1. Ohmygawd! A Saber-Toothed Tiger!
The classic stress response has been bred into our species for our survival. Consider our ancestor coming out of his cave to confront a saber-toothed tiger. With first shock comes:
The Alarm Stage: Blood immediately goes from the front lobes to the back, fight or flight survival centres of the brain. This is fitting, as Conan the Caveman had to react instantly and fight or flee for survival—he didn’t have time to consider the intellectual options that front-brained activity would provide. Blood also leaves the digestive centres and goes to the large skeletal muscles to give him super-human strength. Good idea, since what does digestion matter if you might be dead in a few minutes? We have stories, even today, of petite women picking up cars to rescue a hurt child—a feat impossible without the adrenal rush that is generated by the stress response.
However, in our century, we aren’t facing tigers. More likely it’s an unappreciative boss or a difficult family member from whom it is inappropriate to flee or hit. While we are trapped into back brain reactive survival patterns, the stress is on-going, and new ideas and choices, a front brain activity, are impossible. Digestive problems and other physiological changes with medical implications ensue, as the emergency alert orders are sent out by the adrenal system.
What else is happening during the stress response?
Other physiological reactions:
Glucose is released, requiring insulin from the pancreas. Over a prolonged period, this may contribute to diabetic conditions. Your heart beats faster to get oxygen to the brain, leading to higher blood pressure. The body releases cholesterol into the blood for energy. The blood clotting mechanism steps up—a great idea if the tiger claws you, so you won’t immediately bleed to death. Over the long haul, this leads to deposits which clog arteries, arteriosclerosis and the possibility of stroke. Your pupils dilate to increase peripheral vision for heightened awareness of possible attackers. Not so great today if you are stressed because you are studying for an exam, and read everything three times with no focus or comprehension! Cortisone is released from the adrenals, affecting the thymus and suppressing the immune system. Muscles tense as part of the Tendon Guard Reflex, the tension running down the neck, shoulders, spine and legs, causing much of the chronic back muscular pain many people experience daily.
This illustrates how major 21st century diseases become offshoots of the stress response which was inbred into our species to serve us brilliantly for survival in the moment. However, we must learn to neutralize these automatic stress reactions when they create non-serving wear and tear on our brain body system.
2. Roast Tiger for dinner, Dear?
Response stage: If you take action—fight the saber-toothed tiger—the stress hormones dissipate. Stresses today are different, with little time to deal with the many demands on our system; stressful news on the TV, stressful driving, stressful foods, stressful jobs and relationships. Without stress release techniques in our lives, such as physical exercise and the activities in this book, the stress hormones continue to build until we go into overwhelm.
3. All Stressed up and Nowhere to go.
Overwhelm stage is when the symptoms appear that we readily identify as stress. The body realizes you are not going to flee or fight. At this point the body is storing up the stress hormones to a dangerous level, and must detoxify. Blood leaves the large skeletal muscles, and moves to the organs of detoxification and elimination—the lungs, liver, kidneys and skin. The person feels lethargic and has to sit down, going from mild into more serious overwhelm, and may eventually even faint. Fainting is actually a brilliant defense mechanism. Like the alcoholic who, hopefully, will pass out before dying of alcohol poisoning, fainting is the body’s way of getting you out of the picture before killing yourself from adrenal shock. Instead of cursing our bodies for manifesting symptoms of stress, let us thank them for serving us as best they could for our survival. Don’t condemn the messenger!
Now that we know the nature of the stress response, let us make it our ally and heed the message it is sending.
RULE # 5
There are no hard & fast rules for handling stress.
However, there are a few classic ways to manage stress:
1. Remove the stressor (get rid of the chair you can’t stand)
2. Remove yourself from the stress (take a vacation, so you don’t have to look at the chair, or move it to a back room)
3. Modify the stressor (you don’t have money for a new chair, so instead buy an attractive throw and cover it) – or
4. Re-educate your mind/body reaction (so your buttons aren’t pushed every time you look at the chair)
This is where our holistic techniques spring to the fore. We now can re-educate our mind/body response to stress. We unhook from reaction patterns that determined our actions in the past by utilizing the self-management tools that allow us to rebuild, redirect or conserve our energy. Stress stimuli become like water droplets off a duck’s back. Reducing the stressors, and new ways of effectively dealing with life’s remaining challenges, are the keys.