This is the second in a series of Stress Reduction blog posts which are also being featured on the website of my great friend and colleague, Tom Sterner, author of The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life.
Eons ago, when we had to kill for our food, or run for our lives when our food tried to kill us, the stress response, often referred to as the “fight or flight” response, came in very handy by releasing hormones that helped us to survive. These much-needed hormones helped us to run faster and fight harder by increasing our heart rate and blood pressure, delivering more oxygen and blood sugar to power important muscles; and by increasing sweating in an effort to cool these muscles and help them stay efficient. They diverted blood away from the skin to the core of our bodies, reducing blood loss if we were damaged. And in addition to this, these hormones focused our attention on the threat, to the exclusion of everything else.
Fast forward to the present day. It is the rare occurrence, (thankfully), that we experience the degree and severity of the threats to our well-being that our ancestors faced on a daily basis. And yet, our bodies are still assaulted with the fight-or-flight response on a daily basis. In our working lives, much of our stress comes from things like work overload, conflicting priorities, inconsistent values, over-challenging deadlines, conflict with co-workers, unpleasant environments and so on. Not only do these reduce our performance as we divert mental effort into handling them, but they can also cause a great deal of unhappiness.
However, although these events occur without obvious threat to our survival, we frequently respond to them as perceived threats. These perceived threats then trigger the hormonal fight-or-flight response. To add to this stress potpourri, research shows that we experience the fight-or-flight response even when we simply encounter something unexpected. The situation does not have to be dramatic: you can experience this response when you are frustrated or interrupted, or when you encounter a situation that is new or in some way challenging. You can see how this hormonal, fight-or-flight response is a normal part of everyday life and a part of everyday stress. However, even though this is going on in your body, it may be occurring with such a low intensity that you don’t even notice it.
So what’s the big deal (you may ask)? The big deal is that these ongoing experiences of stress can wreak havoc on your physical, mental and spiritual self, and put you on a path to an early grave.
Almost every system in your body can be damaged by stress. If your stress response remains turned on, the chances of getting a stress-related disease may be increasing. Too much continued stress can seriously affect your physical and mental well-being. It can interfere with your normal daily activities, diminish your self-esteem, impair relationships, and decrease work and academic effectiveness. Stress can lead to self-blame, self-doubt, feeling burned out, or becoming clinically anxious or depressed.
This is rapidly becoming a very depressing picture……….which can add to our stress. But all is not lost. Is stress inevitable? Is it a daily fact of life? Well, yes and no. What are unavoidable are the many stressors that exist in all the areas of our lives. But it is NOT the stressors themselves that are the culprits, but how we EXPERIENCE these stressors that can often leave us feeling burned out, tense and irritable. Much of what we experience as stress comes from a combination of thoughts and emotions – thinking about the past or worrying about the future (this shows up in our constant internal dialogue, when we are trying to make decisions, as we worry about if we will meet a deadline, or deal with dwindling finances at home). And the key to managing our stress is to learn how to CHANGE OUR EXPERIENCE OF STRESS by throwing out the old habits and replacing them with new ones.
Next up: Awareness, Awareness, Awareness