Stress...Friend and Foe

Yes...Stress is Unavoidable
No one can live a stress free life. Nor would that be desirable. "Good" stress or as we like to call it, "optimum" stress, is necessary for healthy growth and development. It is the ongoing, relentless, frustrating, unresolved events and, even more importantly, your responses, that wreak havoc on your physical and emotional well-being. Since you do not have absolute control over your universe, the only thing you can truly master is how you respond to it.

On a physiological level, your reaction to stressful events, whether you judge them to be positive or negative, is basically the same. This is an aspect of the famous Fight or Flight response--your body preparing you for action. Your body gears up to be able to do what is required to insure your survival. This "gearing up" is not a cause for alarm if it occurs on a temporary and infrequent basis. But, if your response keeps you in a hyper-aroused state for very long, body systems start to show wear and tear and can result in symptoms such as chronic headaches, anxiety, insomnia, depression, irritable bowel syndrome, Raynaud's Syndrome, hypertension and other chronic, difficult to resolve ailments.

Then, of course, the psychological factors related to stress can take a toll on your emotional health as well. Take for instance the stress of getting fired from your job. Certainly, there is the physiological response but then you take the incident and invalidate yourself with self-talk like "I am worthless", "I can't do anything right", or "What will my friends think?" In this case, the self-talk creates more stress than the initial event of losing your job. The bad news is the effect on yourself initiated by your interpretation of the event. The good news is you can learn ways to manage your interpretations to minimize their negative impact.

Two Approaches to Successfully Managing Stress
One...learn how to recognize your body's stress response and learn how to relax. Two...take stock of your environment and your lifestyle and make changes to counteract the ongoing stress. Which do you think is the hardest to do?

In our counseling experience, we have used biofeedback instruments to train people to change behaviors caused by their stress related disorders. Being able to take your body to a state of deep relaxation is key. If done consistently, your body can recuperate from chronic stress. Since you are in control of your behavior, this is usually the easiest place to start.

The problem with relaxation is that most people think they already know what it is. Unfortunately, stressed individuals have often lost the ability to know in their body what a really relaxed state feels like. When people under chronic stress think of relaxation they often think of recreation or the release created by exercise or even alcohol rather than true physiological relaxation.

Begin with Awareness Training
To effectively manage stress you must pay attention to the signals your body is giving you which tell you what state you are in, stressed or relaxed. Sound easy? Well, if you are like many people, those signals have been ignored for so long you: a) don't know what to look for and/or b) you wouldn't recognize it if you did.

Paying attention to your body signals is a major step in reducing stress. In a fast-paced society, you may often override symptoms of stress in order to be more productive. This ongoing discounting of warning flags can eventually result in conditions that can no longer be ignored.

A simple example... if you feel threatened in some way,
your heart rate increases,
the palms of your hands sweat,
your muscles tense,
your digestion slows down,
all to get you ready for action (Fight or Flight Response).

To inoculate yourself to the effects of ongoing stressors, it is necessary to lower this level of sympathetic nervous system activity into a normal range. Even though there are ups and downs, the nervous system needs to return to a level of relative relaxation after each 'up' cycle. The body requires ample opportunity to relax and 'rejuvenate' after getting geared up for a challenge.

Practice Relaxation Techniques
One of the best relaxation exercises is the practice of abdominal breathing. Yoga, meditation, T'ai Chi and other meditative disciplines often use abdominal respiration to promote relaxation. Biofeedback instruments can monitor specific physiological responses for relaxation training and guiding your body toward functioning normally again. When you practice relaxation consistently, over time the body develops a baseline level of relaxation that provides a 'buffer' against the negative effects of stress. In other words, because you take your body to a relaxed state often, the cumulative effects of this relaxation training provide you with protection from the daily effects of stress. Regular relaxation training is useful as part of a program of disease prevention and maintenance of a healthy lifestyle.

Daily relaxation practice is different from the physical exercise you do to stay in shape. It helps you stay 'in shape' in another way, through helping you maintain optimum functioning. To obtain the most benefits from relaxation means you must be present and attuned to how your body feels. This is just the opposite of going to the gym and reading a book or listening to music while on the Stair Master, treadmill or stationary bicycle. Your body is being worked, but your attention is somewhere else.

If you develop some skill in reducing the physical symptoms of stress and still have a nervous system which usually operates in the 'red zone', you will need to investigate how your current coping strategies and your activities contribute to the level of tension or anxiety in your body. If you feel pushed, exhausted, too busy, irritable and at your wits end much of the time you are probably in the 'red zone' too often. And if there are ongoing, unresolved issues in your relationships at home and at work that you feel you are just 'putting up with' but never seem to change, you are also flirting with the 'red zone'.

Another way to look at this is to use a car analogy. You can view the sympathetic (heightened) nervous system activity as an accelerator pedal and the parasympathetic (relaxation) nervous system activity as a brake pedal. In order to maintain health, you have to apply the brake pedal regularly in order to bring the 'rpms' of your body engine down to normal. This is what regular breathing/relaxation practice helps you do. By resetting the nervous system back down to normal regularly, you stay out of the red zone.

No Pain, No Gain
Probably the hardest thing for human beings to do is change. This is especially true with conscious change, like a new exercise or diet program or changing how you react to things. We like familiarity; it gives us a feeling of certainty. We have the same routines in the morning, relate to our spouse or boss in the same way. And, here is the kicker: we stay the same even in the face of our lives not working the way we would like them to. While useful alternatives like reading a book on relationships, taking a class or seeing a counselor are available, we say no because change is uncomfortable. Where do you think those sayings came from like 'Go for the burn', or 'no pain, no gain?' They all imply some degree of difficulty in order to achieve results. Luckily, the rewards are usually as great as the effort expended!

The Next Step is Yours...
When people realize that stress is having a negative affect on their lives, some are able to reduce the effect of stress on their lives without support. If you are able to make the necessary changes and stick with them, great. If not consider getting professional help.