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What is Stress?  

          A zebra enjoying a quiet stroll on the grassy plain where he lives suddenly hears the sound of a lion off in the distance.

                                                                    So what happens?

          Instantaneously, a wonderful mechanism known as the stress response, kicks into gear.  Upon hearing the sound, the zebra’s thinking brain (yes, a zebra does have a kind of thinking brain) identifies it as a lion, and sends a message to his (or her) amygdala, the warning center of the emotional brain.  The amygdala confirms that there is danger afoot, and immediately alerts another part of the emotional brain – the hypothalamus – which controls hormone release.

          You might be surprised to know that this process which takes place in the zebra is exactly the same as the one that takes place in you when you feel threatened.

                                                                So what happens next?

The Stress Response - A Physiological Mechanism that Protects Us From Danger 

          Whether you’re a zebra or a human, your hypothalamus directs your body to release more than a thousand hormones and neurotransmitters whose job it is to activate your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and to adjust your body in ways that brilliantly prepare you to deal with the threat.  For example:

  • Your breathing speeds up. This delivers more oxygen to your muscles, so you’ll be prepared to fight or flee (that’s why we have difficulty breathing when we become frightened).

  • Your heart rate increases.  This allows your blood to more quickly deliver the increased oxygen, along with other nutrients, from your lungs to your body (that’s why our heart starts pounding when we’re scared).

  • You start to sweat.  This cools down your body so that it can safely burn more energy.  The sweat also releases a scent that indicates you’re prepared for a fight, and alerts others of your species of the potential danger (though, in the case of humans, they may not be aware of it!) (That’s why we sweat when we get nervous - it’s a natural part of the stress response.)

  • Your muscles tense up to prepare you for action.  Tensed muscles also  make it harder for an attacker – whether the attacker uses his or her teeth, fists, or a knife – to pierce your muscular "armor" (that’s why we may end up with a headache and other muscle aches after a particularly stressful day).

  • Your digestion slows down. This allows blood to be redirected away from your digestive organs and toward your brain and muscles.  As a result, you’re more alert, able to think more clearly, and will have more strength and endurance for fighting or running.   (We may experience this as butterflies in the stomach.)

  • Your reproductive system slows down (that’s why we may not be inclined toward sexual activity when we’re stressed).

         In the case of the zebra, all this works very well to help him run from the lion.  If the zebra manages to escape and finds a safe place to hide…     

                                                                  what happens next?

Here's What's Good About the Stress Response

          If the zebra were anything like a typical human, he would spend hours, maybe even days or weeks, dwelling on the terrible thing that happened to him. Perhaps his thoughts would run something like this: “My life is ruined. The one thing I loved was running free on the grassy plain, and now I have to watch my back. What a drag!  I hate that miserable lion - why did he have to do that?  And why do these things always happen to me?”

          But fortunately for the zebra, his mind doesn’t work like that. Assuming the lion doesn’t come along again any time soon, the zebra will continue to live in blissful ignorance.  The incident will be forgotten, and he will not worry himself about what may happen in the future.

          The result?  After he’s worked off the stress response by running at top speed away from the lion, his body gradually returns to normal. His heart rate and breathing slow down, his muscles relax, his digestion returns to normal – and, if Ms. Zebra is anywhere around, he’s now ready to enjoy a sexual encounter.   

Here’s What’s Bad About the Stress Response in Humans:
How Stress Makes Humans Sick

          Unfortunately for us humans, our minds don’t work like the zebra’s.  We tend to dwell on what happened and to worry about what may happen in the future.  And so the stress response continues – our muscles stay tense, our digestion is upset, our blood pressure rises, and we develop respiratory problems.

          And – this may surprise you – much of the time, we don’t even realize that we’re dwelling on what happened. 

                                     How, you may wonder, is that possible?

          Many years ago, Don was living in a loft on East 6th Street in New York City.  At the time, that particular block was considered to be the most dangerous in all of Manhattan.  Don had rented out part of his loft to a newspaper reporter (who we'll call “Jim”) who worked ‘til midnight, and often walked home at 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning.  Though he was well aware of the crime statistics, Jim was convinced it didn’t bother him at all to walk home at that hour.

          One night, as Jim headed home along E. 6th Street, he heard a loud noise right behind him.  Without a moment’s thought, he jumped into a doorway and began screaming uncontrollably for what seemed to him a very long time (though it may actually have been only a few seconds).  When he stopped screaming and cautiously looked behind him to determine the cause of the noise, he discovered it was a cat that had jumped onto the lid of a garbage can.

          So why was Jim's reaction so out of proportion to the reality?  Most likely, a part his mind outside his conscious awareness had been harboring a fearfulness based on the potential danger of the neighborhood.  And that fearfulness had caused his brain to release hundreds of stress hormones and neurotransmitters in anticipation of a possible threat.  When he heard the loud noise, his stress response was already in overdrive. 

          Had that situation continued for a long period of time, Jim may have developed digestive problems, increased muscle tension, respiratory difficulties, or even heart disease. 

The Essential Cause of Stress:
A Lack of Integration

          For most people, their upstairs brain (the more evolved part of the brain that’s in charge of our conscious thinking processes) is to some degree out of touch with their downstairs brain (the part of the brain that's in charge of our emotions and instincts). Dan Siegel refers to this as a lack of “vertical integration.”

          Because of inadequate vertical integration, we may go through much of our day without realizing just how much our body is almost continually reacting to minor stressors.  These stress reactions tend to build up over time, weakening our immune system (making us more susceptible to colds and flu), increasing physical pain, worsening symptoms of depression and anxiety, and making it harder for us to concentrate or make decisions.

          Almost all unhealthy stress reactions involve a lack of some kind of integration.  You may remember Paula, the intensive care nurse who virtually eliminated years of crippling pain and anxiety simply by shifting her mode of attention from one that favored the left hemisphere to one that integrated both left and right hemispheres.  Siegel refers to this as “horizontal integration.” 

          And as you’ll see on other pages about stress on this site, whenever there is a lack of integration, there is a tendency for the brain and body to create stress and disease.

The Virtue of Stress

          While it’s true that our minds are capable of triggering the stress response to such a degree that it can cause mental, emotional, and physical imbalance, let’s not forget that it’s a powerful part of our physiology for an important reason.  When triggered in response to an actual, short-lived danger, the stress response helps us to accomplish physical feats we might otherwise find extremely difficult, if not impossible to manage.

          The following article, which appeared in the Boston Globe on November 1, 1980, offers a dramatic example of what a person, out of compassionate concern for another, can do under the helpful influence of the stress response:

Arnold Lemerand, of Southgate Michigan, is 56 years old and had a heart attack six years ago. As a result, he doesn’t like to lift heavy objects.  But this week, when Philip Toth, age 5, became trapped under a cast iron pipe near a playground, Lemerand easily lifted the pipe and saved the child’s life. As he lifted it, Lemerand thought to himself that the pipe must weigh 300 to 400 pounds.  It actually weighed 1800 pounds, almost a ton.  Afterward, Lemerand, his grown sons, reporters and police tried to lift the pipe but couldn’t.

          In this case, a well-placed stress response helped Lemerand to accomplish an apparent miracle.

Dealing with Stress from the Hub

      As we say repeatedly on this site, whatever challenge you may be facing – whether it’s an outer circumstance, physical pain, or a difficult emotion – there’s one thing you can do that will help you deal with whatever it is in a calm and constructive way:

                                                            Remember to breathe…

         In other words – to whatever extent you’re able, anchor your attention in the hub of pure awareness. If, in a moment of stress, you’ve already been practicing doing that for a while, you may be able to simply shift your attention inward to connect to your core of calm, strength, and ease.  Or you can use any of the techniques you learn on this site to help you make the shift.  

Rewiring Your Brain

          Whenever you’re able to pair a stressful sensation or emotion with an experience of the core, you’re literally rewiring the neural pathways in your brain. 

          Say, for example, you’re feeling anxious about a test you’ll be taking.  By simply contacting the state of calm and ease at your core, while at the same time being aware of the feeling of anxiety, you change the way your brain processes the anxious feeling.  Neurons related to the experience of anxiety will fire together with neurons related to the experience of calm and, as a result, they will begin to wire together. 

           Of course, it takes a number of repetitions before the new wiring will be secure and reliable.  But each time you experience anxiety and calm together, it makes it a little easier for you to relax the next time a feeling of anxiety comes up. (And when you’re less anxious, your lower brain will be less likely to get in the way of your upper brain as it focuses on taking your test!)

It Doesn’t Take Years of Training to Begin to Deal with Stress

          Perhaps you read the story of Tony on our cognitive behavioral therapy page, or the story of Paula, on the page about left-right brain integration.  During an hour-long class on stress management for diabetes, Tony understood, for the first time, that it was his attitude which had created much of his stress.  As a result of that new understanding, he was able to change a lifetime of reactive habits and to change his life in some rather dramatic ways.

          In Paula’s case, after just three months of shifting what had been her habitual mode of attention (a narrow tense mode characteristic of the left hemisphere) to a more open and relaxed focus (that comes from anchoring attention at the hub), she was able to eliminate years of debilitating physical pain and anxiety. 

          With just a little bit of dedicated, regular practice, you, too, will be able to see some rather striking reductions in your level of stress.

          In future pages, we'll be talking more about the physical symptoms of stress, the different causes of stress, and stress management techniques that will help you relieve stress.