Working With Stress
Stress is not your situation. It is your response to the situation. You can allow your body to be your teacher, transforming tension into flow, dis-ease into creative energy. The first three sections below give you knowledge about stress. The last section gives you a practice, which we use in our seminars, called Stress Points and Anchor Points. You can practice with a partner or alone. It will teach you to recognize your own Stress Position before it arises and replace it with a more positive Relaxation Position.
The Stress Response
Known technically as the Fight Or Flight Response, the physiology of stress was mapped by Dr. Hans Selye (1907-1982). We evolved this stress response as primitive hunters to deal with danger. Physiology rapidly mobilizes to fight or flee. But in modern situations, we can do neither. On the way to the airport, we can’t flee from the traffic jam or attack the guy in the next car. We just stew in our road-rage. At work, we can’t punch the boss, or run out of the office. We just sit there and smile. Yet in our body, heart rate and blood pressure elevate; breath grows shallow and rapid; muscles contract in the belly, shoulders and neck; our palms sweat; capillaries contract in the skin, diverting blood to the big internal organs. And our blood chemistry goes a little crazy: adrenal glands release cortisol and epinephrine, the liver elevates blood sugar for energy, our tense muscles release lactic acid.
This reaction may delay until some inappropriate time in the future, when we call it a panic attack. In the extreme, it is post traumatic stress disorder. More often, we develop a constant low-level stress response to modern living, a response we may not even notice consciously. When our nervous, limbic, and endocrine systems get stuck in this response, stress becomes a more or less permanent physiological state, which has devastating long-term effects: migraines, heart disease, high blood pressure, depression, anxiety. Chronic stress may even be a contributing factor in cancer. Remember: stress is not the situation. It is your response to the situation.
In the stress response:
Heart and breath rates increase;
Capillaries contract to redirect blood flow to internal organs;
Muscles tense, constricting and shortening breath: lactic acid is produced by the muscles;
Cortisol is secreted shutting down the immune cells' ability to respond to infection;
All these reactions are set in motion by the hypothalamus in the brain cavity, when the hypothalamus responds to a perceived stress.
This last point is critical, because it means that the stress reaction may be triggered by a memory pattern, super-imposed over the actual situation. Thus we may be stressed by the story our mind is telling us about the situation, and not by the situation itself!
The stress reaction may delay until some inappropriate time in the future, when we call it a panic attack. In the extreme, it is post traumatic stress disorder. More often, we develop a constant low-level stress response to modern living, a response we may not even notice consciously. When our nervous, limbic, and endocrine systems get stuck in this response, stress becomes a more or less permanent physiological state, which has devastating long-term effects: migraines, heart disease, high blood pressure, depression, anxiety. Chronic stress may even be a contributing factor in cancer. Remember: stress is not the situation. It is your response to the situation.
The Relaxation Response
The first medical studies on meditation were connected to the study of stress. Researchers wanted to know if there might be a relaxation response to counter-act the stress response. In 1972, Dr. Keith Wallace published an article in Scientific American, "A Hypo-Metabolic State," showing that Transcendental Meditation reverses the physiology of stress. If you want to understand the physiology of meditation, just look at the parameters of the stress response described above and reverse them. Then add strong Alpha and Theta wave patterns in the cortex, with a remarkable degree of brainwave coherence to integrate various segments of the brain. That is the relaxation response.
Breath In World Traditions
Stress can be transformed into vitality when we learn how to recognize and re-program our own body language. Let your body teach you the psycho-physical points where you accumulate tension, bottling up fear or aggression during stressful situations. These are the flash points between mind and body where your thoughts can literally dis-ease you. You can consciously breath in and through these blocked regions, bathing them with oxygen and sending chemical messages of healing into every cell. This practice will actually generate the neuro-peptide molecules of health and well-being that form the information-technology of your body. To deal with stress, you don’t have to burden your intellect with the complexities of self-analysis or doctrinal belief: you can immediately activate the self-healing wisdom of cellular intelligence. This happens when you combine relaxing movement, breath and attention, integrating body, energy, and soul.
Joining awareness and breath generates vital energy. This energy is called prana in Sanskrit, chi in Chinese. The Bible uses the word ruach in Hebrew, pneuma in Greek, to make a running pun: these words can be translated either as spirit or breath. Uniting awareness and breath is essential to both Yoga and Chinese medicine: it will undoubtedly become part of Western medical practice. It is a fundamental practice of meditation in every religious tradition, including the Christian "prayer of the heart."
Breath without awareness is just an autonomic biological response. But when awareness permeates the flow of breath, something that is both physical and spiritual is generated in the subtle zone between body and mind. In this zone, consciousness touches the material world through endorphine and other protein messenger molecules. These messengers attune harmonically with receptor sites on the cells of our immune system. They produce not only a feeling of wellness, but real healing. Therefor we can say that the power of our breath is (1) energy for the body, (2) peace for the emotions, and (3) clarity for the mind. Our vitality, well-being, and mental health are three aspects of one phenomenon.
Stress Points and Anchor Points
Let's bring all this down to a practical level: this breath now! We can turn our stress points into transformers where tension dissolves and vitality flows, enabling us to meet the challenges of daily work with energy, calm, and grace. We learn to recognize signals that trigger our body’s stress reaction. When unconscious of our stress reaction, we become locked in our personal stress position. But with conscious breathing, we can unlock our stress points even before they tense up. Then we can shift our attention to healing anchors. These are the areas in our body that ground and calm us in the midst of stressful encounters.
An anchor is a calming trigger: the moment we place our awareness there, a relaxation response begins to counter the stress response. Each of us must find our own stress points and our own anchor points, unique to each body. They exist in each of us, but we go through life unconscious of them. Then our stress points become sites of chronic illness, and we never discover our self-healing power. The process of unfolding this knowledge begins in the Nexus Seminar and continues in an exciting journey of self-awareness. The beauty of the process is that our own body is our teacher.
Steps of Practice
Practice these steps by yourself, or use them to guide a partner.
1. Imagine yourself in a stressful situation. What is the stresser? A person? A place? You may be alone at your desk, or in a very social setting. Imagine the scene.
2. Notice what is happening in your body. What regions tense up? What regions become numb or unconscious, as if they don’t exist any more? What happens to your breath? Do your assume a certain posture?
3. Now exaggerate this stress position. Notice one or two key stress points around which the position builds. Take a mental photo of the position.
4. Speaking aloud, name these stress points. Describe the position and how it feels.
5. Close your eyes and bring attention to your breath. Begin to slow and deepen your breath. Relax the abdominal muscles and let them draw the breath slowly down into the torso. Then, let those muscles gently contract to push the breath out, until your are breathing with your belly and not your chest.
6. As you breathe, visualize the breath as a stream of energy flowing through your stress points. You need not use concentration or force, but gently rest your awareness in that region.
7. As you breathe in, hold the breath slightly, comfortably, feeling energy infuse your body. As you breathe out, release the tension.
8. Now let your breath move your body, very slowly changing your posture. Trust the breath to guide the change in posture.
9. As you continue conscious breathing, notice which previously unconscious areas become awake with sensation. Move as you feel the need to move.
10. When you have shifted the body into a relaxed posture, your body will let you know that you have found your stress free position. It will feel calm, centered and safe. Take a mental photograph of this position. The shift from stress position to stress-free position may involve subtle micro-movements unnoticed to an outside observer. This often includes the release and lengthening of interior muscles deep inside the torso.
11. Find one or two anchor points. These are triggers that signal the body to move into your stress-free position. When you put your attention on them, the relaxation response begins: both body and awareness start to shift.
Dealing With Stress Before It Arises
In the future, when you are about to enter a situation you know will be stressful, or when you feel the stress position beginning to build, you can counter-act the stress response in two ways: First, bring attention to your stress points. Consciously breathe through them. This will de-activate the stress position before it builds. Second, shift attention to your anchor. This triggers movement to your stress free position. Let your breath guide the movement.
NOTE: The anchor is not a magic talisman. It is a triggering device to help your body shift. Work with your stress points and anchors on a daily basis to help your body develop a healthier, more positive response to the world. The more you practice, the easier it will be to deal with stress when it arises.