A caveman out on a hunt or a soldier on the front line needs the stress response in his body in order to have the energy to fight; the anticipation of the life-or-death experience puts his entire physiology into a state of red alert. So from a positive perspective, stress enables us to meet challenges, and to push ourselves into new areas of experience or understanding through heightening awareness and focused concentration.
This would be fine if we had a bear to hunt or a war to wage. However, the stress most of us are dealing with is not from life-or-death situations, but is the distress that arises from an accumulation of pressure from much smaller issues. And although each separate incident may appear benign, if our response becomes increasingly stressful and we are no longer able to maintain our equilibrium then the body will put out the red alert.
The stress response is activated when we are unable to adjust our behavior or deal creatively with demanding circumstances; we soon feel overwhelmed, like a steam cooker coming to full pressure. We are the only one who can turn down the heat, but unfortunately we usually feel powerless to do so.
Does talking to your mother-in-law leave you wanting to bite your nails? Does your work overwhelm you and make you unable to cope? What do you do when you just want to scream from pure frustration? Stress is a derivation of the Latin word meaning ‘to be drawn tight,’ which is exactly what happens when too much comes at once.
When there is no animal to hunt or war to fight in which to release the energy accumulating inside us, where does it go? Is it difficult to believe that ulcers or irritable bowel syndrome are connected to high stress levels, that we might get constipation or lose our appetite? What happens to the urge to scream? Is it surprising that marriages suffer, or that alcohol and food addiction is rising?
Few of us like to think of ourselves as stressed; we prefer to think of stress as something that happens to others, without realizing how susceptible we are ourselves, as the cause of stress is not so much the external circumstances, such as having too many demands and not enough time to fill them. Rather, it is about our perception of the circumstances as being overwhelming and our perception of our ability to cope when we feel stretched beyond what we perceive we are capable of. If we believe we cannot cope, then we will begin to lose ground; if we believe we can cope, then we will be able to ride over any obstacles.
Luckily, we can transform our beliefs and our perceptions. The idea that it is our work, family, or lifestyle that is causing us stress, and that if we were to change these then we would be fine, is seeing the situation from the wrong perspective.
Rather, it is the belief that something “out there” is causing us stress that is actually causing the stress. And although changing our circumstances certainly may help, invariably, no matter what we do, it is a change within our belief system and our perception of our capabilities that will make the biggest difference. In turn, this will help develop the relaxation response and begin to normalize everything the stress response has put out of balance.
In a relaxed state we have access to far greater physical and psychological energy levels. That is why stress-management, nap and meditation rooms are fast becoming an integral part of most forward thinking businesses. We can make friends with stress, increase our relaxation response, develop a higher level of adaptability, and the result of such change has a far-reaching effect on every aspect of ourselves, each other and our world.