I am going to begin this chapter with a very short quiz – one question in fact. Do you have stress in your life? You do not need to turn the page upside down to find the answer. There is only one correct answer and that is “no.” Are you surprised? Perhaps, like many of my patients, you want to say, “Dr. Kondrot, you just don’t know about my life. It is full of stress, and there isn’t a thing I can do about it. There’s the job or the lack of a job, the teenagers, the in-laws, my aging parents, traffic….” Yes, I’ve heard all about it. But here is the secret: there is no such thing as stress; there is only life. Stress comes into the picture in the way we respond to events.
You’ve probably heard something to the effect that the only real freedom we have is in how to respond to whatever life presents. We cannot control it. In fact, trying to control events or people produces inner tension and anxiety. The only thing we can control is our response. Think about it. Even in a very frightful situation, for example if your neighbor’s house is consumed by flames, you can still choose how to respond. You can pitch in and help douse the flames. You can take in the poor neighbors and offer tea and comfort. You can loan your neighbors your phone and car to cope with their immediate needs. You can just keep reading the newspaper or watching TV. You can stand in the street and wring your hands with your heart and mind racing. What is the most appropriate response? From a social standpoint, any helpful response is appropriate. And most of us would be able to understand the hand wringing. From a health standpoint, any response that keeps your vital signs steady is a good one. Therefore, continuing to watch TV is okay. (Studies have shown, however, that social involvement is a real plus in longevity, so ignoring your neighbors might not actually be healthy in the overall sense.) The impulse to fight the flames stems from a desire to contain the fire but also from your body’s need to stabilize your vital signs. Accelerated heart rate and respiration are two of the physiological responses to tense situations, and activity is a way to normalize them. This is the flight or fight response you have probably learned about. Less talked about but equally important is the freeze response. This is also a natural reaction (think about rabbits!) to danger, and some people will freeze while others flee or fight.
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You can choose your response
As you can see, we can choose our response regardless of the situation. Driving provides an interesting example because all drivers in one area are dealing with
the same set of conditions. One driver will pull out of the driveway with a squeal of tires, and a blast of rock music, all set for road rage at the slightest obstacle. The next will nose out slowly, knuckles whitened on the wheel, squinting because vision is low, creeping along below the speed limit, and exhausted after just a few minutes of coping with the many choices driving requires. Each driver is exhibiting a stress response. The first one is related to fight or flight, and the second is freezing. A third driver will drive in an aware but highly relaxed state. She will signal to other drivers to proceed whenever there is an opportunity. She smiles at them too. She is aware of traffic flow in determining her speed and is just naturally alert to special circumstances that require evasive or assertive driving. Remember that all three of these drivers are apt to be in the same group of cars at one stoplight. In other words, they are all dealing with the same external conditions, but their internal response to these conditions shapes the way they react.
Let’s examine this a little further. Driver number one may have a number of physiological contributors to his driving style. Caffeine is a suspect, perhaps even amphetamines or some other stimulating drug. Maybe he just finished an argument with a house mate or partner that left his adrenaline pumping before jumping into the car. Thoughts about an early morning meeting with his boss keep him on edge because he has been late turning in his reports recently. Speaking of being late, he left the house with no time to spare to get to work. However, if we look a little deeper into his life, we see that all these situations have developed because of the same pattern – the tendency to live on the edge, cut corners, and focus on himself to the exclusion of others’ needs.
Driver number two also has contributing factors to her tendency to freeze. She takes a few prescription drugs that slow down her reflexes, so she is always somewhat depressed. Lately, she has been getting lost, even in familiar neighborhoods, so she is concentrating very intensely on her driving that is difficult because she cannot see all that well. Although her daughter-in-law offered to take her to her appointment today, she refused help because she wants to prove to herself and everyone else that she is still independent, not failing in any way. We might notice how driver number two also focuses on her needs to the exclusion of others. She is not a safe driver, but she insists on driving to prove a point. While we may feel more sympathy for the second driver, she is, in some ways, as antisocial as the first driver.