Welcome to my new series, Taming the Beast, a series of articles on stress and fear management.
The articles in the series are excerpts from my booklet, Taming the Beast, the Little Book of Stress Management (availble in my bookstore on Lulu.com).
Follow along as we look at ways to make your life a little smoother, calmer and more relaxed. I hope you enjoy my new creation. Sincerely, - Craig
I can still remember as if it were yesterday, the emotions from a day many years ago. On that day, my boss walked into my cubicle and threatened me. His voice still rings in my ears, yelling at me about how our project was behind schedule. With painful clarity, I can still see the e-mail memo he sent me later that day, with copies to the director of engineering and the company human resources office. It contained the following words in boldface font:
Failure to deliver this project on time will result in disciplinary action, including possible termination.
There’s nothing like a little negative reinforcement to darken one’s day. Deadlines and threats, tensions lasted for weeks. The very thought of going in to work made me feel ill. I realized then, as never before, the power of stress to affect one’s physical and mental health.
We’ve all had those moments, those days from Hell. - Your exam is in two -days, and you are nowhere near prepared. - Your boss is standing in your office, asking you for the quarterly sales report. - Your marketing plan is due tomorrow morning and you still don’t have the important numbers for page 2. - Your in laws are coming to visit – tomorrow!!!
In each case, or in whatever your situation may be, you can feel the tension build. Images pile up in your brain – images of failure, images of the awful things that could happen if...
As raging stress hormones course through your body, your chest tightens. Your face feels hot. You want to snap your pencil in half - or maybe punch someone. They call it Stress, and it can make you ill. If left unchecked, stress can kill you.
In this article series, I hope you will find some simple tools to help reduce the stress in your life. Here, we will discuss some of the drivers of stress – what causes it, what aggravates it and what can help you come to grips with those factors in your life causing you the greatest troubles. Read on, and use this knowledge to help reduce the stress in your life today.
What is Stress, the Nature of the Beast
What is the stress monster? How does it live? Where does it feed? According to the Mayo Clinic website on stress management[i], “Stress is a normal psychological and physical reaction to the ever-increasing demands of life.”
Stress is a fundamental survival tool of the human mind/body. It helps us fight or flee. It saves us from monsters, saber tooth tigers, muggers during the night and politicians during the day. It is an automatic response, occurring when the mind detects what it decides may be a threat.
The Fight or Flight Response What happens when that mugger appears at the opposite end of a dark alley? The human body is an amazing machine, programmed for survival. When a threat appears, when that alarm goes off, somewhere within the inner brain, a powerful cascade of events takes place. The result,a host of resources are mobilized. Human becomes superhuman.
Imagine for a moment, the human body as analogous to a naval vessel - a battleship, submarine or destroyer. Under normal circumstances, life is routine. Regular activities such as maintenance, navigation, daily life and keeping watch occupy the day. Life is calm and routine. Then, suddenly the enemy is detected.A ship,aircraft or submarine appears on the radar. Battle Stations! Routine is forgotten as everyone scrambles to their posts, alert and ready to fight.
Now let’s imagine the ship is your body, and the enemy is some threat, a saber tooth tiger, or worse yet, the boss in your cubicle. Danger, Danger... When the inner battle stations sound, within the brain and endocrine system, a complex cascade of events occurs. The body readies itself to confront the danger – either by fighting or escaping.
Like the radar on the ship, your brain continuously monitors your surroundings,watching for threats. Fine-tuned over millions of years to identify dangers in the environment, it is alert and does its job well. It detects something. Within the most primitive inner centers of your brain, your hypothalamus receives signals from the brain’s sensory areas and sounds the warning. The alarm goes out. Your brain stem recruits your sympathetic nervous system, the wiring within your brain and body that increases activity. On the ship, the crew scrambles to their stations in preparation, alert and ready. Just like aboard the ship, within your body, the scramble begins. A cascade of electrochemical reactions occurs, the fight-or-flight response. Hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline flood into your system. They shut down digestion, focus your attention on the threat, divert blood flow to your muscles and promote the rapid release of energy. Any unnecessary activity is set aside as you prepare for battle
Like that ship confronting the enemy, your body is now at battle stations. Engines are at full speed, watertight doors closed and guns locked on target. You are ready to do battle - or to get away as fast as you can. Either way, your only goal is to fight and survive.
Stresses, Ancient and Modern Unlike prehistoric times, we have very few saber-toothed tigers stalking us today. While there are muggers in dark alleys, thankfully they are rare. Yet the human nervous system is still active, still ready for battle at a moment’s notice. It takes very little to activate the responses needed to take us to red alert. And more often than not, for the cues in the present day environment – those apparent threats such as the boss walking into your office – battle is not the answer.
Consequences of long-term Stress As schedule pressure mounts, as the boss walks into your cubicle, as an argument arises during a meeting, it may feel as if that saber-toothed tiger is just outside your door. During your speech to senior management, it is probably not appropriate to hoist a spear and prepare for a battle (much as you might like to). Your actions need to be more subtle, more refined. You need the higher centers of judgment within your brain – your neo-cortex, rather than your more primitive limbic (emotional) system. This is a time for reason and calm, not for battle.
Stress Drivers in your life
What can happen when we remain at battle stations for too long? How does constant battle-readiness affect the mind, the body and the soul? Like the ship at battle stations, being alert for too long can be exhausting. While guns are at the ready, food is not being prepared. Maintenance is not being done. And worst of all, you are not at rest. You expend energy at a tremendous rate and as time goes on, fatigue sets in. Your mind and body become battle weary.
The mayo clinic site[i] on stress management[ii] describes multiple symptoms, signs that suggest you are undergoing long-term stress: - Headaches, - Digestive issues, - Diffuse pain, - Decreased sex drive, - Decreased attention span, - Irritability and quickness to anger, - More frequent moments of sadness,depression, - Weight gain or loss, - Constant worry
Battle is costly. It takes a lot of energy to be ready for a fight. The ship’s crew feels the strain. Guns wear out. Fuel and ammunition run low. Similarly, left unchecked,the consequences of long-term stress on the body can be severe. The most immediate of these are cardiovascular – high blood pressure, strain on the heart and cardiovascular system, general health degradation, and the list goes on. It’s not necessary to describe them here, save to warn you that stress reduction is necessary for your health. If you’re not in battle, you don’t need battle stations. So, what are some of the things in life that make your brain want to go to battle stations?
Home and Family What is life like when you get home from work? Are you welcomed with open arms and a kiss at the door? Do pets and children run to the door to meet you? Or are you confronted with bills, problems and arguments? Is home a safe place for you or is it another battlefield?
Relationships How healthy are your relationships? Do the people in your life support you? Does talking with them, being with them make you feel better? Or do you feel drained, sad, or angry after being with them?
Work Probably the biggest driver of stress in life is your work environment. Schedules, performance pressure, competition, struggles to meet the expectations of your peers and those above you on the company food chain – all present those familiar environmental cues to that primitive nucleus of nerve cells at the stem of your brain. You are in danger. The tiger is just outside your office door.
So, now that we have considered some of the biggest drivers, you might take a moment to ask what role each/any of these play in your own life. What elements of your life bring you the most stress? When do you feel the signs and symptoms described above? And most of all, what can you do about them?
In upcoming articles, we will look at ways to secure from battle stations, to relax and let the mind return to a peaceful, resting state. Stay tuned as we look at new ways to bring the stress monster to heel.
I invite you to take a moment to let the ship that is your body sail on a smooth sea with nothing but clear sky and following winds to guide you. See you next time....
I also invite you to visit The Hypnosis Store at www.hypnosis-storefront.com for the latest in self-hypnosis CDs and MP3 downloads to help you boost self-confidence,reduce stress and improve your quality of life.
Credits and References [i] Mayo Clinic website on stress management: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/stress-management/MY00435