Stress and the "general adaptation syndrome" were originally described by an endocrinologist, Hans Selye. as comprising a whole constellation of physical and mental problems.
But, if it is just an alerting system as I have called it here . . . why is it implicated in so many woes: physical, mental, emotional, and relational?
And, why do you need an automatic alert system anyway? What's it alerting you to?
What follows is not the only way to view this, but it is a way of thinking about it that I have found to be quite useful in using this natural process to advantage and not just avoiding or dampening it.
Cognitive psychologists have put the number of separate things that you can have conscious attention on somewhere in the range of five to nine.
They described this as "7 plus or minus 2". The exact number seems to depend on the individual and the circumstances, but if you try to go too far over that number, you are likely to lose track of everything.
The world has lots more going on than 5 to 9 things at a time. There has to be a way to work around that limit.
A psychologist at Harvard, George Miller, figured out that what the organism has learned to do is to group routine, expected occurrences together and then handle each grouping each group as one thing. He called this grouping "chunking".
A telephone number is not just
one long string of numbers, but starts with an area code then there are
two other sets of numbers following and these lend themselves to
chunking, which is what's happening when someone say eight seven three,
fifty two hundred. The "fifty two hundred" turned four numbers into
When you get beyond remembering numbers that this starts to get interesting.
Learning to do just about anything involves chunking components so that the mind isn't hopelessly tangled in details.
Knitting, driving a car, judging risk from another person, . . . all involve some degree of learned groupings of sensory inputs.
Ask most people about passing a particular point on their daily commute and it is likely they won't remember. Why? Everything was on track, it fit their unconscious, learned mental picture of "safe and normal", so their attention could go elsewhere.
However, had there been flashing red and blue lights, fire trucks, ambulances as they approached that point, their alert system would have sent a mind-body alarm. Heart rate, breathing, mental focus, and a lot of other things inside you all gearing up for action saying "wake up! off auto-pilot! time to focus right here!" And that point on the journey would be noticed and likely remembered.
Sounds great. What's the problem?
When it comes to other people, the brain's criteria for what's safe, not safe, expected, unexpected, desirable, undesirable, etc., is learned from those around us starting at earliest ages. It appears that very few, if any, of these rules are hard-wired into humans.
It has been claimed that as much as half of this "rulebook" is in place by the time we are three years old! I don't know how that estimate was arrived at. The point is that a great deal of what controls how we feel about the world around us was programmed in very early in our lives.
It goes with the relationship territory that each individual has a different set of files on what sets off the alarms in terms of tones of voice, facial expressions, physical proximity, what is acceptable to talk about, expressions of anger, disappointment, sadness, fear, . . . . and on and on.
Anywhere people interact, this system is inevitably working in the background to evaluate what is safe and what either is dangerous or is potentially dangerous. And, because there are so many ways to look at just about anything, the alarms can be going off to some degree or other almost constantly. Work, home, school, stores, driving, walking on the street; the brain is watching to keep you safe, to keep things "normal" and it is sending you reports on when you need to wake up and watch out by way of your body.
When all this adds up it is experienced as chronic stress which is nothing to be ignored. Its effects can result in lost jobs, wrecked relationships, degenerative illnesses, and substance abuse.
Still, you don't want to try to turn it off or to try to dull it down. It does have an important purpose that goes well beyond its basic role of protecting you from danger. It also can alert you to unexpected beauty or opportunity. "Hey, there's a $100 bill lying on the sidewalk where it definitely doesn't belong. Notice it!"
Too little and your performance is lackluster. Too much and performance falls apart.
Relationships are inherently stressful. That can be exciting, interesting, growth enhancing, positive (sometimes called eustress) or it can be exhausting, infuriating, stifling, negative st(distress). Which it is is largely up to you.
Tuning your mental-physical arousal level to be able to operate in the zone where you are most comfortable and effective is the goal of stress management.
It has worked for a variety of people over a variety of situations.
It involves how you think about things, how you relax, and how you take care of your body. It isn't a bundle of quick fixes, but practicing it can make life much better.
In fact, it rarely involves "fixes" at all; in much the same way that sobriety isn't a "fix" for alcoholism. Where the sober alcoholic often refers to him or herself as "recovering" for the rest of their life, we all probably do best thinking of ourselves as stress managers for the duration.
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