“Stress is an ignorant state. It believes that everything is an emergency.”
– Natalie Goldberg, American New Age author and speaker
Stress: The Epidemic of the Eighties.
That was the cover story for the June 6, 1983 edition of Time magazine.
The article referred to stress as our leading health problem.
At the time, experts in the field predicted the issue of stress would grow progressively worse with time and, sadly, they were right.
Job stress is the leading source of stress for adults, but stress levels have also intensified in children, teenagers, students and for the elderly.
In North America, an estimated 75 to 90 per cent of all visits to primary care physicians are for stress-related issues.
Present-day stress tends to be more pervasive and insidious because it stems principally from psychological rather than physical threats.
It is associated with deep-seated and hardwired reactions about which most of us have little awareness: the fight or flight response.
There’s an applicable quote from Dr. John B. Arden, American psychologist and best-selling author: “Thousands of years ago, when our ancestors encountered a predatory animal like a lion, it was best to react immediately and not stand around thinking about the lion, admiring its beauty or wondering why it was bothering them instead of tracking down some tasty antelope. Thus, the fast track to the amygdala kept our ancestors alive.”
In Western society, we’re unlikely to confront a wild beast in the forest or a hostile neighbouring tribesman.
The emotional threats we face everyday typically include getting stuck in traffic, a fight with the boss, or family and financial struggles, along with countless unrealistic expectations layered on us by others or self-imposed.
Our bodies, however, still initiate the same, primitive fight or flight responses, though we seldom exercise either option.
Instead, we endure the stress and often with devastating consequences. It’s not hard to see how this unremitting stress can contribute to hypertension, strokes, heart attacks, diabetes, ulcers, chronic fatigue, neck or low back pain and countless other diseases of our modern world.
In fight or flight, the amygdala, the emotional centre in the brain, goes on high alert, and that signals the adrenal glands to produce the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline.
When these stress hormones are surging through our body, our jaw clenches, our gut tightens, our eyes dilate, our blood pressure goes up, our blood sugar goes up, the muscle tension increases — our shoulders get tight — and the serotonin, the natural anti-depressant in the body, starts getting burnt out, leaving us irritable, anxious and depressed.
All of this persistent, chronic, low-level stress weakens our immune system. When on extended “overdrive” it will burn us out.
Think about it.
When we’re stressed we may overreact to the slightest comment.
Our fear is amplified. Our thinking is skewed. We view everything through the filter of potential danger.
You can see how challenging it can be to cultivate a positive attitude or corresponding beliefs if we are perpetually stuck in survival mode.
Our heart and our mind are not open to new and inspiring thought. Our rational mind has become disengaged. We are expressing ourselves from a place of fear, not love.
How can we focus on long-term happiness and success when we are so intently focused on short-term survival? When we are overwhelmed with stress, life becomes a series of ongoing emergencies.
We lose the ability to relax and be in the moment.
According to the American Psychological Association, we may not even feel the physical or emotional warning signs of stress until after hours or days of stressful activities.
It is to our peril that we continue to live in crisis mode — ignoring the warning signs of emotional and physical attack.
The brilliant Hungarian-born Canadian physician Gabor Maté, author of the international best-seller, When the Body says No — the cost of hidden stress, believes that rampant stress and the associated beliefs and patterns that support and sustain it are a major contributor to most forms of illness. In his book he offers compelling evidence to support his assertion.
In my experience, the more self-aware we become and the better our self-esteem, the more we experience self-love, and thus the greater care and concern we have for our mind, body and spirit.
By noticing how we respond to stress, we can manage it in healthier ways, allowing ourselves to come back into balance, lessening the odds of long-term health problems.
Thought it will certainly take time and effort to shift our thinking and learn appropriate ways and means of addressing stress, there are simple ways to calm the fight or flight response.
1. Reduce or eliminate stimulants/sugar, which increase the startle response.
2. Do aerobic exercise. Moving the body starts the endorphins flowing. Endorphins are the opiate-like, feel-good hormones.
3. Get a good night’s rest. Make your bedroom a stress-free zone — a sacred space.
4. Avoid negative people and situations. Grow a circle of positive people.
5. Practise meditation. This can be meditation in the formal sense or any activity that calms the mind and relaxes the body: reading, gardening, painting or journaling.
6. Work on your self-esteem and personal awareness so that you can better understand yourself and the triggers that fire your fight or flight response.
7. Read Gabor Mate’s When the Body Say No. You will be enlightened.
The stress condition is described brilliantly by American author, editor and speaker Marilyn Ferguson, who once wrote, “Over the years your bodies become walking autobiographies, telling friends and strangers alike of the minor and major stresses of your lives.”
We must accept responsibility for the role we play in creating or maintaining stress in our lives.
We can identify our true sources of stress by looking closely at our habits, attitudes and excuses.
Though a certain amount of stress is unavoidable, with effort, you can learn to calm the fight or flight response, relax and bring your stress back to a manageable level.
“Never tell me the sky’s the limit when (I know) there are footprints on the moon.”
– Author Unknown
Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem expert and facilitator. His new book is entitled Extreme Esteem: The Four Factors. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at www.extremeesteem.ca.