by William Cahalan, Ph.D.

What is Stress?

Stress is the normal arousal or “charging up” of the body to meet a threat (whether real or only perceived), when this charging up has not led to effectively dealing with the threat and so has continued for a long time. If I get angry when a friend insults me, that anger involves the way I think about and interpret the event, and the resulting rapid heartbeat, rising blood pressure, dilation of my pupils, blood flow away from internal organs to my limbs, etc. This age-old “fight or flight” response prepares me for activity designed to set things right again. If I act ineffectively (through getting too aggressive or being too passive, for example) these mental and bodily activities will continue instead of slowing down again, often without my really noticing them.

So normal arousal and emotion may now become a chronic stress within my body-mind system. If this continues, I may develop headaches due to muscle tension, high blood pressure due to heart over-activity, or some other “stress disorder.” Or I may simply become uneasy, anxious or depressed.

Here are some startling facts about stress disorders: It is widely reported that roughly two thirds of the visits to general practitioner physicians involve stress as a major cause. The three bestselling medications in the U.S. are for symptoms which often involve stress as a major contributor. These widespread symptoms include high blood pressure, anxiety, and arthritis pain.

In this century modern medicine has made great progress in controlling infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and influenza. But non-infectious diseases which appear to be mostly related to stress and other aspects of personal lifestyle have actually increased. These include hypertension, arteriosclerosis, cancer, arthritis, emphysema, and bronchitis.

Of course, the medical problems which can result from stress aren’t the only negative results. Everyday happiness and quality of life suffer as well.

Causes of Stress

These stress-related health problems are most frequent in urban-industrial cultures such as the U.S., Western Europe, and Japan. They seem to be related to our economic system and the related lifestyles. Many of us are time-pressured, driven to be good consumers, feeling that we must continuously make more money and accumulate more belongings. We are often focused on future goals at the expense of enjoying the present. Our everyday lifestyles often invite intellectual activity without much physical activity or pleasurable sensory engagement.

Of course, there are a variety of individual responses to these aspects of our culture. Three factors often make a particular person more stress and illness prone than others. These are lack of a network of intimate friends or family, having a “Type A Personality” (being time-driven, often doing more than one thing at once, and often experiencing generalized hostility), and not having a sense of control in one’s life.

Regarding the sense of control, studies have found that nursing home residents asked to care for a bird or plant showed improved physical health compared to other residents. Unfortunately, nursing homes as well as many work settings often minimize personal control. So one important task is to change these unhealthy aspects of our culture and living environment. But, while this slow process happens, how we respond personally to these outside forces is much more available to change.

Transforming Stress

I will briefly mention a few of the many personal changes which can help transform stress into a cycle of healthy emotion, effective action, and healing relaxation. The most general prescription is to gradually learn to live more in the present, in the moment to moment process of daily life. This kind of awareness goes directly against much of the pressure around us from advertising, schools, workplaces, and television. It therefore can be very elusive. It involves opening our senses more to simple, everyday pleasures available to almost anyone. This opening includes seeing and hearing clearly in each situation, using emotional and bodily responses to discover what is harmful and what is healthy. We then have more freedom to creatively optimize our healthier alternatives.

In developing more moment to moment awareness, one of the things to become aware of is how we needlessly increase our own stress in response to outside stressors – through certain kinds of physical tensing, thinking, and relating to other people.

A stress-prone person often is trying to squeeze him or herself into an ideal image of self which is too narrow. In the process he or she attempts to avoid emotions, and the bodily sensations and actions which go with them, which threaten this ideal self image. These are avoided partly through unconscious, subtle muscle tension.

There are various ways to deal with such tension. Many people do not even notice their tension until they slow down and begin to pay attention. Then one of the simplest methods to learn for moving from over-arousal to a deep relaxation state is called progressive relaxation. Here there is a shift into slower, deeper breathing, while progressively releasing muscle tensions. Thinking and imagining are diminished or at least left more in the background of awareness.

Another approach is meditation while seated or slowly walking. Attention is quietly focused on the sensations of the breathing rhythm (and on the rhythm of walking). Distractions from this focus, especially thinking and imagining, are noted without judgment, and attention is then gently returned to each breath and/or each step.

However, with these methods stressful thinking is often only temporarily avoided or diminished. Unhealthy thinking patterns are largely the way we create muscle tension and stress when responding to the outside world. Unhealthy thinking often involves unreasonable “shoulds” which we say silently to ourselves, applying over generalized and harsh labels (“What a klutz! I never do anything right!”) to ourselves; or we just plain engage in too much thinking, worrying, and so forth. There are ways of developing a moment to moment awareness of unhealthy thinking (this is the essential first step), gradually either replacing it with more realistic, effective thinking, or shifting to more of a sensory focus.

Ineffective relating with other people often accompanies such unhealthy thinking. For example, in conflict situations, being too passive (and often too self-critical) tends to result in depression, while being too aggressive leads to aggression in return, or alienation from the other person. The alternative of healthy assertiveness (with self-affirming thinking) is more likely to lead to the kinds of ongoing, intimate friendships or family relationships which are so important to health and fulfillment.

The means to such changes may include books and audio-tapes on these subjects. For many people, however, the direct guidance of a class or ongoing counseling sessions may be necessary for any lasting change to happen.

Savoring Everyday Moments

Again, the practice of moment to moment awareness, as cultivated in progressive relaxation and meditation, is an important foundation for the changes described above. Being in the present as much as possible not only allows us to notice our unhealthy tensing, thinking, and relating, and to imagine and try other options. It also opens us to the simple everyday pleasure so central to our health and happiness. There can be a sensuous enjoyment of sleeping, eating, conversations, and the rhythms of our bodies within larger natural rhythms such as day and night, and Earth’s seasonal changes.

Such moment to moment “mindfulness” seems to require a regular practice of structured relaxation or meditation sessions (or similar deeply calming activity, such as yoga or walking in natural places). This enables us to bring relaxed, lively attentiveness into each daily activity. Taking regular, brief pauses for mindfulness throughout each day is a great habit for enabling such a transition.

When we are able to sustain such awareness, we are really entering a different experience of time, shifting from relentless, progress-oriented, industrial culture time, to natural, cyclic, Earth time.

As more people engage in present-centered living, maybe this will help our culture evolve toward more harmony with the needs of our human nature, as well as more harmony with the rest of the natural world. Such an evolution involves a return, as Allen Durning wrote, “to the ancient order of family, community, good work, and good life; to a reverence for skill, creativity, and creation; to a daily cadence slow enough to let us watch the sunset and stroll by the water’s edge; to communities worth spending a lifetime in; and to local places pregnant with the memories of generations.”

Recommended Reading:

  • Durning, A. Are We Happy Yet? In Roszak, T., Gomes, M., & Kanner A. Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind, San Francisco; Sierra Club Books, 1995.
  • Kabat-Zinn, J. Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness, New York: Delta, 1990.
  • Ornstein, R. & Sobel, D. Healthy Pleasures, Menlo Park, CA et al: Addison-Wesley, 1989.
  • Remen, R. Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal, New York: Riverhead Books, 1996.

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