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The Psychology
of “Stress”


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Page Contents: Introduction (Change, Physiology, Relaxation, and “Stress) / Mindfulness Meditation / A Lesson from Aviation / “Being in control” / Four Maxims / Coping with Frustration


IT 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 “myth”? [1]


Let’s begin 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 negative—that is, if the change challenges our stamina or resources—the body will automatically—and dramatically—respond to this perceived threat with a variety of physiological responses.

Physiological Responses to Change

Walter CannonEarly in the 20th century, Walter Cannon’s research in biological psychology led him to describe the “fight or flight” response of the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) to perceived threats to physical or emotional security.[2]

Cannon found 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

Perspiration increases

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 fleeing. 

Hans Selye [3] 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). Hans SelyeHe 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 body’s 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 infection—which is one explanation of why some individuals get sick so often.[4]

And, regardless 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.

Reducing Physiological Arousal

Physiological arousal can be uncomfortable and distracting in situations that might feel threatening but don’t 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 don’t just help to turn off the physiological symptoms of arousal—in the imagination they can actually change one’s view of change, so to speak, so that a change isn’t 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.

What is “Stress”?

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”?

Well, actually, not much.

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 Disorder.

In traditional terms it could be said that this person is under intense stress. In fact, because of Selye’s 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.

So maybe “stress” isn’t any “thing” at all. Maybe it’s 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 myth—a fraud in its own right—to 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 step—not to fighting “stress,” but toward living responsible lives.


Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness in 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 wouldn’t be thinking of that upcoming business meeting.

Mindfulness 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.

Mindfulness can be relaxing because if you focus just on the one thing that occupies you in the moment you don’t 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 don’t focus on them, they soon go away as easily as they came, and so they don’t bother you—or cause SNS arousal. Accordingly, mindfulness meditation is a very passive process. 

Stress-Performance Curve

Relationship Curve

There is, however, a problem with mindfulness meditation: since it’s a passive process, you cannot stay relaxed unless you do nothing but meditate.

The explanation for this odd fact can be found in the traditional [5] Performance-Stress Relationship Curve, which looks like an inverted “U”. At zero arousal, you have zero performance—which means that you’re either sleeping or meditating. At maximum arousal, you also have zero performance—here, you’re incapacitated by panic. So, curiously enough, the only way to have any performance is to have some arousal.


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 not be.


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 performance—because it increases focus and awareness—to 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 excessive.


A Lesson from Aviation

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 may be.

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 movements—not gross physical strength—and he or she needs clear thinking—not the tunnel vision of rage. Consequently, the “natural” survival skills triggered by an emergency can actually contribute to a pilot losing control of the aircraft.

Therefore, in order to manage SNS arousal in an emergency, a pilot—or any person—needs 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 problem.

Taking command of breathing.

Being aware of breathing rate

Taking slow, deep breaths

Taking command of muscle tension.

Being aware of which muscles are tense

Letting go of muscle tension

Taking command of cognitive processes.

Being aware of internal “self-talk”

Being honest about the situation

Changing focused, negative thinking and self-defeating thoughts to open, positive thinking and intuitive creativity


“Being in control”

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.

To understand this, let’s 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.

Similarly, thinking 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.” It’s not necessarily the case.

As for the idea of “control” itself, we have to consider both the physical and the psychological aspects of control. On the physical level, it’s important 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 didn’t 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 switches off  SNS arousal by switching on the PNS. So, in essence, you don’t really control the relaxation response; instead, you do the things that result in the PNS taking control.

On the psychological level, it’s important to realize that, despite the popular—and illusory—images of invulnerability manufactured for sports and movie heroes, we are never really “in control” of our lives. Much of our thought process and creativity takes place on the unconscious level. In fact, anyone who uses an imaginative relaxation technique such as meditation or prayer gives up control to something greater than rational consciousness.


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 vulnerable.


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 can’t 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
Body Dysmorphic Disorder, which, by definition, is a preoccupation with an imagined defect in your appearance.
    And, even if they don’t become obsessions, all of these distractions lead you into the realm of competition, strife, and revenge, 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 “stress.”

Consequently, the best way to cope with change is to get used to “letting go”—letting go of arousal by trusting in intuitive and creative processes greater than your conscious thinking. It’s a bit like Luke Skywalker, in Star Wars, deciding to switch off the computer to let something greater than logic guide him.

So remember: you should always be “pilot in command,” even if you’re 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.

Being in command means that even though you can’t control what happens next, you can make decisions about what to do in response to whatever happens.


Four Maxims

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. I’m a private pilot, I enjoy flying small airplanes, and I really have had fun flying aerobatics—but there are many persons who would freeze in panic at just the thought of flying upside down.

This “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 score—the very fact that you’re so out of touch with your body and your mental health as to need a stress test is a clinical statement in itself.

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.

Remember also 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 good idea.

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 off—or at least turned down.

Note that this maxim applies also to medications. Although all medications work by different physiological processes, they all—prescribed (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 turn off.


Coping with Frustration: Psychological Counsels

Most individuals 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 than satisfaction.

When feeling 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 with them.

I may 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.

I may 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 it’s simple: take responsibility for your life, adapt peacefully to life changes, and you will find true peace—and joy—in all that you do.


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1. Doublet, S. (2000). The Stress Myth. Chesterfield, MO: Science & Humanities Press.
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: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
3. Selye, H. (1956). The Stress of Life. New York: McGraw-Hill.
4. But note the following: “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.
5. The “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; 18:459–482.

Additional Resources
Dovesong International —About Positive Music (and negative music).
The 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:
Autogenics Training
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Systematic Desensitization
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