There are many definitions of stress and many causes of it. The word stress has become the buzz word for our modern times, and though we all use the word stress, we are often referring to many different things such as a feeling, emotion, behaviour or our physical being or to describe a situation or a person.
Stress is the load that we are all under at any time. Stress can be external or internal. Some external stresses can even be pleasant and beneficial such as getting married, moving house, but others can wear us down such as arguments, deadlines, financial and relationship problems to name just a few. Internal stressors are often the most insidious as they are less obvious, such as the way we interpret what happens to and around us. Many things can be called stressful at different times and in different amounts but when stress becomes prolonged, that is when it impacts upon us. We all know that stress is an inevitable part of living, but we must endeavour to allow stress to work for us – not against us.
PHYSICAL MECHANISMS OF STRESS
When we become stressed, we experience physiological changes inside of us. Stress is basically recorded as a threat in a very primitive part of our brain (the reptilian brain) which sends messages to other parts of our body to prepare it to meet the threat. Under normal physical threats our body appropriately responds with the flight or fight response. The adrenals release adrenalin and cortisol, making the blood thick and sticky which in turn makes the heart pump harder.
Blood is shunted away from the extremities to the large thigh muscles and biceps. Our bronchials dilate allowing a greater aerobic capacity to run or fight, changing our breathing patterns. Blood leaves the gut so we may feel nauseas or lose our appetite, we feel the need to eliminate (diarrhea is common), sugars and fats are secreted, sweating begins and our ability to think logically and rationally becomes more difficult (depersonalisation) as our thinking brain switches off, conserving mental activity.
As I said, this is totally appropriate when we are in physical danger, but modern man has evolved a higher cognitive or thinking brain which has the habit of ruminating (going over events of the past) and negatively anticipating events in the future. Because this old primitive part of the brain does not know the difference between reality and imagination, it thinks that what we are thinking is real and happening right NOW, so it inappropriately elicits the flight or fight response. This causes us feel uptight, with a poor ability to think straight at the time. Have you ever had an argument and become tongue-tied, only to later become clear about what you should have said and will say next time?
Stress is OK as I said before, and it is good to have some stress from time to time in order to help us become stress resilient – however, when workloads and pressures become constant and we engage in habitual worrying, what happens is that we can have the flight or fight response being triggered all day, every day. If we don’t use up the constituents of the stress response, they can accumulate and we can begin to experience physiological and psychological consequences of prolonged stress.
These include headaches, migraines, muscle contraction problems, suppressed immune system, hypertension, increased risk for heart disease, gastro-intestinal problems and sleep disturbances. Also problems with short term memory, poor concentration and poly-phasic thinking – not to mention tiredness, lack of energy and enthusiasm. Anxiety and depression are also known to be directly associated with prolonged stress.
Stress in our modern world has become a huge issue. It is a global epidemic and it exacts a very high psychological, emotional and physical price. Managing stress has become a necessary priority in the fields of business, psychology, medicine and in the field of education. It is even affecting young children and teens unlike a few generations ago.
I have heard it said many times “reality always tries to fit a mental picture.” Indeed, from my own experience as a therapist, I see on a daily basis people who are suffering with anxiety and depression, domestic violence, financial woes, and work related problems and there behind the specific incidents are the negative and distorted beliefs like, “I can never find someone to love me,” or “I am hopeless with money, dieting, exercise and so on”, or “I am not good enough”, or “I am always the one who gives and gives and never gets anything in return”.
Whatever we practice regularly becomes habitual. Just like pumping weights over time will give you larger muscles, so our brain forms neural pathways which are reinforced and strengthened each time we think the same thoughts. When we tell ourselves that we are not as good as others, or that we will not cope in certain circumstances, the brain immediately sees the negative scenario as pictures on the right side of the brain, then makes meaning of it on the left side (social isolation or failure) which is then experienced as an emotion such as shame or anxiety.
Habits are simply fortified pathways. They are automatic. You don’t have to think about it. The more we practice the more natural the behaviour becomes. We first make our habits then our habits make us. Worriers automatically worry due to these reinforced neural pathways. We have healthy and unhealthy neural pathways. We can have negative pathways which lead us to finding fault in things – what is not working. We can also develop positive pathways which can lead us to finding the benefits – what is working. The internal matters so much more to our well-being than the external
REALITY vs IMAGINATION
What we tell ourselves provides a blue print, if you like for our brain and body to follow – just like an architect’s plans are followed by the builder. Because the brain does not know the difference between reality and imagination, and because the brain operates in present moment reality, it actually records what we tell ourselves as real events that are effectively happening right now. Because the brain processes thoughts in the same way as real events, any negative thought is perceived as a threat which therefore triggers the body to release adrenalin and other stress hormones, in order to prepare us to flee or fight. Have you ever noticed that when you think about a negative event in the past, you also experience the original emotions you had during that event?
Any experience, whether it is real or imagined, that is paired with adrenalin secretion is stored in our memory in such a way so that it is more easily and quickly accessed. Our brain wants to revisit that thought more often to see if the danger is still there. This is a primitive response from the days when caveman saw a tiger footprint and experienced the flight or fight response. His brain had to remind him that there was a predator out there and that he had to be alert in case the tiger attacked him. Constant rumination was therefore sensible and also enabled him to strategise a way to ambush or capture the animal.
Unfortunately, man’s brain did not evolve to worry about “What if I say something silly at the dinner party tonight?” or “What if I (the student) don’t get enough marks to get into engineering at university?” Most of us spend up to 90% of our day ruminating about our past mistakes or regrets or negatively anticipating some future event. What this does, is reinforces neural pathways, making the experience stronger and more convincing and thus becomes part of our core belief system, affecting our subsequent behaviour. In other words, our thoughts are not merely reactions to events: they change what ensues. For example, if we think we are helpless in changing our dysfunctional relationship, or finding a way out of our financial hardships, we can actually become paralysed and sabotage any desire to change our lives. The very thought “nothing I do matters” prevents us from acting.
When we were growing up, we learned that it was good to look for what is wrong and what can go wrong. That taught us to exert caution, to protect us from many dangers: being burnt by fire, strangers, germs, as well as from being socially ostracised, to avoid failure and so on. When we focus on only the negative we tend to have a constricted viewpoint. Like putting on blinkers. Some people get into the habit of “negative scanning” events which can lead to exclusionary thinking, that is, they find fault in most things. If you ask them, “how was the movie?” they will tell you about the annoying person sitting in front of them rustling their lolly papers. When you say, “what a beautiful day today” they will say “It wont last long, we are in for rain”. Negative scanning can be a greased skid to anxiety and depressive illnesses. It is also the signal to avoid, to retreat, and reinforces the belief that we will not cope in such circumstances.
In this article, I want to focus on two aspects of stress management which are fast becoming effective agents in reducing stress as well as promoting well-being. These are the use of positive thinking and gratitude.
Positive scanning is the ability to see what is right and what can go right. When we look forward to something, when we anticipate success in some event or personal effort, we trigger those same centres of the brain which record the experience as real in the present moment. We experience secretions of opiates (dopamine and serotonin) and feelings of happiness, confidence and a tendency to be proactive. We are more likely to seek out opportunities, to take risks and to accept failure as part of learning. We are also more likely to gain a sense of self-efficacy due to our willingness to find the benefits of challenges rather than to see them as obstacles to stop us in our tracks.
Practicing positive scanning will, over time, reinforce and strengthen our neural pathways for success and happiness. Anthony Robbins, in his book “Awaken The Giant Within” recommends using his Evening Power Questions. I have been answering these questions regularly for years. They are: 1) What have I learned today? 2) What have I given today? and 3) How has today added to the quality of my life? By answering such questions as these on a daily basis, we can reinforce our positive experiences and find meaning in our lives.
On a personal level, I am able to remind myself that I am always learning, even despite my failures. I learned this morning, for instance, that when go to bed too late I don’t wake up refreshed and ready for the day. Today I gave my ear to a person who needed to talk about their problems. I also gave my family a special dinner because I had more time to prepare it. Today I decided to walk for 30 minutes, despite heavy rain clouds overhead, and managed to do something healthy for myself rather than sitting indoors.
Instead of looking back over the day, or our lives in general, and scanning for the negative, we can focus on positive memories, such as when we were at our happiest or when we were at our personal best. By revisiting positive experiences, we increase our sense of personal efficacy and this makes it easier for us to apply this knowledge to our future experiences. By remembering, for example, when we were happiest in our relationships, we can engage more often in those behaviours which contributed to our happiness.
Nowadays a lot of our stress is due to the measures we use for our self worth. More and more people try to get their worth from achievement, status, wealth and material possessions. Sadly, there has never been a correlation between any of these things and happiness.
Society tends to reward those who work longer, harder and achieve more. We value those who contribute a lot to society and we compare ourselves to them, believing that our worth is equal to what we achieve. The last three decades has seen a rise in anxiety and depression, a tripling in youth suicide, a record number of divorces and people who report feeling stressed and overwhelmed with their lives.
Research shows that people only experience a temporary rise in happiness when they experience success, win lotto or some other reward. We quickly go back to our baseline happiness level. So the need to feel happy for many of us then becomes associated with more achievement and reward and the inherent stress that arises from this unhealthy cycle can actually lead to dissatisfaction, disappointment and even burnout.
There are many successful achievers who are unhappy. For example, celebrities who rely on drugs and alcohol. Their entire lives are lived under the illusion that once they have it all, they’ll be happy. “Once I reach….I’ll be happy.” Once they get the money, praise, exposure, adoration, it wears off. They go back to baseline but even below it because before that they at least had the belief they’d get to the highest achievement but now they have it they realise it does not really keep them happy. They had false expectations: eg: “if I earn extra money I will be happy.”
Happy people tend to speak about the small pleasures in their lives. You know these people – they have an awareness of the beauty around them. They mention the sunsets, the people they laughed with, the rainbows, the joys of parenting despite the tribulations, the precious time to sit and relax, special times spent with friends – rather than the expensive hotels they stayed in or their latest accomplishment.
By using positive scanning we keep going in the face of adversity. We develop resilience to what the world throws out at us, because we believe in our ability to cope. We can do this through mindfulness and through changing the way we think from negative to positive.
We can also achieve this by regularly practicing gratitude. By writing in a journal, five things that went well each day, we will gradually become more mindful of the beauty and the benefits of our lives. However, this must be practiced over time. There is no quick fix in changing old habits. The expectation of a quick fix leads to frustration and unhappiness.
Learning to savour the journey, practicing gratitude or being mindful of our abundance, will lead to happiness. “It is the striving after goals that is crucial for happiness and positive affectivity” says David Watson. “Happiness grows less from the passive experience of desirable circumstances than from involvement in valued activities and progress toward one’s goals.” advises Myers and Diener.
“Gratitude produced the most purely joyful moments that have been known to man” says Brother David Steindle-Rast. “Gratefulness: the heart of prayer.” And again, “Gratefulness is the measure of our aliveness. Are we not dead to whatever we take for granted? Surely to be numb is to be dead.”
William James says, “It takes about 21 days to form a habit. We can chip away at negativity by showing appreciation and gratitude and we make our lives great – extraordinary.”
As I previously mentioned, when we are at our most unhappy state, we could take out a piece of paper and write about all the things we are grateful for. Whatever we appreciate will appreciate. We need to appreciate our health, our well-being, air-conditioning, our friends and family. Even better than this is when we show others that we are grateful for their kind deeds, friendship and so on and this helps to create an upward spiral of happiness. By moving from the constricted viewpoint to the big picture – what there is to feel good and grateful for – we open up to possibilities and naturally look for solutions. Focusing on what works helps us identify antidotes to depression and burnout.
In summing up my article on positive stress management and gratitude, I believe we have a choice at any moment in our lives to decide to embrace change in all its forms, and see stress as an inevitable part of life. We can choose to accept the many challenges presented to us as opportunities to learn about ourselves and our abilities under stress. We can also choose how we react to what happens to us and around us by knowing how our way of thinking can affect our brain and nervous system. We can then decide to use appropriate stress management tools such as positive scanning to reinterpret what happened as a possible benefit to us. One man’s idea of failure is another man’s idea of success.
Finally, by cultivating gratitude in our lives on a daily basis, we are able to accept the fact that we are all as safe and as vulnerable as the next person; that life is short and tenuous, but that there is so much we can feel good about. By practicing gratitude, we become aware of the small things we take for granted, but which, without them, life would be less meaningful.
- Each day positively scan your day and write down what went well.
- Take a moment now to reflect on the many people and things you are grateful for in your life.
- Think of an event which has caused you sorrow or anger in the past. Say what you did in that situation and say how you would do it differently next time from a more positive perspective.
- Gratitude helps to maintain freshness. Notice, on a daily basis, for a whole week, positive aspects of your job, your children, your partner, your health and so on.
[Chris G’Froerer has been in private practice as a Stress Therapist since 1982. She has qualifications in psychology and specialises in stress and anxiety conditions. Chris has had supervised training in Cognitive Therapy, in the USA (1981-2) and is also trained in Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) (USA, 1994.) She also holds a Certificate in Positive Psychology from Univ. Penn (USA, 2010). Chris uses behavior modification and cognitive therapy with both children and adults suffering with stress related problems, She also brings to her counseling over thirty-five years of meditation practice which she gently incorporates into stress management practices. She believes in a holistic approach to solving problems and attaining good health and well-being and encourages her clients to take responsibility in practicing regularly the skills they learn to live their way out of stress, anxiety and depression, one day at a time. For more info go to http://www.chrisgfroerer.com.au ]