Freedom from stress
By Jerry Brownstein
The emotional stress of modern life is taking an enormous toll on our health, wellness and happiness. Research has shown that stress is a major factor in heart disease, digestive problems, autoimmune disorders, chronic pain, and many forms of cancer. When you feel stressful it raises your blood pressure, weakens your immune system, and speeds up the aging process. It’s easy to tell yourself to “calm down, relax and take things as they come”, but actually doing this is not so simple. In order to effectively deal with stress we first need to know where it comes from, and why it is so prevalent in today’s world. Understanding the origins of stress allows us to consciously take the steps necessary to reduce it so that we can lead a happier and healthier life.
The root cause of stress is our instinct for survival. Like every other animal, human beings are programmed to respond to life threatening situations with an emergency response system called Fight or Flight. This automatic reaction prepares our bodies to either fight a threatened danger with full strength, or to run away from it at full speed. Here’s how it works. When your brain senses danger it releases a flood of adrenaline and cortisol into your bloodstream, and these chemicals cause a powerful physical response: blood pressure rises; muscles tense; breathing becomes shallow and rapid; digestion stops; the immune system is repressed; and all senses go on full alert. This completely reverses the regular rhythm of your body which normally keeps you healthy by using 90% of its energy for growth and renewal. Fight or Flight shuts down these vital functions and diverts almost all of your energy toward facing the perceived emergency.
This temporary defence mechanism is crucial for survival in a dangerous environment, but if it is not quickly terminated it causes massive physical damage that leads to chronic disease in the body. The problem in modern society is that it almost never shuts down, so we are constantly reacting with fear and anxiety. Fight or flight worked perfectly well for our ancient ancestors when they faced a life-threatening situation such as a dangerous animal. Their bodies prepared to fight or run, but once the animal had gone away or been subdued, the primitive man relaxed… the stress response stopped… and his body returned to its normal state of growth and renewal. The difference today is that we constantly feel as if we are being threatened, so our bodies are continually going in and out of fight or flight.
Why is this so? One reason is that the evolution of our survival instincts has not kept up with the development of our thinking minds. Our capacity to visualize thoughts has evolved rapidly, while our system for facing danger has hardly changed at all. Our advanced minds are able to create mental pictures that seem totally real to the primitive part of the brain that triggers fight or flight – so it reacts to every difficult situation as if you are being physically threatened. Thus we are constantly turning on our emergency lifesaving system to cope with everyday problems such as fear of public speaking, difficult bosses, traffic jams, etc.. The sheer number of stress-inducing situations that face us on a daily basis is what makes it so difficult to turn the stress response off, and as a result our bodies are flooded with corrosive stress hormones.
The perfect example of this problem is what happens when people worry about things that may or may not happen in their lives. Your worried thoughts about a situation turning out badly feel like reality to the primitive part your brain – it can’t tell the difference between your thought picture and reality. So it reacts as if the negative outcome has actually happened, thus causing the stress reaction. No wonder they say that ‘worrying is the worst use of imagination’. Another big cause of stress in our society is that we are constantly exposed to “news” from the mainstream media that is almost entirely based on keeping us in a state of fear… and fear triggers the stress response.
The good news is that there are many proven ways to reduce stress and lessen its effects. Perhaps the easiest thing to do is to simply stay away from people and places that you find stressful. Set your intention to become aware of what makes you feel nervous or upset (traffic, crowds, negative news, rude people, etc.), and then make a conscious effort to avoid those things as much as possible. That said, there will always be some stressful moments in your life, but there are simple tools that will help you to handle them gracefully. Regular exercise is a great way to reduce the body’s stress response. Anything physical that you do on a consistent basis will work – Yoga, Qi Gong, jogging, going to the gym, etc.. Walking in Nature reduces stress by combining the benefits of exercise with the calming beauty of the natural environment.
Finally, and most important of all, is meditation – a powerful practice that you can easily incorporate into your daily life. Numerous studies have proven that meditation reduces stress, and this leads to significant improvements in both physical and mental health. Meditating for as little as five minutes each day is enough to calm the mind, relax the body, and reverse the process of stress… and it is also the pathway toward finding a deeper level of inner peace and wisdom. •