting dominance over the system. As a result your heart rate is moderate and breathing slow.
When life gets more stressful, however, the speed-up, or sympathetic, branch gains the upper hand, raising heart rate, increasing breathing, sweating and muscular tension.
To bring about these bodily changes the ANS relies on chemical messengers, hormones, to carry its instructions to all parts of the body.
The best known of these hormones, adrenalin, has been dubbed ‘jungle juice’, since it plays such a vital role in the fight-and-flight response. That sharp sensation of discomfort in the pit of your stomach which signals a rise in anxiety is produced by the sudden release of adrenalin.
Psychological Threats = Physical Dangers
The same arousal occurs, in the absence of any physical danger, whenever there is a threat to your psychological well-being. Suppose you are waiting to be interviewed for an important job. As the minutes tick away and the moment when you must face your interrogation draws closer, doubts creep into your mind.
Will you be able to answer their questions successfully or make a fool of yourself and appear a failure?
Your fight-and-flight mechanism interprets these worries in terms of an objective threat to survival and increases the level of arousal. These bodily changes are noted by the ‘thinking’ areas of the brain that react with further negative thoughts about what lies ahead. You imagine yourself failing miserably and feeling humiliated. These negative management programs increase the strength of the speed-up mechanism and your body becomes still more aroused. Suddenly, you are very stressed, perhaps even to the point of panic.
Because you are aware these fears are foolish, the slow-down branch of the ANS makes attempts to restore the system to normal running. This only makes matters worse, however, since brain and body have now become the battleground for a conflict between the opposing forces of speed-up and slow-down. One is instructing the heart to beat faster and the lungs to work more rapidly, the other attempting to reduce heart rate and ventilation. These confusing commands produce many of the most distressing symptoms of high anxiety.
Blood drains from beneath the skin as it is diverted to the muscles with the result that you grow pale. Then it returns causing you to flush. Additional oxygen- and glucose-rich blood reaches the brain. Then the flow is reduced again. As a result you feel lightheaded and giddy. Your muscles tense for action, and then relax again, leaving them feeling like jelly.
All this happens very rapidly since, as I have already explained, the fight-and-flight response is an immediate call to action.
It has to work fast, of course, since in a real emergency split seconds might spell the difference between life and death. We have seen that the ANS, our fight-and-flight mechanism, can produce arousal extremely swiftly and also that it is not normally under control of management programs. I say not ‘normally’ because it is possible, by using specific training techniques, to exert a considerable amount of control over the ANS.
To see how such control can be achieved we’ll consider my earlier comparison between the two branches of the ANS and the reins of a horse. Imagine the animal has been pulled sharply to the right by an inexperienced rider. In order to return the horse to a straight line the rider must now apply more pressure to the left-hand rein.
Similarly, when the speed-up branch of the ANS has gained the ascendency we can restore the system to normal running by deliberately strengthening the slow-down branch. This can be done by learning how to relax. Relaxation is the body’s natural antidote to anxiety since it is time. Not only does relaxation help you to bring stress and anxiety under control, but it also permits you to set arousal levels at any point you wish.
The Relaxation Response
There is nothing especially difficult about learning to relax. Most people can acquire the skills needed in just a few weeks of regular practice. Once mastered these procedures may be used anywhere and at any time to help you cope with stressful or challenging situations.
When you are ready to make a start sit or lie down in a comfortable chair, on a couch or a bed that provides a good support for your back, shoulders and neck. The room you choose should be as quiet as possible and you should arrange not to be disturbed for the next twenty minutes.
Loosen any tight clothing and slip off your shoes.
Uncross your legs and let your arms hang loosely down by your sides.
Sit or lie back in a comfortable position.
Breathe through your nostrils, making sure to keep your breathing slow and smooth. Each time you breathe out feel yourself becoming just a little more relaxed.
Focus your attention on each of your major muscle groups in turn and notice tension in any of them.
Start at your ankles and feet.
Gently stretch your feet by arching them and pointing your toes towards the floor if seated or opposite wall if lying down.
Do this now. Arch your feet and point your toes.
Hold this tension…hold it.
And relax. Allow all the tension to flow out from your ankles and feet and, as you do so, notice the different between tension and relaxation in these muscles.
Make sure your breathing is slow and gentle. Each time you breathe out feel yourself becoming more and more deeply relaxed.
Now you are going to deliberately tense the muscles in your legs, thighs and buttocks. You can do this by pointing your toes as you squeeze your thighs and buttocks tightly together. Do this now.
Point your toes and squeeze your legs and buttocks tightly together.
Feel the tension building in the muscles of your buttocks, thighs, and calves.
Feel it building….and relax.
Let those muscles flop right out and, as you do so, notice the difference between stress and tension in the muscles of your buttocks, thighs and calves.
Feel all the stress and tension flowing away into the surrounding air with each exhaled breathe and, as you do so, notice that these muscles are becoming warmer and heavier, more and more deeply relaxed.
Next deliberately tense the muscles of your stomach and chest.
You do this by flattening the muscles of your abdomen as thought anticipating a blow while at the same time taking and holding a very deep breathe.
Pull in your stomach. Really flatten the abdominal muscles. Feel the muscles between your ribs tensing as your chest expands with the deep intake of air.
Hold that tension.
And relax. Allow your stomach muscles to flop out as you exhale and feel the muscles of your chest become looser and more relaxed.
As before notice the difference between stress and tension in the muscles of your abdomen and chest.
Your whole body is starting to feel more and more relaxed. Heavier and warmer.
No tension in the muscles of your feet, ankles, calves, thighs, buttocks, stomach or chest. You are becoming more and more deeply relaxed with every exhaled breath.
Now we are going to tense the muscles of the arms and hands.
You do this by curling your fingers into a fist and, at the same time, by bending your hands back as if trying to touch your wrists with the knuckles of each hand.
While clenching your fingers into a first and bending back your wrists, also bend your arms at the elbows and try to touch each shoulder with your hands.
Do this now.
Fold your fingers into a fist.
Bend your hands at the wrists.
Bend your arms at the elbows.
Really tense those muscles.
Dig your fingers into your palms. Press back with your wrists. Bend your elbows tighter and tighter.
Uncurl your fingers. Allow your wrists to flop down and rest your arms at your side so that the chair or bed carries their full weight.
Notice the differences between tension and relaxation in the muscles of your fingers and hands, your wrists and your elbows.
Make sure your breathing is slow and effortless, the air flowing smoothly into and away from you lung and – each time you breathe out – notice all the stress and tension flowing away from your body and into the surrounding air.
No stress or tension in the muscles of your feet or legs, your stomach or chest, your hands, wrists and arms.
You are becoming more and more deeply relaxed.
Your body is becoming heavier and heavier…warmer and warmer.
The next group of muscles to first tense and then relax are those of your shoulders and neck. You can stress these by hunching your shoulders while at the same time pressing back hard on the back of the chair or other support.
Do this now.
Draw your shoulders upwards…higher…higher.
At the same time press back against the support…harder…harder.
Feel the tension building…feel it.
And relax. Let your shoulders flop down and rest your head lightly against the support. Notice the difference between tension and relaxation in the muscles of your shoulders and neck. Feel these muscles become more and more relaxed. Warmer and heavier and more and more relaxed.
Keep your breathing slow and smooth. Each time you exhale feel a little more stress and tension flowing away from your body and into the surrounding air.
The final set of muscles we are going to relax are those of the face.
These are among the tensest muscles in our whole body because for so much of the day we keep them set into a rigid mask so as not to betray our emotions to others.
The powerful muscles of the jaw, the masseter muscles, are often under so much tension – even at night – that we can actually grind down our molars a condition known as bruxism. Here is how you tense these facial muscles. Listen as I explain each of them in turn and then we will practice with them individually before attempting to tense all at the same time.
To tense the muscles of the forehead you simply frown as hard as you can.
To tense the muscles of the jaw you clench your teeth tightly together.
To tense the muscles of the throat you press the tip of your tongue against the roof of your mouth – your hard palate.
Try this now. Frown…clench your teeth and push the tip of your tongue against the roof of your mouth.
Feel the tension building…and building.
Hold it…feel the tension in these muscles.
Now relax your brow and your jaw. Let your mouth hang loose with lips slightly parted, allow your tongue to relax.
Notice the difference between tension and relaxation in the muscles of your face.
Your are now very deeply relaxed. Your body feels warm and heavy. You feel no tension in any part of your muscles. Enjoy these feelings of absolute relaxation as you sink more and more deeply into your chair or support.
Make sure your breathing remains smooth and slow with each exhalation leaving you a little more relaxed than before.
Try to focus as much attention as possible on your breathing, noticing the inflow and outflow of air through your nostrils and using this concentrated attention to free your mind from any worries or concerns.
Spend the next few minutes enjoying the sensation of being in a profoundly tranquil and deeply relaxed state.
I hope you were able to follow these instructions. You will probably find it easier to record the words onto a tape so that you can listen rather than have to remember the different muscles groups that need to be relaxed.