Managing Stress – Part 1

Usually we think of stress as mental, emotional or physical strain or tension. In this sense we may link stress to how a soldier might feel as he was going into battle; or how we react as our driving test approaches, or as we enter hospital for a surgical operation. Most of us can observe the signs of this sort of stress in such things as clenching our fists, drumming fingers, lighting a cigarette, tensing our jaw, wanting a drink, or feeling depressed. At such times we may even find ourselves susceptible to such illnesses as an asthma attack, indigestion, or back and general body pains.

Some of the clearest examples of what stress is, however, can be seen in looking at the body in stress situations. For instance if we fall into or swim in icy cold water, this places the body in stress. What this means in plain language is that because the body needs to maintain it’s temperature at about 98.4 F, being exposed to cold for too long could be fatal. The condition between easy maintenance of body temperature and death through exposure to low temperature is stress. Therefore, some causes of physical stress could be exposure to extreme heat; taking poison into the system; lack of oxygen; high levels of carbon monoxide (car exhaust fumes) etc, in the air we breath; lack of food; lack of vital nutrients such as iron, protein, etc; insufficient sleep; and so on.

When we fall into cold water our body attempts to deal with the stress through its self-regulating or homeostatic processes. The glandular system will probably secrete adrenalin into the blood stream, causing the heart to speed up. But many other activities try to meet the emergency, even to such small things as the liver releasing more vitamin A to deal with the shock to the immune system.

In general, stress can be thought of as acting upon us in two ways. The first we have already mentioned; that is BODY or PHYSIOLOGICAL STRESS. The second is MENTAL or PSYCHOLOGICAL STRESS. These major headings of BODY and MIND cover many sub-headings though. In the above list of possible body stress situations, such as lack of oxygen and insufficient nutrients, we already have an idea of such sub-headings. So in learning how to meet stress creatively, we could consider, in relation to our body, such subjects as diet, exercise, breathing, hygiene, etc. Under the heading of Mind we could consider such things as relationship, work, social pressure, and education. But it is impossible to make firm differences between Mind and Body. To make this clear let us look at the work of Dr. George Crile, which illustrates both the vital importance of the mind in connection with stress, and also how the body and mind are inseparable.

In 1887 Dr. Crile watched helpless as his friend, William Lyndman, died of shock after amputation of both legs. William had lost little blood, and no vital organs were injured. Crile went on to develop anaesthesia and blood transfusion to counteract death through shock. But some forms of shock appeared to be outside any physical cause. In 1898 Crile was on an army transporter off Cuba and examined a young officer who was delirious with fear due to facing his first battle. He was as deep in shock as if his legs had been crushed by a wagon as William Lyndman’s had. This led Crile to become interested in exophthalmic goitre, an illness that produces a similar type of anxiety condition. Despite the use of anaesthetics, no one had successfully operated on such a goitre condition. Crile discovered why when he attempted such an operation in 1905.

While under anaesthesia the patients heart rate rose to 218 and the body temperature rose to a dangerous level. Despite no physical injury or infection, the patient died that night with a temperature of 109.6 F.

Crile realised from his previous observations that it was stress caused by fear that killed the patient. Therefore he told his next patient, a young woman who needed the goitre operation, that he was going to give her a simple inhalation treatment. When she breathed in the anaesthetic, she therefore thought she was having a `treatment’ not an operation. She was the first person to survive the operation for exopthalmic goitre. Crile called it “stealing the goitre”, and was so impressed by the influence of emotion on the body he constantly stressed the importance of self-control, and taught that calmness is strength.

The word stress has not had these associations for very long. Hans Selye, the great modern researcher into stress, did not at the beginning of his research know English well, and realised later he would have preferred the word strain.

But it was a fortunate mistake because stress has its positive as well as negative polarity. In its positive aspect stress can be thought of not as strain but as stimulus. The `stress’ experienced by our body while we walk briskly or swim causes our circulation to increase and such functions as cell growth in bones and muscles to be stimulated. Also the `stress’ of a challenging situation can focus our concentration and stimulate our problem solving and creative abilities.

Perhaps the most important thing about these two aspects of human stress is that one can learn to transform negative strain into positive stimulus. In fact stress is not an awful side of life we must constantly be on the look out for and avoid. Rather it is a normal and healthy response to everyday life. Just as a car can be pleasurable or dangerous depending upon how we relate to it, so our stress factor can be injurious or stimulating. When handled skilfully, the situation that starts our heart pounding, a sense of foreboding to arise, and our internal critic to start its usual message of failure and inadequacy, can be changed to the excitement and satisfaction of being able to handle our body responses and inner feelings in a way that satisfies us.

The ability to handle stress well is vital to survival as well as conducive to personal satisfaction. As human beings we have tremendous powers of adaptation and survival built into us. As a species we have faced and survived the most horrific of natural catastrophes such as famines, plagues, floods, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. We have even survived the internal threats such as war. But modern warfare, increasing population, the potentially lethal side effects of modern technology, air, water and noise pollution, along with tremendous social change, the push to compete for limited jobs, and the need to find a personal stance suitable to a changing world, needs more than old

methods of survival. We need to learn something new.


Negative stress is a physical and mental state manifest by a syndrome – that is, a set of symptoms or signs. According to Hans Selye’s theory the body’s reaction under stress, which he calls the ‘general adaptation syndrome’, occurs in three major phases: the alarm reaction, the stage of resistance, and the stage of exhaustion. The alarm reaction consists of physiological first response to a stressor. Resistance decreases. In the second stage, when the stressor has continued for some time, there is an adaptation to it. Resistance rises above normal, and the original signs of stress disappear. In the third stage, signs of alarm reaction reappear, but the resistance drops to the point of death.

Stress is not being able to go to sleep….having unaccountable chest pains…not being able to concentrate…..feeling irritated by common events….anxiety in facing unknown and new situations…..feeling a failure…..being fired from your job…….experiencing divorce……..losing your wallet…….being out of work……….having no friend to share a worry with…….your back paining………being angry and not expressing it……..not crying when one of your family dies…….
Pulling Oneself Up By Ones Own Bootstraps

When David Banning stood feeling deeply depressed and looking out of his bedroom window, he could see no way out of the awful conflict he was in. Having left his family and divorced his first wife he had married Sylvia, a woman he greatly loved and respected. But his new wife had not brought happiness. Instead he felt torn between her and the children he had left. Frequently he also found himself at cross-purposes with Sylvia’s own children, feeling a stranger in what was now his own home. His frequent deep depressions had even begun to gnaw away at Sylvia’s usual bubbly good humour too. So when Sylvia arrived back from work and found David standing despondent by the window, her pleasure at returning home turned into a dull anxiety.

David had half turned and saw the change in her face and posture, as if a weight had suddenly fallen on her. Because he had hoped for and planned to create with Sylvia mutual warmth and caring in their marriage, it hurt him to see what was happening to her because of his own pain. On sudden impulse he straightened his posture, and acted as if he felt relaxed and happy by smiling and walking forward, holding Sylvia close to him. He was amazed to see the worry melt from her face; and even more surprised to find that a feeling of brightness gradually took over from the gloom even in himself.

Divorce is one of the major sources of stress in modern life. Being separated from the people one loves, in David’s case his children, is another cause of stress and the difficult feelings and even body conditions accompanying it.

Even though it was David’s decision to leave his first wife, it did not give him immunity to the stress involved. However, when David acted being pleased to see Sylvia, he applied one of the simple methods one can use to wisely manage ones own stress. Learning from the experience he gradually used it to create in his life the sort of feelings and situations he wanted, instead of passively accepting his spontaneous reactions to stress. He realised that many of his feelings were habitual responses to triggers such as seing his children and feeling a failure as a father. When he recognised that these habitual responses were like tape recordings that could play ona and on endlessly, he started to change the habits by responding differently to the triggers.

See Stress Part Two


1) WHAT IS STRESS Stress is the non-specific response of the body to any demand made on it.(Selye 1973. Psych and Life page 530)

The body’s natural reaction to a perceived threat. This response – the flight or fight response – is common to all mammals, whether rats, humans or monkeys. “Men are disturbed not by things but the view that they take of them.” Epictetus.

Plato said, “all diseases of the body proceed from the Mind or soul.” It is now believed that 50 to 80% of illness has stress as a contributing factor.

Pavlov’s dogs showed `experimental neurosis’ when made to make difficult decisions. The dogs behaviour changed. They became aggressive, frenzied, etc. Inescapable conflict results in stress. Experimental pig lured a man and attacked. Dogs given an electric shock in one compartment learned to jump to safety. Never stayed in danger zone even without electricity.

Conditioned reflexes are major cause of continuing `stress’. “A person may be reacting to some old injury or situation which no longer exists, and he is usually unconscious of what it is that is causing an increase of heart rate or blood pressure. The result may be chronic hypertension. This may be the explanation of many cardiac deaths.” Although people may not show signs of CR at a conscious level it still shows physiologically. Example of soldier reacting to battle signals. Hypertension affects 30 million Americans. The same number of Americans suffer from sleep-onset insomnia.

“The chances of developing a psychological disorder requiring hospitalisation were 29% greater for those living under the Jet-ways (near major airports). A similar; figure of 31% more `nervous breakdown’ was found among Britishers living near London’s Heathrow Airport.

React at four different/interrelated levels. 1] Emotional such as fear, sadness, anger, frustration. 2] Behavioural forgetting, inability to get along with people 3] physiological high blood pressure, changed glandular products, etc. 4] Cognitive, self image of failure, being disliked, never going anywhere, etc.

Emotional arousal is one of the most frequent causes of stress. Imagine the difference between being woken up slowly, and on being woken by someone shouting “fire – fire!”

It is when we must cope with too many pressures at one time or with continuing pressure over an extended period that stress becomes a serious problem. Continuing job pressures, whether they stem from too much or too little change, can be a chronic source of harmful stress.

In a group of almost 400 subjects, a consistent relationship was found between the number of life change units, according to the scale, and major health changes during the same ten-year period. Of those with moderate crisis scale scores, 37% had had major health change. In addition, those who usually remained well during flu epidemics were more likely to have flu after a major life change. (Rahe & Holmes, 1966) Page 539 Psch. and Life. See criticism of this report on page 540 psych and life.

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