April is Stress Awareness Month, so I thought it fitting to present a series of blogs addressing stress and the ways in which we can reduce/eliminate stressful reactions. So why do we, as a culture, have such significant issues with stress? The simple answer is because we have the ability to think. Stress is a natural response to a threat stimulus. When we look at how other species respond to a threat, we can see that it is a purely, biological response. The flight/fight/freeze response is one of the oldest evolutionary responses to danger. It is a response that kept our earliest ancestors alive. We can still observe this response in its most unadulterated form by simply observing animals.
The calm, yet alert rabbit chewing on a blade of grass will flee when threated by a human or other animal. The rabbit will return to eating just as calmly as it was prior to the stress response once it knows that it is safe. The rabbit doesn’t have the ability to attach any significance to this event. The rabbit’s brain and body automatically trigger a response that is designed to preserve the rabbit’s life. The rabbit has no inner dialogue, no preconceived notion about humans or other animals. It doesn’t go to sleep at night wondering if the man with the lawn mower is plotting another “attack.” The rabbit is present and in the moment because it has no sense of future or past, it just “is.”
The human response to danger is very similar. Imagine that you are sitting on the grass in a beautiful park and a menacing dog approaches. As the dog moves closer, it becomes clear that the dog is headed right towards you, barking and growling as it bounds forward, faster and faster. Much like the rabbit, your first response is to find safety. Your heart beats faster, your breathing increases and you may feel sweaty. You may stand up and look around for a place to find safety, or you may consider standing your ground by yelling at the dog in a threatening manner. As you quickly consider all your options, the dog’s owner suddenly appears and restrains her animal. Realizing that the threat is over, you return to your position on the grass. Unlike the rabbit, however, you have hard time resuming your previous moment of relaxation. That is because the threat can take on a life of its own,even though the situation is resolved. More often than not, we keep the situation alive by talking to ourselves, imaging, ruminating, complaining and even telling others. We may find ourselves thinking or saying things like; “I can’t believe that woman! Letting such a vicious animal off the leash.” “She and that dog would be sorry if I had been attacked!” “Maybe I should call the police and file a report.” Wait until I tell my husband about this. He will be furious, he hates people who allow their dogs to wander the park off a leash.” So while the rabbit has already returned to state of homeostasis, we have worked ourselves up into a a state of anxiety, anger fear and frustration.
What is worse is that we have a tendency to turn a rather innocuous situation into a perceived threat event simply because we are so worried about a future outcome. The angry dog scenario is just one example of how we upset ourselves with our thinking. Take a moment to think of a time when you perceived a threat when there was actually little, to no danger to you or anyone else; your boss asks when the report will be done, your in-laws decide they are staying two more days, the counter-person at the coffee shop messes up your order, only three cash registers are open at the grocery store and you have to wait longer than you planned. We have a tendency to turn these situations into high stress events. Imagine it, you are experiencing the rabbit’s fight/flight/freeze response in the grocery store check out line!! Why does this happen? There are a number of reasons, but the most common ones are related to our tendencies to judge and complain. Additionally, our ego enjoys being strengthened through it’s need to be right. Unfortunately this can only occur when we make someone or something wrong. “This is is ridiculous. Why should “I” have to wait this long?” “Who is she to ask me for this report when she knows I am already working hard to get everything else done?” “My in-laws always overstay their welcome, now I can’t enjoy a relaxing day watching the football game.”
How do we reduce these perceived threats? First you have to know and understand what it is that you’re thinking, feeling and experiencing. Take time to notice and name the the thoughts, feelings and sensations; judging, complaining, anger, fear, sadness, etc. Name the thoughts, feelings and sensations. “There is anger,” “There is complaining,” There is judging.” This takes practice, but it will become second nature once you become comfortable with it. You are not these thoughts, feelings and sensations. It is simply part of your mind activity. The goal here is to “defuse” your thoughts, feelings and sensations so that you are not so identified with them.
Once you are comfortable with this process, move on to incorporating some deep breathing practice. Take several deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth. Fill you chest and belly with as much air as possible, don’t hold hold in, just a nice circular pattern of deep, easy breathing.
How does this practice reduce stress? It will help you change your perspective on the true nature of the event by making you attune to what it is that your mind is doing. Thinking is only beneficial for a limited number of things; worry, anxiety and fears should not be a part of this.
In the next blog we will explore how a poor sense of self contributes to anxiety and stress.