Bob Van Oosterhout

Article: Understanding Stress
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   UNDERSTANDING STRESS

         Bob Van Oosterhout

 

It has been estimated that stress costs Americans over $100 billion per year in increased health-care costs, lost work hours, and decreased productivity.  Stress plays a role in most illnesses and frequently contributes to accidents.  It interferes with our ability to learn and can destroy relationships.  It diminishes our ability to experience pleasure and limits our focus and awareness.  Stress has a negative effect our memory, emotions, and disposition.  It disrupts digestion and diminishes our body’s capacity to resist and recover from illness and disease.

 

WHAT ABOUT GOOD STRESS?

 

Whether stress is good or bad depends on how you define it and if you look at it from a short or long-term perspective. Hans Selye, the first and most prominent researcher to study stress, introduced the concept of “good” and “bad” stress (his terms were “eustress” and “distress”).  He studied the short-term physiology of stress, which he defined as “a demand on the body.”  Lifting weights and running could be considered “stressors” according to Selye’s definition but we wouldn’t describe them as stressful unless we had an obnoxious coach, a cluttered gym, or unrealistic expectations of what we might accomplish.  I believe Selye’s concept of “eustress” can more clearly be described as a “challenge.” Challenging our body tends to strengthen it, which is a good thing unless we do too much of it.  My experience is that stress is a bad thing in virtually every situation we face in daily life, and it gets worse the longer it lasts.

 

Stress is a response to a perceived threat that involves body, mind, and emotion.    If there is immediate danger, stress generates extra energy and focus so we can react and save our lives.  This has been described as the fight or flight response.  The physiology of this process has been well defined.  However, the positive effects that help us to fight off or run away from danger last thirty-minutes at the most.  If we don’t discharge the extra energy that is being build up within that time frame, it starts to work against us.  Few of the stressors we face require a physical response to a life-threatening situation.  Reacting as if there is immediate danger undermines our ability to deal with stressors effectively.

 

THE PROBLEM WITH STRESS:

 

Stress is a problem because it builds tension.  The build-up of tension over time limits our ability to function effectively as it diminishes our health. 

 

Short-term tension that is quickly resolved can be pleasurable.  We enjoy watching  close games or suspense-filled movies because the tension is released at the end.  Tensing a muscle and then letting it go tends to bring relaxation.  Tension that builds up over time is nasty.  It severely limits healthy functioning of our body, mind, and emotions. 

 

How Stress Affects Your Body:

Tension affects your body the same way that pressing your foot on the accelerator affects your car when it’s in “Park.”  It wears out your engine and transmission, uses up all your fuel, and you don’t go anywhere (unless it slips into gear, in which case you take off in a big hurry with little control over where you wind up or what you run into).  There is little harm done if this only lasts a few moments (as long as it doesn’t slip into gear...).  If you continue to rev up your engine while holding it back, you can ruin your car and your body. 

 

Your body doesn’t tell the difference between tension in response to immediate danger and tension that has built up over time because of nagging, unresolved stressors.  When you build a certain level of tension, your body produces an extra burst of energy (whether you need it or not) so you can fight or run away from the source of the threat. Stress hormones are released into your blood stream to provide this extra boost.  This changes the chemistry of your blood to allow you to sustain intense physical effort.  If you don’t run or fight (tactics that don’t work very well when dealing with, lets say, school or work stress), tension builds as you hold back the impulse to react physically.  If it is not released through exertion, the extra burst of energy is used to build more tension which leads to the release of more stress hormones, which builds more tension, releasing still more stress hormones, creating a self-escalating process that continues until you restore balance or something breaks down.

 

Physical tension builds when muscles work without moving.  The perception of stress creates the impulse to act and holding back that impulse is a major source of tension.  Habitually poor posture, pushing yourself when tired, and resisting emotions also build tension and contribute to the escalation of the stress response.

 

Tension builds from poor postural habits when muscles have to work to hold you up.  Your skeleton is the primary means of support in a relaxed, balanced position.  If you sit, stand, or move consistently so that your muscles need to work to maintain your position, you build tension.  Another way tension builds is when you become tired and push yourself to keep going.  It becomes more difficult to isolate muscles needed for a specific activity when you are tired.  Other muscle groups get involved when you ignore the need for rest.  This is most obvious if you watch distance runners in a high school track meet who are trying to run further or faster than their training has prepared them.  Faces become contorted, shoulders raise and fists clench as they push themselves to finish the race.  This extra muscle activity actually slows them down and takes energy away from running but exhaustion has made it impossible for them to match the energy expended with energy needed.

 

The build up of tension over time can have a significant impact on your health.  Your car will not hold up if you keep it at full throttle while it remains in Park.  Neither will your body.  Part of the problem is that you can’t fix your car when it’s revved up beyond maximum capacity.  The same is true of your body.  Your body’s maintenance system does not function well when you are running at full speed.  If you want to tune up a car, you need to shut it off and let it cool down, then you can work on it.  Your body works the same way.  When your muscles work overtime, as they do when tension is building, the internal organs that provide you with energy (digesting food), help fight off disease (your immune system), and help you recover from illness or injury, do not work properly.  Your energy either goes to your muscles for work and activity or it goes to your body’s maintenance system to maintain long-term health.  Health requires balance between these two functions.  Stress and tension undermine both of them.

 

How Stress Affects Your Mind

Your mind responds to escalating tension in two ways: First, by narrowing its focus. Since stress involves perception of a threat, you are more likely to survive to the extent you pay exclusive attention to that threat.  I was walking by our living room window one morning when a deer in the yard spotted me.  It immediately froze and focused on where I was standing.  I moved a bit and the deer leaned forward and focused even more intently.  My dog came trotting around the side of the house and got closer to a deer than he ever had before.  The deer didn’t see him because it was so narrowly focused on what it perceived as the immediate threat. Humans respond in the same way.  A common example is when frustration builds when you’re in a hurry and can’t find something.  It is often only when you stop looking and relax that you see where it was all along.  If there are multiple stressors (perceived threats) building tension, the human mind can jump from one to the other much like a pinball bounces between bumpers resulting in the common complaint among highly stressed people that they can’t concentrate or stay focused.

 

Your mind’s second response to stress asks the question “What’s wrong.” This also has survival potential.  If I am having a relaxed conversation with you and my body starts to tense up, the first thought that will come to my mind is “What’s wrong?”  Lets say that I see that you are not threatening me and everything seems OK but that nagging question leads me to check the door.  The door is hot - that means there’s a fire in the hallway.  We go out the window.  Asking “What’s wrong?” saved our lives.  It becomes a default question that easily dominates your thinking.

 

The problem is that, like your body, your mind doesn’t differentiate between tension from an immediate danger and tension that builds over time from work, school, finances, or a host of other stressors.  You can always find something that is “wrong” so your mind quickly settles into a ever-deepening pattern of worry, judgment, and complaining. Thinking about what’s wrong without acting on it or planning a response builds tension.  This has been well established by repeated research and I have tested this myself with equipment that measures muscle tension.  The needle on the meter registered no tension after I had relaxed in a recliner for a bit.  Then, not moving a muscle, I started thinking about things that could go wrong.  The needle jumped and stayed there until I redirected my thoughts back to relaxing again.

 

These mental responses to stress feed each other and create another self-escalating process.  Increasing tension narrows your focus on what’s wrong, causing more tension.  This focuses your mind even more on what’s wrong, which builds more tension, which leads you to focus more intently on what’s wrong, increasing the tension until you are about ready to scream (and maybe sometimes do).

 

How Stress Affects Your Emotions

Recent brain research has identified direct links between emotion and muscle movement.  This is most obvious in the face, but other muscle groups also exhibit subtle movements when you experience normal emotion.  Tension restricts this movement, which blocks the experience of emotion.  As tension builds, pressure increases and emotions can erupt much like the car that slips into gear when you hold the pedal is to the metal.  In most situations, these emotional reactions (e.g. yelling at someone) tend to cause even more stress, which often makes things worse.  It’s kind of like sunburn.  A bump or touch that would hardly be noticeable under normal conditions can lead to a huge outburst.

Anger is the clearest example of this.  In nature, anger is a reaction to danger.  The function of anger is to push away the source of potential danger.  A dog growls, we back off.  Under healthy conditions, the level of anger matches the degree of threat. Anytime the intensity of anger exceeds the level of the threat, there is a build-up of tension that increased the intensity of the anger.

 

It’s like a spring.  If I gently hold a large spring between my hands and take one hand away, the spring will drop.  If I’m quick, I can catch it, but even if I miss, I can pick it up and then decide what to do with it.  I can put it into a machine, set it aside, give to someone – I have lots of choices.  If I push my hands together to compress the spring, let say to half its normal size, and then take away one hand, the spring will take off before I can blink.  I have no choice at all as the spring flies off on its own, possibly breaking things and hurting people.  Take the tension off the spring, and I can choose what to do with it.  It’s the same with anger.

 

THE SOLUTION: RESTORING BALANCE

 

Stress and the resulting build up of tension create imbalance in mind, body, and emotion.  You become physically tight, mentally scattered or stuck, and emotionally reactive.  Fortunately, balance is part of your nature.  Restoring balance involves understanding how nature can restore health to body, mind, and emotion and removing obstacles that undermine that process.

 

Physical exercise and relaxation are often offered as solutions for managing stress.  My experience is that they are effective in restoring balance from short-term stress but have little impact on tension that has built up over days, weeks, or years.  Exercise and relaxation release some of the extra energy that stress creates but they do not clear out stress hormones that have built up over time, change patterns of stress-producing thinking that have become second nature, or release emotions that have been repeatedly locked up by muscular tension.  I have worked with college and professional athletes who work out every day but still experience high stress.  I have heard stories of people who have a wonderful relaxing experience and then erupt into road rage when someone cuts them off on the way home.

 

Restoring Physical Balance

The easiest place to start the process of recovery from built-up tension is where it began in the first place - in your nervous system.  Muscular activity (and therefore the build-up of tension) is regulated by the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), which has two branches:  The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) activates muscles while the Parasympathetic Nervous (PNS) activates internal organs that make up the body’s maintenance system.  These two branches work opposite each other. A close look at the anatomy of these systems reveals a loop from one to the other so that when one is activated, the other is suppressed. As mentioned earlier, your body doesn’t engage in physical activity and do maintenance at the same time.

 

The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is always activated when tension is building because muscles are working.  Since both branches cannot function at the same time, a simple solution to stopping the build-up of tension is to stimulate the opposite nervous system (PNS).  When you do this correctly, you stop the build-up of tension and will feel some difference within a minute or less.  (If you don’t feel a difference, you either don’t have much tension or you’re not doing it correctly).  When you stop stimulating the PNS, tension starts building again because stress-hormones that have been released into your blood stream in response to past stress boosts muscle activity.  In order to restore balance, you need to stimulate the PNS for at least three to five minutes, six to ten times per day (the amount of practice I have found to work consistently in thirty plus years of experience).  This allows your liver (part of the maintenance system activated by stimulating the PNS) to clean out your blood and get rid of the stress hormones that are escalating tension in your body.

 

Learning to stimulate the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) is actually a simple and natural process.  However, it must be done correctly and can require a lot of practice.  Here’s how it works:  The Right Vagus nerve is the main nerve of the PNS that activates your body’s maintenance system by stimulating activity in your internal organs.  This nerve is about the size of your thumb and it passes through the center of your body.  There is a muscle, called the diaphragm, at the bottom of your lungs.  There is an opening in the center of this muscle and the  nerve that activates body maintenance passes through this opening.  When you breathe in a slow, easy rhythm without effort so that the diaphragm moves down as you breathe in and moves back up as you breathe out, it creates a continuous stimulation of the Right Vagus Nerve which activates the PNS suppresses the SNS and stops the build-up of tension. (Your belly will move out as the diaphragm pushes down on your stomach and intestines and it drops back down as the stomach and intestines return to their previous position.) Continuing this process regularly over time allows your body’s maintenance system to help you recover from the harm that stress has done to your body.

 

This does not work if you try too hard (you are using your muscles which activates the SNS), or if the rhythm is too fast, too slow, or irregular.  It does not matter (for this purpose) whether you breathe through your nose or your mouth.  It does matter if you hold your breath or pause between inhale and exhale (remember, the rhythmic movement of the diaphragm needs to continually stimulate the Right Vagus nerve to keep the stress hormones from telling the ANS to take over).  Sometimes there is a build up of tension around the diaphragm that makes it difficult to move.  Working with positioning and consistent practice can resolve this obstacle.

 

I have found that students and clients who practice diaphragmatic breathing six to ten times per day for three to five minutes no longer exhibit symptoms of acute stress such as anxiety, temper, impatience, road rage, etc.  I believe this is the amount of time it takes for your liver to clean stress hormones out of your blood when it is given a chance to work properly.

 

Restoring Mental Balance

If you have built-up tension, your perceptions (how you view a situation) will be restricted. There is a sense of pressure, a strong feeling and need to take immediate action even when reacting to long-term stressors that require carefully thought-out solutions that must be adapted over time.

 

The first step, if there is not an immediate danger, is to slow down and lighten up. Learn to

respond, rather than react.  Take three slow, rhythmic diaphragmatic breaths before you act (Take twenty if your stress is really bad.)  Recognize that you are not seeing the situation as clearly as you will when you have recovered from some of the built-up tension.  Try to view the situation from other perspectives, clarify your priorities and options, affirm your values and purpose, and decide when and how best you can make effective decisions.

 

Restoring long-term mental balance requires regular practice to change automatic patterns of thinking and perceiving that have become well-established habits.  Two tools that help restore mental balance are Rhythm Phrases and meditation.

 

Using a Rhythm Phrase

It is helpful to have a basic understanding of how your brain works so you know why this technique is helpful.  The human brain organizes itself based on experience.  You are reading this in English because your brain has had enough experience with that language to make sense of the words on this page.  Brain science has learned that memories are actually a series of links between brain cells and that experiencing something and remembering it takes place along the same pathway.  Thoughts and memories are like a series of complex roads that connect our experiences.  It is easier to stay on roads that are well-traveled than to create new ones. 

 

Think of your brain as an empty field.  If you walk across the field and come back the same way, you create the beginning of a path.  If you spend a good part of every day on this path you soon find yourself there out of habit whenever you get to that part of the field.  So, for example, if work were a major stressor, anything that reminds you of work starts you thinking about how bad things are. This increases tension, narrows perception, and makes you more reactive and quick to anger.  You become increasingly tense and stressed whenever you think about work even if you are lying on a beach on a Carribean island. In terms of our path on the field, think of it as being full of mud and poison ivy.  Your mind tends to dwell on how itchy and dirty you as you become itchier and dirtier. Telling yourself to stop thinking about work doesn’t help because it brings your mind to the place in your brain where memories of work are stored.  You’re right back on that same itchy, dirty path.

 

What does help is to create a new path.  I would suggest making a nice one.  Maybe it has wild flowers and a nice view.  Making a short path allows you to repeat it enough so that soon it becomes as embedded in your brain as that old itchy, dirty one.  You do this by finding a short phrase that brings a sense of hope and calm  (six to ten syllables works best - too short will speed up your breathing and too long makes it hard to maintain a regular rhythm).  You can choose a line from poetry, a song or prayer, or you can make one up.  A sixteen year-old client of mind came up with “moon and stars, peace and calm.” Repeat your phrase whenever your mind is free - when exercising, driving, walking, waiting in line, doing chores, taking a shower, etc.. 

 

I call it a Rhythm Phrase.  You can repeat it in rhythm with the movement of whatever activity you are engaged in that doesn’t require thought.  It helps to establish the proper rhythm when practicing diaphragmatic breathing.  Repeating the phrase during diaphragmatic breathing creates a situation where saying the phrase connects you to the place in your brain where

practicing diaphragmatic breathing is stored.  You will find yourself starting to breathe diaphragmatically when you start to say your phrase.  You can also repeat it during regular activities that don’t occupy your mind such as exercise, doing chores, getting dressed, washing hands, driving etc.

 

If you repeat your rhythm phrase whenever your mind is free, you can easily say it a thousand times per day or more.  (Setting up reminders on post-it notes, your cell phone, treadmill, computer screen, steering wheel etc. helps.)  Doing this consistently for a week or two will develop a path in your brain that is as well-worn as your old itchy, dirty one.  Now you have a choice: Mud and poison ivy, or wild flowers and nice view.  Most choose the latter.  Whenever you find your mind on that old path, you can easily switch to the new one.  And if you don’t walk on the old path anymore, it disappears over time.  No more mud.  No more poison ivy.  No more building up tension by thinking about everything that is wrong from a narrow perspective.  Now you are in a position to make clear decisions about what you want to do about your stressors.

 

Meditation

It is a common belief that the purpose of meditation is to “clear your mind.”  That is often a result of meditation but it doesn’t necessarily happen every time you practice.  Mediation is a process of learning to train and discipline your mind.  It allows you to develop the capacity to switch mental roads more easily and develop the perceptual flexibility that prevents you from getting stuck in patterns of stressful, tension-producing thought. 

 

People often tell me they can’t meditate because they are too distracted.  This is like saying that you can’t swim because there is too much water.  Distractions are an integral part of the meditation process.  The key is to let them go and redirect your mind to the focus of your meditation.  Each time you do this, you train your mind to change course, to let go of one way of thinking and go where you want it to go. 

 

There are many forms of meditation but the most effective, in my experience, involve sitting in a relaxed position with eyes closed and repeating a short phrase or prayer during diaphragmatic breathing.  People make up new kinds of meditation all the time but the most effective are those that been around for thousands of years and have stood the test of time.  Choose a type of meditation that you are comfortable with and can continue on a daily basis. 

 

Meditating daily keeps your mind in shape just as regular stretching and exercise maintains body heath.  Meditation is most effective when you practice it consistently over time.   Twenty minutes, once or twice per day is good practice.  Ten minutes daily will help to start, but it’s not anywhere near as effective as twenty minutes. Students and clients who meditate regularly consistently tell me that time spent meditating is a very good investment because their increased mental flexibility and clarity saves them more time than they spend meditating.

 

Meditation builds the capacity to recognize patterns of thinking (I think of them as dead-end roads) that tend to build tension and create stress.  Worry, judging, criticizing and “awfulizing” are examples of this kind of thinking.  Thinking in ways that create tension or lead to arguments is like turning down a road that leads to a swamp.  If you keep going, your car will be ruined, you get all wet and dirty, and you may even receive a fine for destroying protected habitat. There is simply nothing good about it, but your mind can dwell in various kinds of mental swamps for hours and even days, making you and everyone around you miserable.  Mediation builds the capacity to put “dead end” signs on those roads and choose a clearer and more productive way of thinking. 

People who meditate regularly over time spend less time in destructive and non-productive thinking and more time being creative, solving problems, and enjoying life.  Research comparing people who have meditated for years with those who don’t meditate shows that they not only solve problems more effectively, but they use more parts of their brain interactively while solving those problems.

 

Restoring Emotional Balance

Emotions are natural human experiences.  Every healthy human being on the planet has the capacity to experience the same emotions.  Newly discovered tribes in New Guinea who never outside contact over thousands of years exhibit the same emotions with the same facial expressions as people everywhere else in the world.

 

At some point in history, the understanding and experience of emotion became distorted so that emotions were interpreted as a sign of weakness or immaturity.  In fact, the opposite is true.  Resisting emotion builds tension, which wastes energy and weakens muscles by overworking them.  It diminishes your mental capacity by restricting perceptions, focusing thoughts in a negative direction, and restricting your ability to learn and adapt.  I have found restricting emotion to be a major factor in depression and anxiety.  I have also consistently noted that students and clients who recover from built-up tension and are able to fully experience natural emotion without resistance report that they no longer experience symptoms of depression or anxiety.

 

Restoring emotional balance involves breaking up habits and patterns of tension that are used to resist emotion (emotional tension).  Nature has provided a natural process that greatly facilitates this:  crying. People who grew up in cultures where the understanding of emotion was distorted or misunderstood as weak try to inhibit or suppress crying.  You can easily do this by holding your breath and tensing up.  You not only stop crying, but you temporarily stop experiencing the depth of emotion that would naturally lead to crying.  Unfortunately, you also build up more tension and limit your capacity to fully experience life and relationships.

 

Sometime people report that they “cry all day” or “can’t stop crying.”  This is because they are tensing and holding their breath when they cry.  Think of crying as emptying a cup full of emotional tension.  Holding or restricting your breath and tensing while crying pours more tension into the cup as you struggle to resist emotions.  It’s not hard to get to a point where you create more tension than you release, which leaves you exhausted and emotionally drained.  Crying lasts for minutes when emotions are accepted and there is no resistance.  It can last hours or even days when you resist it. That will really weaken you.

 

It is important to understand that emotions are a response to perceptions and can change moment to moment as perceptions shift.  A common example of this is at a funeral where you might feel empty and alone about the loss of a loved one.  Someone tells a funny story about the deceased and you laugh and feel a sense of connection with others.  Emotions can last a fraction of a second.  If there is sustained emotion, there is a continued focus on the stimulus for that emotion.  I felt sad for a long time after my parents and close friends died.  That’s because there were continuous reminders of my loss in the first few weeks and months after their deaths.  Now when I think of them, I recall good times we shared, and it brings a smile to my heart.

Thoughts stimulate emotion.  If I think about how much I miss my parents or friends, I will soon feel sad again.  Redirecting the thoughts changes the emotions.  This is one reason why talking about your feelings or venting can actually inhibit the recovery of emotional tension.  Talking about events that stimulated strong emotion may help you to feel them more deeply which, if you do not resist it, can help to relieve emotional tension.  But going over it again and again while justifying it in your mind why you are so upset simply stimulates more emotion.  If there is already a build-up of emotional tension, it adds to the cup and makes things worse.

 

All humans share the same basic emotions.  Understanding how someone feels can bring you closer to him or her because you are sharing a personal human experience.  But feeding those emotions by continually dwelling on them can be counterproductive.  I once treated a woman who had “talked about her feelings” in therapy twice a week for seventeen years.  I seriously considered recommending hospitalization during her first visit because she was so fragile. We focused on recovering from built-up tension and dealing with current pressing stressors while accepting emotion without resistance. She stabilized and then recovered.  Within a year she had started a new job and developed a healthy new relationship.  We never did talk about the trauma that created her emotional tension in the first place.  She did experience deep emotion, eventually without resistance, and no longer fed emotional tension by constantly dwelling on the trauma that triggered it.

 

BACK TO NATURE

 

I believe that stress and the resulting escalating patterns of physical, mental and emotional tension distort human nature.  I disagree with people who say “that’s human nature” when they describe acts of greed, incompetence, or self-centeredness.  By narrowing our focus and restricting emotion, which connects us with others, stress and tension make us more self-centered, reactive and inefficient.  That’s the nature of people under stress, not human nature.

 

Recovering from built-up physical, mental, and emotional tension puts people back in touch with their true nature.  Those who do this tend to see and think more clearly; be more open-minded and flexible; able to accept differences, admit mistakes and shortcomings; and effectively anticipate and resolve conflicts.  Stress and tension make it easy to build attitudes that exclude others and create walls to keep them away.  I believe human nature involves living with an open heart and mind that seek to understand and connect with others.  If there are real threats, we are able to deal with them more effectively to the extent that we understand and see them clearly and are able to make decisions by considering a range of realistic options and their likely effects. 

 

Conflicts and disagreements occur because of mistakes, misunderstanding, and differences in perceptions and values.   Responding with stress, fear, and tension builds walls that create an illusion of safety while increasing defensiveness.   People who disagree become easily defined as enemies.  Responding in ways that are consistent with human nature allows us to avoid tension and use conflict to expand and improve our understanding our world and its inhabitants.  The nature of stress is to build more conflict.  You choose which way you want your life to be.  I have found that when we trust human nature, life and relationships are more fulfilling and satisfying, and pain and struggle become easier to deal with.  Why not get rid of stress and see for yourself?

     For additional information visit the Stress Management section on my website, www.bobvanoosterhout.com   This topic is explored further in my book, Slow Down and Lighten Up: Letting Go of Stress and Tension, Good Enough Press, 2001 and in my course on Stress Management (PFHW 181) in the Physical Fitness and Wellness Department at Lansing Community College.