Imagine this, your alarm did not go off in the morning, you barely woke up to have enough time to jump out of bed, get dressed and run to the bus station, to get to work on time. On your way out the door, you realize that you forgot your cell phone. Of course you cannot go back as you will miss your bus and be late to work, so you tense up inside knowing what a thrown off day it will be. Just as you get to the station, you realize you missed your ride. Now you will be late for work and you don’t even have a phone with you to notify your boss.
It is at this moment, that you continue to feel extreme tensing of the insides of your body. Your heart may be racing, your stomach churning and your head beginning to throb. What you are feeling can be described by none other, than the word – STRESS.
So how did you feel reading that? Perhaps you have never been in that exact situation, but we have all experienced stress at one time or another in our lives. Most of us on a daily basis in fact!
Well what once started out as a survival mechanism, has today escalated to a mechanism that for the most part works against us and has led to an epidemic of ill health, as well as energy and mood disturbances. Let us thus go on a journey today to find out how stress was and can still be helpful, but how it has predominantly become extremely harmful.
The Origin of Stress
A long, long time ago…how long, well let’s just say about 30,000 years ago, early humans walked this Earth. Their average day probably consisted of fixing up their shelter, caring for their kids, as well as gathering and preparing food.
Life for them may have seemed hard and harsh according to us, but was in fact probably very simple for the most part. The reason for that was that the early humans lived very closely in balance with nature and hence were not easily upset if it got too cold outside, or dark too quickly or rained too much.
Their greatest stress probably came only from coming face to face with wild animals. Life was certainly lived much more “in the moment” and things just were as they were.
At such a time therefore, the stress response or what can also be called the “fight or flight response” was a very valuable thing. If one was faced with an enemy their body would immediately biochemically adjust to accommodate a “fight” or a “flight” reaction, to ensure survival.
Well let’s take ourselves over to present day. As humans have obviously greatly evolved in many areas over the past thousands of years, biochemically their bodies really have not. We are still prone today to the “fight or flight” response at any time that we feel there is an “unpleasant” or “hard” or “life-threatening” situation.
The main difference however is that although it may seem that the “fight or flight” response has become somewhat toned down, its frequency today has greatly increased.
What is the “Fight or Flight Response?”
The general idea behind this response is that whenever an organism is faced with a dangerous (or today unpleasant situation) it has one of two options: to stay and take on its “attacker/villain/situation” or to remove itself from the situation, and thus flee.
This response is innate to almost every organism in the animal kingdom and can even be seen on some much more subtle levels, in some species from other kingdoms. The point is survival and thus the body is doing what is best, in order that the organism survives.
So what exactly is the body doing?
When the senses, mostly the eyes pick up a “dangerous” situation, and register this with the brain, the body begins a series of reactions to counteract the danger by using its resources.
The purpose of the reactions is to drastically produce more energy, thus needing to bring glucose and oxygen in higher than normal levels, to the:
1) Brain – for it to become more alert and be able to strategize more efficiently
2) Muscles – to be able to flee or fight off attacker
And what symptoms do we feel during this time? All of the following, in various degrees:
1) Increased heart rate – to circulate the glucose and oxygen faster
2) Constriction of the blood vessels in skin – to limit bleeding in case wounds occur
3) Dilation of the blood vessels in the muscles and brain – to transport valuable resources faster
4) Conversion of stored glucose into available glucose by the liver
5) Increased sweat production – to lower body temperature, due to increased circulation
6) Increased breathing rate – to take in higher than normal oxygen levels for energy production
7) Increased circulation of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline – to dull effects of pain and sensitivity
8) Appetite suppression
Our body is going to go through all of these symptoms during the stressful situation, and then their opposite counterparts after the stressful situation is over, to bring the body back to balance.
How Something So Valuable Became So Destructive
While no one can argue that the “stress response” does not intrinsically hold great value, we also cannot deny the fact that today it has become grossly thrown out of balance.
What was once supposed to save our life, is today on many levels, taking away our life.
So what happened?
Well here are the two main differences between us and our human ancestors:
1)We, unlike our ancestors live “out of balance” with nature and thus almost on a daily basis find ourselves stressed by our surroundings.
2) Their stress periods may have been extreme, but were rather speaking rare occurrences. It wasn’t everyday that one confronted an angry lion face to face. Our stress responses, may seem more subdued, but for the most part are a daily occurrence for the majority.
See we have to understand, that there is technically nothing wrong with stress, as long as it is acute or rare and short-lived. Our bodies are not weak and helpless vessels that degrade at the first sign of stress. The problem of course is, that most of us live out a chronically stress-filled life. With that kind of environment then, naturally there is only so much our body can handle.
We know enough today, that although not one particular disease can be directly linked to stress, almost every single one is indirectly influenced by stress.
Every time you consciously find yourself stressed, remember what your body is physically doing. Hence, it has no chance to be repairing your tissues, building new molecules, fighting off pathogens, digesting your food properly and a whole slew of other things. Thus our health greatly suffers from stress.
Solution For Harmful Stress
While some of us today may still be faced at some odd time with a truly dangerous, life-threatening situation, at which time our stress response will be very valuable, for the most part the majority of us have to stop abusing this response.
Yes, I said it, we have to stop it. Remember, if you are not conscious, if you are not in control of your body then who is? It is only through accountability that we evolve forward to better solutions for ourselves and each other.
I know a lot of people say “well I can’t help it.” Consider the weight of that response, is it an empowering or dis-empowering one?
As the widely known spiritual teacher, Eckhart Tolle explains, “stress is nothing more than when we want something to be different from what is – thus stress comes from resisting what is.”
Thus, to give you practical applications for this statement would take one or perhaps many more articles which I will cover over time. But for today, I want you to just focus on that statement alone, and try to see how bringing awareness to that statement and finding peace and comfort in it, can be your first step to freeing yourself from chronic stress.
Accepting what is does not mean “giving up” or “giving in.” It means giving your awareness to the present moment and saying “yes”, perhaps even with gratitude to what is, in order to be fully aware of the growth available in each moment that life presents us with.