T MIGHT, seem like a simple concept.
We toss the word around every day. Stress. But
what does stress really mean? Is it the same thing as physiological
arousal? Is it the same thing as workload? Is it any different
from anxiety or unconscious
anger? Is it the cause of
trauma? Is it anything at all? Is it just a
with the concept of change, because life is a process of change.
Therefore, anything that involves change contains within it the
demand that we adapt to it, in one way or another. Graduating
from school can be as demanding as starting school, and starting a new job
can be as demanding as losing a job.
How we perceive
the change really determines how we manage to adapt to it.
If the perception
is positive, we generally embrace the change with open arms and relief. And
the story essentially ends there.
If the perception
is negativethat is, if the change challenges our stamina or
resourcesthe body will automaticallyand dramaticallyrespond
to this perceived threat with a variety of physiological responses.
Responses to Change
in the 20th century, Walter Cannons research in biological psychology
led him to describe the fight or flight response of the
Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) to perceived threats to physical
that SNS arousal in response to perceived threats involves several elements
which prepare the body physiologically either to take a stand and fight off
an attacker or to flee from the danger:
Heart rate and
blood pressure increase
Hearing and vision
become more acute
Hands and feet
get cold, because blood is directed away from the extremities to the large
muscles in order to prepare for fighting or
first popularized the concept of stress in the 1950s. Selye theorized
that all individuals respond to all types of threatening situations in the
same manner, and he called this the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS).
He claimed that, in addition to SNS arousal, other bodily
systems such as the adrenal cortex and pituitary gland may be involved in
a response to threat. For example, chemicals such as epinephrine (adrenaline)
may serve to focus the bodys attention just on immediate self-preservation
by inhibiting such functions as digestion, reproduction, tissue repair, and
immune responses. Ultimately, as the threat wanes, Selye suggested, body
functions return to normal, allowing the body to focus on healing and growth
again. But if the threat is prolonged and chronic, the SNS arousal never
gets turned off, and health can be impaired. With a continuously
suppressed immune system, for example, a person would be more vulnerable
than usual to infectionwhich is one explanation of why some individuals
get sick so
of whether Selye was right or not, psychology, as well as medicine and popular
culture, have accepted the concept of stress as an unpleasant
fact of life.
arousal can be uncomfortable and distracting in situations that might feel
threatening but dont involve an actual threat. Fortunately, this sort
of arousal can be reduced by practicing some form of relaxation. A basic
relaxation technique such as Progressive Muscle Relaxation
(PMR) consciously helps muscles to relax, and, because muscle tension
is one of the triggers of arousal, the PMR process, by decreasing muscle
tension, essentially tells the body that the perceived danger is over and
that systems can return to normal. More advanced forms of relaxation, such
as autogenics and prayer,
cause muscle relaxation through mental imagery.
Hence these forms
of relaxation dont just help to turn off the physiological symptoms
of arousalin the imagination they can actually change ones view
of change, so to speak, so that a change isnt perceived as a threat
in the first place. This is why the benefits of advanced relaxation techniques
extend beyond their physiological benefits and can lead to enhanced performance,
greater self-esteem, and serenity of mind.
Given what we
know about the physiology of arousal due to perceived threats, and given
what we know about relaxation techniques to diminish that arousal, what can
be said about the concept of stress?
A person could,
for example, experience a job loss and respond to its perceived threat not
with healthy problem-solving but with anger. This
anger may be conscious or unconscious, but as long
as it persists a state of physiological arousal will be maintained. In addition,
perhaps this unfortunate person will experience a Major
Depressive Episode or will develop an Anxiety
terms it could be said that this person is under intense stress. In fact,
because of Selyes influence, psychology and medicine have tended to
regard stress as if it were some thing that could
destroy our health and happiness even against our wills.
But it could
just as well be said that the person in the example has simply failed to
accept change in a healthy, adaptive manner.
stress isnt any thing at all. Maybe its
just a descriptive term that our culture uses to normalize unconscious
anger, a fear of love,
a lack of forgiveness, a desperate clinging to
a vain identity, and an absence of a
spiritual life. Maybe stress is just
a convenient mytha fraud in its own rightto shift responsibility
for life away from ourselves and onto something so vague that everyone can
love to hate it.
But those who
accept the discipline of a relaxation technique are at least taking a positive
stepnot to fighting stress, but toward living responsible
general means to be fully aware of what you are doing, while you are doing
it. This means, for example, that while eating breakfast you would be
mindful only of the various sensory experiences of eating the
food; you wouldnt be thinking of that upcoming business
meditation is a term often used in the practice of psychology so that meditation
can be taught without seeming to have any religious implications. Many meditation
techniques, such as centering prayer, Zen Buddhism, and even
Transcendental Meditation, are quite similar to the idea of mindfulness
meditation, and yet there is nothing religious about any of them. They are
all nothing more than psychological techniques to achieve some form
of relaxed, focused mind.
be relaxing because if you focus just on the one thing that occupies you
in the moment you dont have to deal with the anxiety of future concerns.
Mindfulness meditation draws on this realization and allows you to relax
by focusing just on your body in its immediate surroundings: heartbeat,
breathing, environmental sounds, etc. The idea is to notice these things
without judging or interpreting them. Random thoughts, for example, are noticed
as transitory things that simply come and go. If you dont focus on
them, they soon go away as easily as they came, and so they dont bother
youor cause SNS arousal. Accordingly, mindfulness meditation is a very
There is, however,
a problem with mindfulness meditation: since its a passive process,
you cannot stay relaxed unless you do nothing but
for this odd fact can be found in the
Performance-Stress Relationship Curve, which looks like an inverted
U. At zero arousal, you have zero performancewhich means
that youre either sleeping or meditating. At maximum arousal, you
also have zero performancehere, youre incapacitated by
panic. So, curiously enough, the only way to have any performance is to have
This curve idea
is really just common sense about physiological arousal, and it may not represent
anything particularly scientific about what stress may or may
This means that
if you are performing any activity with a moderate to high level of arousal,
such as driving a car, being in a state of mindfulness does not in itself
reduce SNS stimulation. (Remember that mindfulness while sitting quietly
can be relaxing because sitting quietly is not inherently threatening.)
Therefore, although mindfulness can help to increase performancebecause
it increases focus and awarenessto have optimal performance you also
need to use an active form of relaxation, such as progressive
muscle relaxation, autogenics, or
prayer, to keep SNS arousal from becoming
A Lesson from
A pilot in charge
of flying an aircraft is called the pilot in command (PIC). All pilot
training involves coping with equipment failures and other emergencies.
Emergencies can happen no matter how well-prepared and competent the pilot
When an emergency
occurs, physiological changes resulting from the threat to life favor strong
surges of energy in the large muscles, and they foster a narrow focus of
attention on the blood rage necessary for survival.
In a crisis,
however, a pilot needs precise hand and foot movementsnot gross physical
strengthand he or she needs clear thinkingnot the tunnel vision
of rage. Consequently, the natural survival skills triggered
by an emergency can actually contribute to a pilot losing control of the
order to manage SNS arousal in an emergency, a pilotor any
personneeds a third option, a sort of unnatural option:
not fleeing the problem, and not fighting the problem either, but taking
command of it. In an emergency, a person should be pilot in command
of his or her body as one essential step in coping with the overall
aware of breathing rate
of muscle tension.
aware of which muscles are tense
go of muscle tension
of cognitive processes.
aware of internal self-talk
about the situation
thinking and self-defeating thoughts to open, positive thinking and intuitive
The idea of
being in control is not really a solution to change; in fact,
it is actually the cause of all the problems associated with the demands
of change in the first place.
this, lets begin by distinguishing being in control from
thinking ahead, or being prepared, because many persons confuse
these terms. If you have to make a long trip through the desert, for example,
packing survival equipment and a set of tools is good preparation. The
preparation has nothing to do with being in control because no amount of
preparation can prevent your car from breaking down. But being prepared for
a breakdown can reduce the difficulty of coping with it, and it can make
the entire trip more relaxing.
about all the possible objections to a business presentation is good preparation.
All too often someone will complain that such a prepared person, who thinks
in advance, likes to be in control. Its not necessarily
As for the idea
of control itself, we have to consider both the physical
and the psychological aspects of control. On the physical level, you
need to realize that the arousal-relaxation cycle is not something that you
can consciously control. As I described earlier, physiological symptoms of
arousal are triggered by the Sympathetic Nervous System. I didnt mention
that the SNS is one of two parts of the autonomic nervous system
(autonomic means out of conscious control).
The second part
of the autonomic nervous system is the Parasympathetic Nervous System
(PNS). The PNS does essentially the opposite of the SNS: it decreases heart
rate, increases digestion, etc. Hence the relaxation response turns SNS arousal
off by turning on the PNS. So, in essence, you dont really
control the relaxation response; instead, you do the things that result in
the PNS taking control.
On the psychological
level, we also have to realize that, despite the popularand
illusoryimages of invulnerability manufactured for sports and movie
heroes, we are never really in control of our lives. A great
deal of our thought process and creativity takes place on the
level. In fact, anyone who uses an imaginative relaxation technique such
as meditation or prayer gives up control to something greater than
The task of teaching
relaxation techniques, then, is in convincing people that being in
control has nothing to do with relaxation.
Those who resist
this understanding, and who deny their not being in control, have
two courses of action.
They can give
up all initiative entirely, as a sort of futile existential
protest, and resort to substance
abuse as a drug addict or alcoholic. Psychologically, this is all an
unconscious attempt at self-destruction as a sort of
self-punishment for feeling weak and
They can attempt
to seize control of some small part of life to create the feeling that they
at least have control of something. To some extent, this can
function as an illusory distraction that takes your mind off what you cant
control. In Western cultures, men tend to use sports, sex, and wealth to
achieve a feeling of control, while women tend to use glamor and fashion.
But these distractions can also lead you straight
into pathology. An obsession with being in control of your weight can lead
to an eating disorder; an obsession with body-building
can lead to
which, by definition, is a preoccupation with an imagined defect in your
And, even if they dont become obsessions, all
of these distractions lead you into the realm of competition, strife, and
leaving you with the constant need to protect yourself from losing the very
things that you use to puff yourself up in front of others.
The attempt to
be in control of anything actually causes
the best way to cope with change is to get used to letting
goletting go of arousal by trusting in intuitive and creative
processes greater than your conscious thinking. Its a bit like Luke
Skywalker, in Star Wars, deciding to turn off the computer to let
something greater than logic guide him.
you should always be pilot in command, even if youre never
in control of anything.
Trying to be
in control is just a vain illusion that you can determine what happens
next in your life.
command means that even though you cant control what happens next,
you can make decisions about what to do in response to whatever
1. The threat
of change is perceived individually.
This means that
there are no absolutes to SNS arousal. An activity which feels threatening
to one person may not be at all threatening to someone else. Im a private
pilot, I enjoy flying small airplanes, and I really have had fun flying
aerobaticsbut there are many persons who would freeze in panic at just
the thought of flying upside down.
relative quality of threat is why so-called psychological
stress tests are of better use for entertainment than clinical
assessment. In fact, if you need a stress test to discover how much your
resources are being challenged by changes in your life, forget the
scorethe very fact that youre so out of touch with your body
and your mental health as to need a stress test is a clinical statement
2. For any
individual, some activities are more physiologically arousing than others;
accordingly, a less threatening activity can provide a relative sense of
relaxation after a highly threatening activity.
This means that
a person in a demanding job, such as options trading, or air traffic control,
or emergency medicine, might find an activity such as woodworking to be relaxing.
Even though woodworking may have its own inherent demands, it can be a major
relief from the life-or-death decisions a person may have to make as a daily
part of his or her job.
3. Some activities
are more efficient at relieving SNS arousal than others.
This means that
even though a person in a demanding job might find woodworking relaxing,
there may be other activities, such as meditation, that can be more relaxing
than woodworking. Accordingly, you should try to pursue the most direct form
of relaxation possible.
that some forms of relaxation can turn out to be more demanding than you
imagined. A project to build your own airplane, for example, can become a
real nightmare. So be careful not to get trapped in what started as a seemingly
4. No matter
what relaxation method you choose for relaxation, the underlying mechanism
is the same.
This means that
meditation works in essentially the same way as woodworking. Remember the
basic physiology of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems:
relaxation works by encouraging the PNS to turn off the SNS arousal.
A relaxing activity provides relief from an arousing activity simply because
the arousal is turned offor at least turned down.
Note that this
maxim applies also to medications. Although all medications work by different
physiological processes, they allprescribed (anxiolitics, such as valium),
over-the-counter (such as alcohol), and street drugs (such as marijuana or
heroin)ultimately have the effect of influencing the SNS arousal to
Frustration: Psychological Counsels
experience feelings of frustration when someone or something obstructs them
in some way. And most individuals respond to the feeling of frustration by
wanting to force the other to provide satisfaction. The healthy
response to frustration, however, requires a different psychological attitude
frustrated, instead of getting angry at the situation
or at others, sit back, relax, and wait. Say to yourself
As things develop, I
will, through listening to guidance from my
unconscious, adapt to changing circumstances and grow
not get what I want when I want it; I trust that things will work out in
their own good time, for my ultimate benefit, as long as I remain
calm and peaceful.
not get what I want at all, and yet, in remaining calm and attentive, I may
discover something else that I need even more than what I
thought I wanted.
So its simple:
take responsibility for your life, adapt peacefully to life changes, and
you will find true peaceand joyin all that you do.
Shows how to turn the emotional wounds
of daily life into psychological growth. Available as a paperback book or
as an e-book.
advertisingno sponsorjust the simple truth . . .
Doublet, S. (2000). The Stress Myth. Chesterfield, MO: Science &
2. Cannon, W. B.
(1929). Bodily changes in pain, hunger, fear and rage: An account of recent
research into the function of emotional excitement (2nd ed.). New York:
3. Selye, H. (1956).
The Stress of Life. New York: McGraw-Hill.
4. But note the
claim of a suppressed immune system implies that the system is shut off.
This is far than being supported by research. A temporary small reduction
in lymphocytes or T cells does not make that much difference. Most of the
studies on the effects of stress are correlation studies where the
stressor is assumed and the effect is also assumed. No cause
and effect relationship has even been established. Serge Doublet,
personal communication, July 2001.
Yerkes-Dodson Law. See Yerkes, R. M. and Dodson, J. D. The
relationship of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation. Journal
of Comparative Neurology, 1908; 18:459482.
International About Positive Music (and negative music).
Stress Myth this site is essentially an advertisement for
the book, but in reading over the information you can get a good sense of
the basic problem with the popular concept of stress.
Related Pages within A Guide to Psychology
and its Practice:
INDEX of all subjects
on this website