Stress. Even reading the word ‘Stress’ can trigger a stress response in us. When we see the word on some level we begin to think about our own stress and whether or not we are managing it. We have all heard stories about people who end up needing medical attention, whether it is for an acute physical result of stress such as a heart attack, or an emotional result like depression. But that’s not going to happen to us? Right? They should have known they were stressed and done something about it.
That’s often the problem with stress. We might not even know that we are suffering from stress and, in my experience I would say that the vast majority of people are stressed. What does that mean though? It means that we are putting our bodies through a constant state of being in the stress response, or the ‘fight or flight’ response as it is commonly called. This means that we are not breathing correctly and that our bodies are producing hormones on a constant basis in order to combat stress when these hormones should only ever be released in short bursts for situations like jumping out of the way of an oncoming car!
The Stress Process
My view of Stress Management differs considerably from the norm. I do not believe that ‘good stress’ is necessary at all and I will attempt to explain that here. It helps to clarify the three levels of the stress process in order to understand this. We need to understand that potential stressors, the stress reaction and stress are different things, but together they make up the Stress Process.
It has been said time and again that stress is unavoidable but this is incorrect. It is impossible to avoid potential stressors but how we react to these potential stressors is up to us and this impacts how stressed we become. Potential stressors can really be anything, from moving house to making breakfast for the kids, from going for a job interview to going on a first date. They can be physical, emotional, psychological or environmental.
Very often what we would judge as the ‘nice’ things in life can be just as potentially stressful, or even more so, than what we might judge as being unpleasant. For example, getting married is often rated as one of the most stressful experiences that people have. They are all events or experiences that happen as a part of everyday life. How we react to these events is where we enter the realm of the stress reaction, which is where Stress Management, or Stress Elimination (as I prefer to call it), techniques can be used.
The Stress Reaction
One aspect of the understanding of stress that causes a lot of confusion is how different writers refer to the stress reaction as ‘Stress’.
For example in the excellent book The Okinawa Way which I refer back to quite regularly they state “…we can think of stress as being internally defined in a very personal way. It encompasses how you personally respond to a stressor. If you react positively to it, there’s no problem. It’s when stress is dealt with in a negative manner, or is prolonged, that health problems occur.”
I would say that how you personally respond to a stressor is not ‘Stress’, it is your stress reaction. We often hear people say that they ‘need’ some stress in order to carry out their work to the best of their abilities. Even Hans Selye, who was the person who really started all research into stress in the 1930’s, believed in the idea of ‘good stress’ or ‘eustress’ as he called it. Again, I would say that we can have a ‘good stress reaction’ but that the idea of ‘good stress’ is misleading.
I have seen many definitions of what ‘Stress’ is but I believe it is helpful to clearly view ‘Stress’ as being the adverse physical, mental and emotional state we find ourselves in as a result of a negative stress reaction. Prolonged stress as the end result of on-going negative stress reactions to potential stressors causes neurochemicals to be released in the body which wear down the immune system, which in turn leads to increased risk of infection, hypertension cardiovascular disease, , and even cancer. So, a situation, in and of itself, is not stressful, it presents potential stressors. How we react to those potential stressors is our stress reaction and this positive or negative stress reaction then impacts our level of stress.
Is ‘Good Stress’ Really Good?
Emphatically, no. There are many professionals who promote the myth that they do their best work under pressure. If their stress reaction is positive and they are not creating physical, mental or emotional issues that would be fine. The truth is that that so-called ‘good stress’ causes just as much ill-health as ‘bad stress’. Your body does not know the difference between them. However, any potential stressor can be dealt with in such a way as to cause no internal stress. By using a positive stress reaction we can use the event to unlock our creative power, in a completely relaxed way. Of course this is not as easy to achieve as it sounds but it is possible. Like anything, it takes practice.
My own Experience With Stress
After finishing college I worked in an office environment for almost twenty years, mostly at senior management level. This job was in the litigation area of the financial services industry, which presented a lot of ‘potential stressors’. Until I learnt how to deal with stress I regularly had bad lower back pain, headaches and vertigo. I started to learn Tai Chi in 1998 and it changed everything. Within a short space of time my posture was different, I carried myself differently and I was dealing with potential stressors in a different way. I became aware of just how stressed I was and began a journey through Tai Chi, Qi Gong, Meditation, Personal and Spiritual Development.
First Steps to Stress Elimination
Adjusting our posture using four simple principles from Tai Chi allows us to change how we breathe. Normally when we enter a potentially stressful situation our bodies react in a number of ways, one of which is to give us a quick burst of energy by diverting our breath to the upper area of the lungs. Unfortunately, most of us have learnt to breathe this way all the time so our bodies are in a constant state of stress response. By learning to breathe differently, to drop the breath and use ‘abdominal breathing’ or ‘conscious breathing’ we start to move out of this state and start our journey into a more peaceful and creative one.
A Quick Experiment
For a moment take a sudden breath as if you have been startled by something. You will notice that this breath is directed towards the top of your lungs. Then try to pretend you are yawning. You will notice now that your breathe goes to a much larger area of the lungs. Then go back to your normal breathing and see which your normal breath is closer to. Hopefully it is closer to the yawning breath! That would be a great start but with abdominal breathing we learn how to fill the entire lung by fully engaging the diaphragm. This has the effect of massaging all of the internal organs as we breathe, on every single breath.
This is the first step in calming or bodies, of releasing stress and therefore informing our bodies that we do not need stress related hormones and neurochemicals to function. This in turn has a profound effect on our overall health and our sense of well-being.
These principles are fairly easy to learn but they can take some time to re-adjust to. Some people find it easier than others but everyone can do it, which is obvious because it is our natural state. The next time you can observe a baby breathing you will see how the abdomen expands and contracts as they breathe. As we grow older we start to take on mental and emotional baggage that makes our breath shallower and we begin to hold stress and tension in our bodies as the norm.
I highly recommend that you look into the physical end of stress first and foremost. When you have aligned your posture and learned to breathe more efficiently you can then handle releasing psychological and emotional stress much more effectively.
Neal Traynor has held a B.a. in Psychology (UCD) since 1994. He holds a Certificate in Counselling Skills (ICCP) and is a practitioner of Solar Sound Healing and Phytobiophysics. He is the co-founder of the Jade Sun School of Tai Chi & Qi Gong. He currently offers individual and group sessions in Solar Sound Healing, Tai Chi & Qi Gong and ‘The Stressless Self’™. Please see www.achangeofcourse.ie. Email: [email protected].
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