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Our world is developing at an amazing rate, arguable at the fastest pace since the Industrial Revolution, and the unfamiliarity, pressure and lack of control that this development brings can be a source of significant stress. So what can be done to reduce the negative aspects of stress on our physical and mental health?
Stress is a divisive word: to some it’s a pernicious influence that blights them on a daily basis; to others it’s the thing that keeps them on their toes, driving innovation and creativity. These two perspectives are at polar opposites of the spectrum of the stress response and actually raise the question of how stress can cause such hugely different reactions.
I like to think that the answer can be found by looking at one of the definitions of ‘stress’:
In order for this definition to work we must first be able to distinguish what is our ‘Comfort Zone’, the place in which we experience no pressure or tension.
For a far simpler society, and many animals, their comfort zone can be considered as simple as having food and shelter, but how many of us would be happy with simply having enough to eat and a roof over our heads?
The complexity of modern life means that we have a far more intricate definition of what our comfort zone is. Perhaps it’s tied up with our bank balance, maybe it’s about the place that we live, the clothes we wear and even the technology that we use. If any of these factors change, or are threatened in some way, we experience stress.
In the natural world, where comfort zone can be best defined as being safe and having access to sufficient food, the most obvious response to a threat to survival is to either fight or escape (the Fight or Flight Response). When we compare this to our uniquely human condition, we find a whole range of other responses that can bring us back into a state of balance; we can innovate, we can earn more money, we can educate ourselves, we can take control in a wide range of ways.
It’s fair to say that in almost all stressful situations that we experience in our day to day lives, the least appropriate response is ‘Fight or Flight’, but the unfortunate truth is that Fight or Flight is a primal, chemical response that activates more quickly than our logical brain. If we recognise something as being a threat, based on previous experience, the speed that we respond on a chemical level is truly astonishing.
The key here is the ‘previous experience’ bit. If, at some point in the past we have had an experience that has led to an undesirable result, it’s not always easy to take the time to respond in a different way the next time a similar situation arises. An extreme example of this would be if you’d been mugged at knifepoint on a particular section of road; in all likelihood, whenever you recognise that road, or a road that looks similar, your response will be instant. In the blink of an eye you will be flushed with adrenalin and ready for action.
That same section of road that causes such strong responses in one person is highly unlikely to have a similar effect on someone who does not associate it with a negative experience. This simple observation shows us that the Fight or Flight is something that we learn to activate, it’s not a purely instinctual response and it’s also not a well-considered, logical response but it is, never the less, a learned response.
Obviously getting mugged at knifepoint is at the extreme end of the scale of learned responses, but far smaller things can elicit similar responses depending on our perception of outcome. Perhaps it’s being asked to fill in a tax return or talk to a particular client, there is a vast range of things that can trigger us.
Although it’s not always easy to find a different response, it’s completely possible. The first thing to say is that the speed of the response tends to mean logical reactions, such as saying ‘just relax’ or ‘calm down’ are unlikely to be effective. Similarly, process driven solutions can often make logical sense, but fail in their execution as they do not address the response at the most effective level.
What we need is to find a way to override our learned response at a far more instinctual level so that we can then re-learn or un-learn the things that cause us to respond inappropriately
Experience has shown that simple habits like breathing techniques, postural changes and awareness-based therapies provide the most effective solution as they address these learned response at a ‘primal’ level. These simple habits can be explained in a logical way in order to build trust in them, but their real advantage lies in the simplicity that helps the techniques to become habitual far more quickly than more complex methods.
When we understand stress simply as something that takes us out of our comfort zone, it gives us the perspective needed to question and change our responses. In this regard, stress is an opportunity to learn, an opportunity to innovate and an opportunity to grow.
Learning to cope with stress is not only a powerful tool for people who exhibit signs of stress; it’s a valuable tool for people who find themselves stuck in some way, and let’s be honest here, how many of us could do with a helping hand in overcoming obstacles in our work and home lives?
Without stress, without the opportunity to learn, society would not evolve. In our uniquely human condition it’s the complex definition of our comfort zone and the innovative and creative way that we respond to stress that creates the rich tapestry that is modern life.
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