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Managing Stress – Part 2
Living With Stress
It is not a new idea that stress is the cause of up to 80% of illness. Over two thousand years ago Plato said “all diseases of the body proceed from the mind or soul.” There is newness however in the greater clarity with which we can now see the connection between emotions mind and body.
For instance people living near London’s Heathrow Airport, have 31% more likelihood of a ‘nervous breakdown’ than people living in a lower stress area. Research in the USA showed that the chances of developing a psychological disorder requiring hospitalisation were 29% greater for those living under the Jetways near major airports.
EMOTIONS CAN MAKE YOU ILL
In certain departments of a large company, the placing of executives in a new organization system of decision making proved to be very inefficient. Their frustration with the structure of their job was not only reflected in lowered sales and increased infighting, but in a high frequency of psychosomatic complaints.
Emotional arousal is a common cause of stress. Imagine the difference between waking slowly, and someone waking you shouting “fire – fire!”
None of us have the same response to a situation though. Therefore some people can flourish in situations others would find distressing. Perhaps this is why Epictetus observed that “Men are not disturbed by things, but by the view they take of them.”
STRESS AT WORK AND IN RELATIONSHIPS
The romantic notion that people need the warmth of human contact to survive, has gained a solid empirical foundation because of resent research. The enormous human need for love and a meaningful social role is clarified by research into what happens when we lack the company and appreciation of others.
A huge research program which looked at health, activities, social behaviour, and the death rate of more than seven thousand people, showed that being a loner, and unconnected with social activities is a cause of shorter life expectancy. People of all age groups, who had little social contact were prone to illness and early death. Isolation had more negative influence on their health than factors of finance or general health before isolation. Also, isolated people more frequently engaged in poor health behaviour – smoking, drinking, overeating, irregular eating and inadequate sleep. The lack of social contacts had a greater influence over early ill health and death than any or all of the poor health practises. The survey therefore showed that likelihood of early death can be predicted better by knowing how isolated or connected a person is than by knowledge of the persons smoking history, though smoking clearly increases likelihood of ill health.
STRESS IS NOT ALL IN THE MIND
The frequent mention of stress regarding emotional or social shock, such as the loss of a partner in a relationship, or loss of a job and the money that went with it, may lead us to see stress as only related to the mind and emotions. Much stress is physical or physiological though. This is obvious when we remember that exposure to heat or cold is dangerous or even fatal. Stress is also environmental, such as subjection to polluting fumes, dust, radiation or chemicals.
Despite the involvement of psychological factors, the cause of much stress on the body is overeating, or taking such substances into the body as alcohol, nicotine, pain killers and sugar. Stunkard said that of all the addictions the greatest killer is overeating.
IS WORK WITHOUT HEART?
Because we spend so much of our life in relationships of various kinds, and at work, love and work can be areas where much of the stress in our life occurs.
The major cause of work stress is – OVERLOAD. Demands beyond our ability skill or desired commitment. Overload can be created by jobs in which there is excessive and often-conflicting information about ones expected role. We play it cool here, don’t be pushy – but you’d better be productive and exceed the quota. Uncertainty about what is expected of you, lack of clear indication of how best to do your job, ambiguous presentation of who is your superior, poor working conditions – all contribute to work stress. It is also stressful if you cannot make decisions about how you do your work.
Air traffic controllers at O’Hare Airport, should stick to the rule of keeping aircraft five miles apart. If they did so the amount of air traffic they handle would grind to a halt. So they are encouraged to break the rules. The conflict and workload causes them to be four times more likely to have high blood pressure than other airport workers in responsible jobs. Twice as many suffer peptic ulcers, as do airmen. They also have a higher rate of anxiety, insomnia, depression and irritability.
AND IS LOVE HARD WORK?
Underlying most critical life events is a separation from other people. Someone dies, you move away, you get another job, you’re promoted, graduate, or demoted, but in all cases you are distanced from your previous associates. Even a positive event such as marriage often involves a separation from an established network of friends and family.
Healthy men whose wives had breast cancer were observed. Fifteen of the wives died; after these deaths, disease-killing lymphocytes measured in their husbands blood dropped substantially in activity. Clearly, a stressful experience had negatively influenced the immune system.
In a study investigating the history of early psychic traumas in 450 cancer patients, 72% (as compared to only 10% of a non-cancerous control group) were found to have suffered an experience of tragic loss in early life. It was thought that the cancer patients had, as children, had responded to their crises with feelings of guilt and self-blame. During early life these feelings were submerged. A shock, usually loss of partner, many years later, released the negative potential lying latent. Usually the first symptoms of cancer appeared from six months to eight years after this second life crisis.
WAYS THROUGH THE JUNGLE OF STRESS
If your roof had a hole in it and rain was damaging your belongings and comfort, you would surely quickly do something to deal with the problem. If you were depressed though, or suffering pain of bereavement, or lowered esteem through job loss, you might very well suffer in silence, and without hope of being able to positively contend with the problem. Our own feelings are so personal we often fail to see them as something alien. Instead we take them to our bosom as a part of ourselves.
Instead of the hole in the roof image, we might liken this to having a malfunction in our car that, when we press the screen wash button, instead of spraying the screen it sprays us inside the car! We often unconsciously trigger our own positive and negative emotions by taking certain ideas or views of ourselves as true. Or the feelings are habits that were formed in our childhood or early years. As such they can be changed, just as the car spray could be.
If we stop to consider for a while we have a whole array of body and mood changing tools available.
THE BODY – SUPPRESSED DESIRES CAUSE TENSION
If you think of your body as an animal, such as a dog or a horse, that you are responsible for, you have an excellent foundation for dealing with physical stress. The horse would need fresh air to breath, good quality food to eat, enough exercise and stimulation, and outlets for its social and sexual drives.
Your body – or in our imagery your horse – is not by itself tense. But your body is ‘ridden’ by your mind and emotions that may constantly suggest that it prepares for action or dangers. Each time you think of an activity your body prepares to do it. So if you lie in bed thinking about things you need to do tomorrow, the muscles are actually tensing and trying to fulfil the ‘action’ urges being sent them. Desires which are suppressed such as sexuality or aggression, even love and pleasure, cause similar tension.
Therefore any pleasurable physical activity such as walking, swimming, and exercising in company with others, allows the body to release some of its suppressed movements. Once its inhibited activity is allowed, it can relax and get on with its basic self-healing and internal housework. If you can allow times when the body can move spontaneously, as happens in Qi Gong, Coex and Subud, this is an even more direct way of releasing these tensions.
Progressive relaxation is an important technique to learn. It helps practitioners to become aware of their state of tension and to relax surface tensions – i.e. in the voluntary muscles. It is learnt by sitting or lying comfortably, and one at a time, slightly tensing a group of muscles such as those in the legs, then slowly relaxing them. Move from legs to hips and abdomen, to chest and back, to arms and neck, and lastly face and scalp. When the head has been relaxed start back at the legs and repeat. Each time tense a little less until there is only the feeling of tension followed by the feeling of relaxation. The attention may wander again and again, perhaps to get lost in thoughts, but gently bring it back to just the physical sensation of the tension and relaxation. This last point is important, because it is when the mind loses its busy thinking and is involved in just physical sensation that deep and healing relaxation occurs.
Pleasuring the body is one of the great relaxing and healing agents. You can use the nervous system to do this. The face, feet and genitals are main centres for nerve ends. In particular the genitals and mouth are centres for pleasure. If the body is ‘cut off’ from these areas and their sensations of pleasure, tension builds, and unless released can end in some sort of irritability, a sense of isolation and aloneness or explosive catharsis. Simple ways of using this fact are to place warm flannels on the face, genitals, hands and feet.
SEX – THE GREAT RELAXER
Due to the confused way our culture views sexuality, frequently perceiving it as indecent or sinful, we often fail to see how its frustration is the source of much tension and misery. The sexual, mating and parenting drive in humans can be likened to a battery. It charges up and needs to discharge its physical and emotional energy frequently, or else the energy transforms into negative feelings such as physical tension and backache, aggressiveness, feelings of being cut off or unwanted, anxiety, disinterest in other people or depression.
We may depend on another person or people to release our tension, as in social friendship, caring for our children and sexual intercourse. But if we are not in a satisfying relationship, the ‘horse’ is still our responsibility. Pleasurable massage or masturbation are real needs, as important as food is to the body. A very shrewd woman doctor, when dealing with highly tense female patients, gave them a cream to vigorously rub into the vagina once a day. She told them they had a rash and the cream was necessary, thus getting past their censor and enabling them to find relaxation.
MIND AND EMOTIONS – THE POWER OF LIFE OR DEATH
Edouard Coue said that when the imagination and the intellect argue, the imagination always wins. Each of us have noticed this when we see a face in the crowd that we imagine to be that of someone we love. Our heart speeds even though the person is not who we imagined them to be.
This power is wonderful and awful. Wonderful because it enables us to imaginatively enjoy books, pictures and films – awful because we can also imagine fears and illnesses which stress and injure the body, besides making our own mental life a misery.
Ramakrishna, an Indian sage, said that worries and thoughts are like pigeons that flutter around us each day because we have fed them so often in the past. If we stop feeding them we break the habit and they go away. It helps to have a practice that breaks the habit because of its influence. The progressive relaxation already mentioned quiets the thoughts. If we add to this a simple practice of holding attention on the breath and a word, it increases its effectiveness enormously. After relaxing for a few minutes using the progressive technique, you then bring your attention to your breathing. Do not attempt to alter or control the breathing, simply watch it. As you are doing this mentally sound the word AUM as you are breathing out. It is the sort of noise you would make if you added sound to breathing out with the mouth fully open then slowly closing it. As you breath in simply be aware of your body as it takes in the air. Then repeat AUM on the out breath, and repeat for at least ten minutes.
RECOGNISING THE BEAST
By recognising and appraising your stress situation you can often change it dramatically. A man who was living alone for a long period, and also worked at home by himself, experienced frequent feelings of loneliness, depression and restlessness. When he stood back from the situation he could see that his symptoms immediately disappeared when he had company. He therefore reorganised his daily routines. He regularly met with friends, made sure he went out of the house lunch times and mornings for walks, and in the evenings at home, read or pursued something he could enjoy. He thus avoided resorting to excessive eating and alcohol to compensate for his need for company.
In a series of studies focussed on how a person can be helped to promote their own health, one researcher set up an information booth at New York World Fair. He found that many people most in need of the preventative action refuse it in an attempt to maintain their illusion of personal invulnerability. In appraising our situation we need to be aware of this negative coping technique and seek the aid of down to earth friends to look at our life style.
CAN WE BUY HAPPINESS?
We have all become too intolerant of pain and anxiety and too eager to reach for the quick and easy solution – even though we know intellectually that happiness is not going to come commercially pre-packaged. Our body and personality are the dwelling we live in. Using this metaphor, if the walls need repainting, going out for a drink with friends, or taking a flight to Bermuda will not paint the walls. The flight might make us more relaxed about doing the painting, but it will not do it.
DEPRESSION IS A DIRTY HABIT
Much of our own stress is caused by habits we perpetuate -
* Habits of thought, as when we meet a difficulty and we immediately think we are a failure and so cripple ourselves regarding effective and positive action to solve the problem.
* Habits of activity. We may be lonely but remain at home reading or too busy in our work to take time to socialise and meet new people.
* Habits in relationship. When your partner shows any sign of withdrawing emotionally, perhaps because they are tired, you may habitually feel threatened, and react with irritation or anger.
In recent years a new approach has developed to overcome feeling low, tense or unimportant. It is noticeable that if we think about something depressing, then our body slightly takes a different posture, and our feelings drop. Turning this around, if we hold our body and face in a happy and confident posture, then our feelings shift too. Of course we need to work at this, but it is effective.
Peter had become very depressed after his divorce. Although now living with a very loving and caring woman, he was ruining the relationship with his moods. After thinking what a failure he had been in his first marriage, and now in this relationship, he felt deeply depressed again and stood staring out of the bedroom window. Eileen, his present partner came home obviously bright and happy. As she walked into the bedroom Peter her face lose its sparkle and her shoulders sag as she saw his apathy. It shocked him to see he wasn’t building the love and satisfaction between them he had hoped. It was obvious to him Eileen had lost her bounce because of how he looked. So he straightened his posture, put on a smile, walked over to Eileen with an expression of pleasure at seeing her, and put his arm around her. There was an immediate change in her, and Peter himself felt enjoyment at the lighter mood created between them.
He was deeply impressed by what had happened. He used the approach day after day to create the sort of life he wanted for himself. What was at first acting became new habits and a new reality. Peter had taken up the brush and repainted his walls. So can you.