Stress is the body’s reaction to stressors, those provoking events that cause us to become disturbed and feel off balance. Once we differentiate between stressors and stress, we can learn to say, “I have many stressors but not much stress.” If stressors are outside of us, where is stress? Stress is actually the term for our physiological response to events in our environment. These events can affect us in the physical, mental, or emotional level. For example, a long lasting cold or bout with the flu stresses us physically. An argument stresses us emotionally. Worry and anxiety stress us mentally. Stress is very simply our autonomic (means the same as automatic) nervous system’s response to events. We have two nervous systems. One is the set of nerves and impulses that control our voluntary functions like posture and movement. This is under our voluntary control. For example, when we decide to move a leg, we do it. We may not spend much time thinking about it, but we know that we can make ourselves move as well as stop ourselves from moving.
However, a large number of our bodily processes are not under our voluntary control. These include digestion, the secretion of hormones from our glands, and the blood flow though our blood vessels to name a few. These are the very processes most affected by stressors. A stress reaction is nothing but our organism perceiving and reacting to danger.
In primitive life, humans needed to use the extra energy created from stress responses to defend themselves. The ability to flee from wild animals or fires, to pursue and kill dangerous prey were life preserving activities of our forebears. Today, very few of us encounter life or death challenges on a daily basis.
However, because our minds exaggerate the danger of ordinary events, our bodies continue to respond in their primitive life preserving way. Although it is possible to be maimed or even killed by another automobile, cars are not actually out to get us.. If a driver believes every car in his range of vision is potentially lethal, he will drive in a state of hyper-alertness and with aggression that keeps his primitive life preserving juices flowing full force. Any number of everyday events can trigger the autonomic nervous system to turn on full blast. Situations at work, job interviews, encounters with our teenagers, or visits to the doctor or dentist cause many people so much worry and anxiety that they shift into high gear emotionally and physiologically. Following is a list of bodily reactions that occur during stress, taken from Kenneth Pelletier’s fine work on the subject, Mind as Healer, Mind as Slayer.
Give me the courage to change what can be changed, the serenity to accept what cannot be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference
Physical components of the stress response
Dilated pupils Tight throat
Tense neck and upper back Shallow respiration Accelerated heart rate Cool, perspiring hands A locked diaphragm A rigid pelvis with numb genitals
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All of these reactions serve to preserve our body when it is under attack. What is going on internally is that blood flow to the extremities and the gastro-intestinal area is reduced and more blood is sent to the head and trunk in order to preserve the most important organs. This is a very good adaptation the human body has developed in order to survive life threatening situations. The problem is that the pace and intensity of modern life have caused us to call on this capacity many, many times a day. In fact, research has shown that simply thinking of a tense or highly unpleasant situation causes the very same response in the body. Many times we experience this state without even knowing why we feel anxious. So-called subliminal stimuli (those we do not focus on) can produce the stress reaction. Examples of subliminal stimuli are violent or gory images, constant background noise, and noxious odors.