Stress: Know Thy Frenemy

Stress: Know Thy Frenemy July 17, 2018

The first step towards any solution is a good and comprehensive understanding of the problem. If you want to understand the concept of stress in an integral, complete, or holistic manner, you must at least consider these three major perspectives:

  • The physical stress reaction – fight or flight
  • Mental or internal influences
  • Social or environmental influences

Knowing more about each of these three perspectives will enhance your understanding and form an operating definition that is simple enough to be understood by the common man, and complex enough to encompass all the information gathered about the specifics of stress, including physical, psychological and social research.

The following explains the three major perspectives of stress, the physical (the fight or flight response), the mental (squeezing the orange) and the social (overwhelming situations). The physical perspective is related to the symptoms of stress, while the mental and social perspectives shed a light on the causes of stress.

Perspective # 1 – The Fight or Flight Response

The most prominent idea is that stress is a biological or physical response, often referred to as the fight or flight response. We all understand this response intellectually. When our ancestors were faced with dangers, for example, a neighboring tribe preparing for war or a dangerous animal preparing for an attack, the physical response to that situation was physical stress, preparing them for either fight or flight. This meant increased hormonal flow, including endorphins and adrenalin, a rapid heart rate, increased tension in tendons and muscles; all of which was preparing them for a quick sprint or a vicious battle. At the same time other functions of the body slowed down considerably, for example when digestion was halted while stomach acids tried to burn the remnants of food in the stomach. Sometimes the body’s reaction was to relieve itself of any excess food through either vomiting or diarrhea, all perfectly understandable in a dangerous situation.

Modern Man

Fast-forward a few centuries, and here we are, the modern man. Most of us don’t have to face dangers like the ones described above, but the fight or flight response is still very real and is still triggered on regular basis. The question we need to answer is simple: “Can the fight or flight response still be useful?”

If you have ever procrastinated and then found yourself energized to complete a task at the last minute, then you have used the beneficial aspect of the fight or flight response (not the procrastinating part, but the energizing part). You see, with all its negative long-term effects, the fight or flight response still gives us energy, and if we know how to use that energy, then stress is potentially good, at least in the short term. Many professions have made a practice out of directing this energy, using the fight or flight response almost on a daily basis. Firemen, police officers, professional athletes and military service personnel are all trained with this in mind, they are taught to direct their energy, to use stress constructively. The same is true for a wide variety of other professionals. If stress is a part of the job, then people either learn to use stress and then cope with the effects, or they won’t last long on the job.

The downside is that the body can only take so much stress, and if the fight or flight response is overused, then the results can be disastrous. The overuse of stress increases the likelihood of many of diseases and problems, including aches and pains, diarrhea or constipation, nausea, dizziness, chest pain, rapid heartbeat, eating too much or not enough, sleeping too much or not enough, social withdrawal, procrastination or neglect of responsibilities, increased alcohol, nicotine or drug consumption and more.

What does that mean for the modern man? Well, it means that he needs to learn not to be overstressed every day of every week and that he should learn to choose his responses more carefully and only use the fight or flight response when absolutely necessary. Stress can be effective when one is a racecar driver, but not when one is stuck in traffic. Learning to differentiate between the beneficial and harmful uses of stress and manage one’s responses is a vital part of stress management.

Countless books have been written about the fight or flight response, about the physical aspects of stress and the diseases that stress can cause. Unfortunately, many of these books have an either-or attitude and are on a misunderstood crusade to eliminate stress from society. This has resulted in a fear of stress that debilitates some people. Instead of learning how to direct the energetic component of stress once they feel the physical symptoms, they have become afraid of them, and, if their heart starts beating faster, their palms start sweating and they feel a knot in their stomach, they don’t interpret that as energy, but as anxiety, and behave accordingly.

Direct or Dissipate

I have found that the simple act of re-interpretation has helped many people to cope with the physical symptoms of stress. Instead of letting their minds race around, they start looking for ways to direct the energy, or, if not applicable, they focus on taking deep breaths and relax in order to dissipate the energy. If stress is thought about in terms of energy, then these are the two most constructive responses, either direct or dissipate. If neither happens, then the energetic tension builds without any physical, emotional or mental release, causing significant discomfort on all levels. As I have suggested already, no one can avoid stress altogether and they shouldn’t have to. That is exactly why it is essential for every living human being to learn how to activate the relaxation response on a regular basis to counteract the harmful effects of the fight or flight response.

It’s a Sprint, not a Marathon

This brings us to a very important idea. Think of the difference between the person using stress in sprints and the person who is continually stressed like she was running a marathon.

The marathon approach to stress is bound to fail; trying to wind up and reach a stressful state on a Monday morning and then struggle to keep the pace throughout the week, month or year will most likely result in all the worst symptoms and diseases stress has been associated with. On the other hand, the sprint approach is likely to result in a much more balanced life. Using the fight or flight response in short bursts, focusing and directing the energy when engaged in specific tasks and getting adequate rest in between is a recipe for successful stress management.

While there can be some genetic factors and chemical imbalances that predispose certain people to experience more or less stress, understanding the fight or flight response does not effectively tell us why we become stressed, for that we need to dig deeper.

Perspective # 2 – Squeezing the Orange

One of the best metaphors about human reactions to external provocations was articulated by Dr. Wayne Dyer. The metaphor is based on his question: “What comes out when you squeeze an orange?” The answer is obvious. It’s orange juice. When you squeeze an orange, the only thing that comes out is orange juice. No matter how you squeeze an orange it never produces apple juice, pear juice, lime juice or any other juice; only orange juice. Even if you squeeze it with two lemons, it still produces orange juice, because that is what is inside the orange. Using the orange metaphor I ask: “What happens when you squeeze a person?” Not in a blood-and-guts-horror-movie kind of way, but what happens when you squeeze someone mentally or emotionally? What comes out? Similar to the orange it is safe to say that what comes out is what is already on the inside. No matter the external provocation, our reaction is always based on what is already on the inside; it is based on our own mindset.

Our reaction reflects our character, our personality, our predispositions and our genes. No one and nothing on the outside is making us react in a certain way, no matter how socially acceptable our reaction is. The fact of the matter is that we are responsible for our reactions, period! In Wayne Dyer’s own words: “The components of anxiety, stress, fear, and anger do not exist independently of you in the world. They simply do not exist in the physical world, even though we talk about them as if they do.”

With this in mind I have devised a one-sentence definition that explains all the major causes of stress:

“Stress is caused by a personal reaction to internal and/or external stimuli.”

“But that is not true!” you might exclaim. “I am not responsible for making myself stressed; it’s my job, my spouse, my kids, the government, the police, the doctors, etc. They are the ones making my life hard, they are causing the stress.”

While there is an inkling of truth in that sentence, the fact of the matter is that we cause most of our own stress with our reactions to both internal thought processes and external events. For you, this is both good news and bad news.

The bad news is that you will likely continue to react in a similar way to most of the provocations that have “made” you stressed until now, based on your predispositions and conditioning through the years. No matter how hard you try, you can hardly change all your characteristics, even though you can adapt and change some of your responses with time. And that is the good news. You can make some changes and develop new habits that reduce the negative effects of stress on your life. With time you can develop a more constructive mindset, and learn to control your instinctual reactions better or catch yourself in the act so to speak.

Worry, Regret, and Pain

Any internal stimulus that produces stress is based on our thoughts. These thoughts are then likely to be either about the past, the present, or the future. Thoughts about the past and future seem to induce more stress than thoughts about the present, which is why many teachers emphasize focusing on the present moment. They tell us that there is great power in the NOW, that this moment is completely free of stress, that there is nothing to do, nowhere to go.

While I principally agree with the NOW movement I also challenge their thinking to a degree. There are quite a few exceptions to the being-present-rule. I have for example worked with cancer patients who were going through very trying times in their therapy, and they couldn’t stand to think about the present moment, they needed to envision a better future or remember an enjoyable time from their past to feel slightly better. The present moment was simply a torment. This can be true in a number of other situations where the present moment is simply too awful and painful to intently focus on.

When the past induces stress it is usually because of regret, which is based on the faulty idea that people can somehow change their past. The fact that it is impossible to change the past doesn’t seem to deter people from thinking in this way. Regretful and negative thoughts about the past can effectively induce the same kind of fight or flight response that external threats stimulate. The problem is that there is no one to fight except ourselves and there is nothing to run from except the past memories we carry with us wherever we go.

Worry seems to be the future projection that creates a lot of stress. People project worst-case scenarios into the unborn future, but the stress reaction in their body is immediate.

My point is that focusing on the past, present or future can have both positive and negative effects.

  • Excessive worry about the future can be bad, while hopes and dreams can be good.
  • Regret because of the past can be destructive, but learning lessons from previous events and having good memories can be great.
  • Focusing intently on the present is usually stress-relieving and liberating, but sometimes the present moment is too sad or horrible to dwell on.

Your Reaction?

Your reaction when someone ‘squeezes your orange’ will be largely determined by your attitudes. It can basically be anticipated by whatever is on your mind. For some people this is a bitter pill to swallow. They will find studies portraying evidence to the contrary, in essence telling them that they are pawns and cannot control the fact that they are stressed, that it’s in their genes and social standing. While all that is partially true, the biggest determining factor will always be your mindset towards whatever stimuli you encounter.

The goal is not to create a perfectly stress-free life, because there is no such thing. The focus should be on creating a manageable life and to cultivate a constructive mindset which can alleviate stress caused by internal dialogue so that you can better control what comes out when someone ‘squeezes your orange’.

Perspective # 3 – Overwhelming Situations

Some events in life are so overwhelming that people will experience stress no matter how good they are at controlling their minds in normal circumstances. If people are faced with life threatening situations, such as a burning building, earthquake, car wreck or a terrorist attack, they will become stressed and rightly so. If people are in an abusive relationship, personal or professional, they will experience higher levels of stress until they get out of that situation. If people are diagnosed with any form of terminal illness, the first response is stress. If their loved ones are in danger then stress is a natural response, closely tied to their degree of attachment. Stress is natural and normal in overwhelming situations.

The Holmes-Rahe Scale

The Holmes-Rahe social readjustment rating scale was posited by psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe (1967). They examined the medical records of over 5000 patients to determine whether stressful events might cause illnesses. The scale scores events according to the stress they cause (the higher the number, the greater the stress). Here is a list of the top external causes of stress according to the Holmes-Rahe scale:

Death of a spouse                                                 100
Divorce                                                                      73
Marital separation                                                  65
Imprisonment                                                         63
Death of a close family member                          63
Personal injury or illness                                       53
Marriage                                                                    50
Dismissal from work                                               47
Marital reconciliation                                             45

There are two reasons why I bring up the Holmes-Rahe scale. Firstly, I want to show that the list is composited of very valid reasons, reasons that are socially acceptable and would cause most of us to experience stress. Secondly, I want to point out that the degree of stress each of these events will prompt is still directly related to the mindset of the person experiencing the stress. No matter how socially acceptable or environmentally significant these events are, stress is still caused by our reaction and our reaction is largely based on our mindset.

External Events Affect Us

There is no way around it – our environment is always going to affect us. We are affected by the weather, the traffic, our family, co-workers, friends, our financial situation, political turmoil and much more. When we are dealing with external provocations, we only seem to have two viable choices:

  • Stay and adjust
  • Leave

The third choice is not really viable, because it is to stay and suffer. When I lived in my native country of Iceland the weather was always a huge external factor. It affected everyone’s life on a daily basis. The only way to stay sane was to adapt. We had phrases like: “There is no such thing as bad weather, just inadequate clothing.” You can relate to that if you have ever made up a phrase in order to adapt to a situation. People who don’t adapt to the weather in a place like Iceland have likely sentenced themselves to a life of almost constant stress, simply because the weather changes so rapidly. My reasoning is simple. If an environmental factor like the weather is going to control how you feel, then you should probably move to a place where the weather isn’t a factor.

But before you move, you should discern between control and effect. The weather is always going to affect us, but when we don’t allow it to completely control how we feel and act, then we have adapted.

The exception is when a person that has developed an entrenched mindset for blaming the environment or other people for her levels of stress moves or escapes from her situation. Then she will likely find something in her new environment that bothers her just as much. Her blaming and persistent thinking about whatever she doesn’t like now will continue to “cause” her stress because blaming is her predominant mindset.

That is why I always suggest to people that they work on their mindset first and try to adapt to the situation they are in. If that doesn’t work, then they can “get the hell out of there” as fast as they can, if they choose to do so. The obvious exceptions are when people are in imminent physical danger or stuck in an abusive situation. In those cases, it’s better to get out first and work on the mindset later.

Stop the Blame Game

I know that it is easy to get caught up in external circumstances and blame them for stress. It’s socially acceptable, people understand it, and almost everyone does it do some degree. But if you want to reduce stress then I advise you to stop overreacting to things you cannot change or directly control.

  • Stop wishing that other people would act differently, either accept them for who they are or stop being around them
  • Stop wishing that the traffic wasn’t so heavy, you live here, this is rush hour, deal with it
  • Stop hoping for the weather to change, this is where you chose to live, either accept it or move
  • Stop complaining about your job, either do it well or find another job
  • Stop complaining about your spouse and kids, you chose this life with them, either accept your situation or leave
  • Stop the blame game

Most of the events in your daily life are not as overwhelming as you make them out to be. Accept that and you will experience more stress-free moments; moments filled with peace and joy in your everyday life. If you want to stop the blame game you need something simple you can repeat to yourself; something that helps you to remember valuable life lessons, something like the Serenity Prayer which says: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” This classic prayer instructs us to ask a higher power to help us find the courage to accept the things we cannot change (our environment and other people), to change the things we can change (our thoughts, words, and actions) and to help us find the wisdom to know the difference.

Everyone can follow this advice to a certain extent, but sometimes people have a hard time finding the wisdom to know the difference between what they can and cannot change. When they have a hard time seeing the difference they need to borrow wisdom from outside sources that have more experience in the matter than they do.

“If All You Have is a Hammer…”

Abraham Maslow famously said that: “If all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.” If people only use one of these three perspectives to manage stress then the result will be less than perfect. If they only focus on the body, either through constructive methods such as exercise and relaxation or destructive habits such as alcohol or drug abuse, then they will never get to the root causes of stress. On the other hand, if they only focus on positive thinking or try to solve social issues, that too will have a limited effect on their efforts. We all need to expand our toolkit and use all three.

Gudjon Bergmann
Interfaith Minister and Author
Founder of Harmony Interfaith Initiative

The column was taken from the book Yes! You Can Manage Stress: Regain Control of Your Life Using the Five Habits of Effective Stress Management (2011) © Gudjon Bergmann

Pictures: CC0 License


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