Tension and stress are today almost always associated with some sort of disorder. However, the reaction of the body in the form of tension always served our ancestors very well: when it was necessary to defend itself against the many dangers of life the body made itself ready to do so by means of increased muscle tension or a more rapid heartbeat. Now that most of the dangers in our Western society are of a mental nature, ‘fight or flight’ is no longer necessary: in general our problems no longer demand a physical solution.
Nonetheless, a certain amount of tension continues to be necessary today to preserve variety in life and a certain degree of stress is needed in order to achieve things. A life without tensions would be boring, and if we did not have to make an effort once in a while we would never be satisfied with ourselves. If the body is continually in a state of readiness, however, a person becomes exhausted and stress disorders (ulcers and high blood pressure) may occur. To avoid this it is necessary to ensure that periods of tension alternate with periods of relaxation.
Relaxation is not something that occurs of its own accord; something has to be done to bring it about, such as relaxation exercises, yoga or, indeed, measured amounts of physical effort to release the tension that has been built up.
Stress is one of the vaguest words in the paramedical vocabulary. It is a blanket term for influences or stimuli that affect emotion, behaviour, mental ability, physiology and physical condition. Too much stress conjures up the image of a nervous, quivering wreck -harassed, suffering from ulcers, unable to sleep and teetering on the verge of a heart attack. Stress comes in many forms. The death of a loved one can trigger an acute period of stress that is completely beyond the control of the bereaved individual, but which surfaces as a period of grief and mourning and usually heals after a time. On the other hand, the thrusting business executive frets over promotion prospects in a form of self-imposed subacute stress that does not crystallize or culminate in action, but grumbles along and gnaws away at the psyche. There are also chronic (long-term) stresses all of us have to bear that are virtually part of everyday life – bills, planning for holidays and Christmas, keeping members of the family happy, and so on. In general we see stress as negative, a resistant force that opposes and upsets life’s progress. Yet stress has its good side. In the correct amounts, it is a positive force that drives each of us to grow, develop, achieve and adapt to events in our lives. One stress expert has made the observation that virtually stress-free living, with no enemies and no competition for food, is enjoyed by the South Americain sloth. With no motivation, however, this animal has slowed down to become such an underachiever that there is very little difference between a conscious sloth and an unconscious one.
Of course, it is the negative side of stress that gains the attention and the headlines. Stress-related conditions and illnesses are legion: heart disease, high blood pressure, impotence, infertility, hysteria, rashes, ulcers, irritable colon, insomnia, depression, anxiety and headaches.
Causes of stress
What causes stress? The answer is almost anything. But it is the type of stress to which you are exposed and how you deal with it that is important. One of the problems today is that many stresses remain unre-solved. The human body has evolved to respond to events and changes in the external environment by gearing itself up for ‘fight or flight’. The brain initiates the secretion of adrenalin from the adrenal glands, which stimulates the heart to pump more blood to the muscles so that we can either fight or flee. Primitive man attacked by a wild animal could fight it or run away. Enemies in the twentieth century are no less real, but may be nebulous or intangible. We fight mental and psychological adversaries such as business worries or family difficulties. Our bodies obediently gear up as for violent defence, but there is little scope for a physical workout to relieve the situation. Re-peated frustations of the body’s intentions build up into a stress factor on their own. Environmental factors can also be stressful, partly because one can do little about them. Modern urban life especially is overflowing with stress: noise, crowding. Hurry, crime, unemployment and poor living conditions. One study in the United States followed young males from manual work in rural areas to office jobs in the city. Those who became urban executives had up to four times the heartattack rate of their contemporaries who stayed back on the farm. More specific life events can generate stress. Some, such as death and taxes, are inevitable. Others, such as birth, marriage, moving home and so forth are mostly self-imposed. Many indeed are actively sought. Yet they can all have an effect on your health.
Stress and health
The correlation between stressful events and subsequent ill-health formed the basis of work carried out by Dr. T.H. Holmes and Dr. R. Rahe at the University of Washington (Seattle). Until then, the evidence for such a connection had been strong but largely anecdotal. Holmes and Rahe interviewed thousands of people to find out which stressful events had oc-cured in the recent past and which illnesses, if any, had ensued. Putting their data together they devised a sliding scale in which each event’s significance was denoted by a points score.
Some people seem to be more stress-prone than others. About 20 years ago, the now familiar concept of the type A and type B person was developed by psychologists and heart specialists, who were looking for behavioural predictors for those most likely to succumb to heart disease. Researchers proposed two ‘personalities’, or rather two groups of behaviour patterns, diametrically opposed. Type A is ambitious, impatient, competitive, aggressive. Type B is easygoing and relaxed. Studies have shown that type A people are almost twice as likely to suffer from coronary heart disease than are people in the B group.
Can stress be avoided?
To avoid stress is not always desirable because a certain amount of stress is necessary for personal development and as a motivational force. Illness or death of someone close to you will cause stress as will problems that are out of your control. But you can learn to cope. The first thing to learn is how to avoid stressful situations if you possibly can. Do not pile unnecessary pressure on yourself; do not impose artificial deadlines; do not initiate hostilities. Get clear in your mind which problems you can deal with and which are beyond your control and do not waste emotional energy on things you cannot influence. Back up your campaign with a positive programme of relaxation and physical exercise, both of which distract the mind from its worries. Complementary therapies such as acupuncture suit some people. In times of crisis, a doctor or psychiatrist can offer professional aids such as sleeping pills, tranquillisers, antidepressants and so forth, but the main responsibility for your health lies with you. You should never be too proud to share your burden nor to ask for – and accept – help.
Relaxing is not something most of us can do easily; usually it is a skill we must learn. It is also something we need to do regularly if we are not to suffer from the ill-effects of the body’s stress mechanism. To draw a simple parallel: soldiers on guard duty cannot stay alert for long periods of time – they need to be stood down at regular intervals otherwise they become less dutiful and progressively more exhausted. For many people, stress itself is in fact a learned behaviour pattern. In the stressed individual the heart speeds up and the blood pressure rises; blood is di- verted from the digestive organs and sent to the heart and skeletal muscles; the breath is held or breathing is in shallow bursts; the posture changes with the head bent forwards, teeth clenched, legs crossed tightly, eyes screwed up. In short, the body is alerted for action.
The problem comes when we are no longer subject to stressful pressures but the muscular tensions that result from stress have become almost habitual. Merely thinking about work-related problems is enough to tense up muscles and increase heart rate.
Well-meaning advice such as ‘take up a hobby’ or ‘take a break’ is only partly helpful; all too often the individual cannot unlearn the habits of stress and takes them to a supposedly relaxing hobby or on holiday.
Breaking the circle of tension
The art of successful relaxation is simply learning to break the circle of tension-creating activities. Because the muscle-tensing behaviour is learned behaviour it can be unlearned. The way to achieve this is through various techniques designed to loosen muscles and joints that have become almost constantly tensed up through stress activities. The techniques require discipline but are effective. Meditation and yoga in their various forms are highly acclaimed for relieving tensions and helping people to relax. Basically, most techniques rely on quiet, limited thought patterns confined to one stress-free (’neutral’) thing or object for a short period of time, to the exclusion of everything else. The state of tranquillity this brings is effec-tive in relieving muscle tension and calming the mind. To some degree you can learn to do this when you are performing your relaxing hobby or occupation, dis-ciplining your mind to think about what you are doing rather than letting it wander to work problems, finan-cial difficulties or family disputes.
It would be foolish to tell people not to worry about obviously important things such as work problems and money matters. Nevertheless, many of life’s stresses are of our own making and we can eliminate them. Being late for appointments, mislaying keys and becoming angry about trivial matters such as broken shoelaces or dripping taps can be avoided. Disciplining yourself to put keys in the same place every time and having alarm clocks or watches that work, so you are not late for appointments, are just two of the many simple ways of eliminating everyday stresses. One practical starting point is to make a list of all the everyday irritations that create problems for you, and see where improvements can be made.