‘What goes up must come down’. These words should be engraved on everyone’s brains, particularly those of us who live full and busy lives. We worry about stress, wonder why we don’t do anything about it, and wish it would go away. Seldom do we even stop to ask what it is. If stress gets out of hand it can wear you down, ruin your looks and destroy your peace of mind. Yet stress is the spice of life, the exhilaration of challenge and excitement, the ‘high’ of living with heavy demands. The big secret about stress is that it is not what appears to be causing it that does the damage. It’s how you respond to it that does that. Change your attitude to stress, and you can make it work for you rather than against you. In short, chill out.
What is Stress?
Stress is hard to pin down: fatigue, overwork, loss of blood, physical injury, grief and joy can all produce stress, but none of them accurately describes what it is. The word stress comes from the language of engineering, meaning ‘any force which causes an object to change’. Austrian-Canadian scientist Hans Selye first coined the word stress in relation to humans back in the 1930s. In human terms, it refers to your body’s response to physical, chemical, emotional or spiritual forces that ask you to adapt to them.
Selye discovered a typical physical reaction to stress which he called the General Adaptation Syndrome. Its function is to keep your body in a steady state, known as homeostasis. Every stressor you come into contact with threatens to destroy this steady state. The General Adaptation Syndrome has three states: alarm, where the body becomes alert; resistance, where all systems go in order to meet the challenge and protect you from harm; and exhaustion, which happens if stress lasts for too long and the body’s weakest systems begin to break down, causing illness, chronic fatigue, even death.
You are Unique
Everyone responds differently to stress. This depends to some degree on your conditioning and on the amount of adaptive energy you were born with. This is why some people seem to breeze through stressful situations while others quickly reach exhaustion. Selye believed that once adaptive energy is used up, nothing can be done to restore it. We now know that this is not altogether true, but adaptive energy is certainly precious. This makes it imperative to examine carefully how yours is being used and if it is being burnt up unnecessarily. It also makes it important to remember that what goes up must come down. For making stress work for you means being able to switch off at will. This is something that most of us have to learn to do. Learn to move easily between stress and relaxation, and you will begin to experience your life as a satisfying and enriching challenge, like the ebb and flow of the tides. Then you will never again have to worry about getting stuck in a high-stress condition which saps your energy, distorts your view of the world, and can lead to premature ageing and chronic illness.
Humans are natural seekers of challenge. Primitive man faced the daily challenge of survival—when in danger, the body reacts instantaneously to provide the energy needed to fight or flee, then relax again when the danger has passed. We may no longer need to worry about meeting a sabre-toothed tiger, but we still react to stress with the same physical responses—raised blood pressure and breathing, and a rush of adrenalin throughout the body. The trouble is that modern life, with its noise, quick pace, social pressures, environmental poisons, and our tendency to sedentary, mental work presents many of us with almost constant threat situations. This is particularly true in the business world, where someone, instead of moving rhythmically in and out stressful situations, remains in the danger state for long periods, with all the internal physical conditions that accompany it.
Getting the Balance Right
The automatic, or involuntary, functions of your body are governed by the autonomic nervous system. It looks after the changes in the rate at which your heart beats. It regulates your blood pressure by altering the size of veins and arteries. It stimulates the flow of digestive juices, and brings on muscular contractions in the digestive system to deal with the foods you take in. It makes you sweat when you are hot, and is responsible for the physical changes in your body that come with sexual arousal. This autonomic system has two opposing branches: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic.
The sympathetic branch is concerned with energy expenditure—particularly the energy involved with stress and meeting challenges. It spurs the heart to beat faster, makes you breathe hard, encourages you to sweat, raises your blood pressure, and sends blood to the muscles to get you ready for action. The other branch of the autonomic nervous system—the parasympathetic—is concerned with rest and regeneration rather than action. The parasympathetic branch slows your heartbeat, reduces the flow of air to your lungs, stimulates the digestive system, and helps relax your muscles.
When you are in a state of stress, the sympathetic nervous system comes into play. The parasympathetic branch is dominant when you are relaxed. A good balance between the two is the key to making stress work for you. Balance makes it possible for you to go out into the world to do, to make, to create, to fight, and to express yourself as well as to retire into yourself for regeneration, rest, recuperation, enjoyment, and the space to discover new ideas and plant the seeds of future actions. Unfortunately, few of us get it right by accident—we have to learn.
The secret of getting the right balance between stress and relaxation, between the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches, is three-fold. First, take a look at the kind of stress you think you are under, eliminate unnecessary stressors and discover new ways of working with the others. Second, begin to support your body physically with food, exercise and natural stress relievers (see below for an excellent one) to enable you to face stress with ease. Finally, learn to relax fully so that you can find the right balance between stress and relaxation and keep it. Not only will this help your body stay in balance and increase your level of overall vitality, it can bring you a sense of control over your life that is hard to come by any other way.
HELP WITH STRESS IF YOU NEED IT
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