Waking Up in Time

Stress - the Wages of Fear

 

People are disturbed, not by things, but by the view they take of them.

Epictetus

To the body, fear is a danger signal. The body doesn’t stop to examine whether or not the danger is real, or explore how it should respond to the possible danger. As far as it is concerned, there is a potential emergency, and for its own safety it automatically prepares itself for instant action. Heart rate quickens, blood pressure rises, breathing increases, muscles become tense, the skin begins to sweat, while digestion, reproduction, and other processes that will not be needed for the moment are turned down.

Such a response is very natural, and very valuable. After all, if you were confronted by a wild boar in the woods, or were about to be hit by a bus, you may need to move instantly, and fast.

In contemporary society such physical threats are few and far between. Our mastery of the world has enabled us to avoid or guard against most such dangers, and there are seldom times when we need to prepare ourselves for such instant action. But this does not mean that we are free from threat. Human beings have created a whole new set of things to fear.

Our need to feel in control may be threatened by imposed workloads, tight deadlines, crowded schedules. We may feel threatened by traffic jams, delayed flights, incompetent staff, unexpected demands, and anything else that might cost us time. Our need for self-esteem, recognition, and approval can be threatened by the fear of failure, the fear of looking foolish in front of others, the fear of criticism, and the fear of being rejected. Uncertainty or anything else that makes us feel insecure can likewise be perceived as a threat.

The trouble is, our bodies respond to these psychological threats just as they would to any physical threat. So we find our hearts thumping, our palms sweating, and our muscles tightening, not because of any physical danger, but because of some danger we perceive within our minds -- because someone criticizes us, because we have to speak in a group, or because we may be late for a meeting.

 

The Toll of Stress

Rarely do these psychological threats demand that we run for our lives or fight to the death. There has been no physical danger. As far as the body is concerned it was all a false alarm. So our physiological system then sets about unwinding and recovering. But this is a much slower process -- it takes only a second for the body to jump to alert, but it can take many minutes, sometimes even hours, for it to return to a state of ease.

If this occurred only occasionally there would be no problem. But most of us encounter such inner threats several times a day -- sometimes several times an hour -- and the body seldom has time to recover from one false alarm before the next one is triggered. Before long our bodies end up in a permanent state of tension, a permanent state of emergency.

For many of us this underlying tension is so much a part of contemporary life that we no longer notice it or pay it much attention. But it is still present -- a faint background of uptightness, interspersed with periods of high anxiety. Only when we relax fully do we realize just how tense we normally are.

Over a period of time, this background tension begins to affect our thinking, emotions, and behavior. Our judgment deteriorates; we tend to make more mistakes; our perception becomes poorer; we may become depressed, feel hostile towards others, lose our temper more, act less rationally, behave abusively.

Meanwhile the toll on our bodies manifests in various ways: aches and pains, indigestion, insomnia, high blood pressure, allergies, lowered immunity, illness -- sometimes premature death.

The damage does not end there. Increased tension, friction, anger, hostility, intolerance, anxiety, depression, irrationality, fear, fragility, instability, ineffectiveness and muddled thinking, selfishness and general craziness, all affect the general health and well-being of society. This contributes to increasing crime, vandalism, violence, terrorism (sanctioned as well as unsanctioned), militarization, war, drug abuse (legal as well as illegal), police harassment, divorce... and on and on.

Stress can also have negative consequences on our environment. Eighty percent of accidents are caused by “human error”, and the more stressed a person is, the more prone they are to error. And the consequences of human error in a nuclear power station, a chemical plant, or a tanker full of crude oil are familiar to us all.

Nor do fatigued and tense people always make the best decisions. More often than not stress makes us feel more vulnerable, more in need of defending our own interests, more caught up in our ego-mind.

 

A Disease of the Future

The problem of stress is not likely to go away. As the pace of change continues to increase, the demands upon us will also increase. We will have to make more decisions and faster; have to learn new skills, adapt to new situations, and cope with new threats. As a result we will find ourselves becoming more tired, making more mistakes, becoming more hostile, more anxious, more depressed, suffering more ill-health, and having more accidents.

If we are to survive in an ever-accelerating world, it is imperative that we learn to cope with the increasing pressures of change without accumulating yet more tension and all its unwanted effects. If we do not, it is more than probable that we will find ourselves sucked into a downward spiral, desperately trying to manage in an increasingly unmanageable world. Breakdowns and burnouts will become the norm. And society will head yet faster towards its own collapse.

 

The Inner Dimension

Because we are caught in the belief that our inner state is at the mercy of external events, we usually try to manage stress by managing the world. We seek to eliminate or reduce the circumstances that we think are the cause of our stress. And we seek to minimize the effects that these stresses have on our body and behavior by exercising, eating healthily, or giving the body the rest it needs.

While these may be helpful courses of action it is also becoming clear that the mind plays a crucial role in most stress reactions. I may, for example, think that being stuck in a traffic jam causes me stress. In doing so I overlook the crucial role my own thinking plays in my reaction. It is not the traffic jam itself that is causing the tension. A traffic jam is actually quite relaxing. No activity is called for, no vigilance is required, there is nothing that needs to be controlled, nobody coming along to interrupt my thoughts. In many respects it is the sort of situation I may have been wishing for all day. I can shut my eyes and come to no harm.

If I find such a situation stressful it is because of what I am telling myself -- that voice in the head again. I may be imagining the possible negative consequences of being delayed, or be angry with myself for not having chosen a better route. I may be saying that this is not what I expected; I want the situation to be different from the way it is. It is my thoughts that make me upset, not the jam itself.

Someone else who remains relaxed in a jam may be glad to be away from the demands of telephones, papers to sign, questions to answer, disagreements to settle. She may be pleased to have to miss the meeting. Or she may realize that there is nothing she can do to change the situation, so she may as well arrive late and relaxed as late and upset.

In most cases it is not the situation itself that causes stress but the way in which we perceive the situation. If I see the situation as a threat to what I want, a threat to my sense of identity, a threat to my inner well-being, a threat to my getting what I believe I need in order to be happy, or a threat to my expectations of how things should be, then I may well cause myself stress.

 

Managing the Mind

This alternate way of seeing a situation is the new meme that we must adopt if we are to survive the consequences of ever-accelerating change. The old meme tells us: How you feel inside is a reflection of what is going on in the world around; what you have, what you do, what you experience. The new meme says: How you feel inside is a reflection of how you perceive the world. If you want to feel more at peace in yourself, don’t try to change the world around you, for that can only bring temporary relief at best; change your judgments and interpretations about the world -- change your mind.

Adopting this meme actually gives us a much greater control over our inner responses. We may not always have much influence over the situation we find ourselves in, but the way in which we perceive a situation is something over which we have a great deal of influence. We always have a choice as to whether we see a change as a threat or as an opportunity. Thus we always have a choice as to whether or not we upset ourselves over things.

This is not to imply that we should never try to change the world; there may be many things we can do to make the world a better place. But we should not fall into the trap of believing this is the path to our personal inner fulfillment.

Nor does it mean we should sit back and let the world walk all over us. There may be many things we can do that will relieve the pressure we are under. If, for instance, we find ourselves suffering from an excessive workload, we can look for ways to reduce that particular problem. What we do not need to do is make ourselves upset, and possibly ill, in the process. In fact we will probably respond with more insight, higher creativity, clearer direction, better poise, and more effectiveness, if our minds are not hampered by a response more appropriate to our evolutionary past.

Learning to manage our own thinking and perception is more than a very practical means of managing stress -- with all the consequent benefits that may have on us as individuals and as a species. As we learn to work with ourselves in this way, we are learning to free ourselves from fear. We are beginning to challenge some of the fundamental beliefs that run our lives, and which lead us to behave in short-sighted ways that are seldom in our true best interest.


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Date created: 3-Oct-03