Ever since Hans Selye came up with the idea of stress in the 1950s people have misunderstood what he meant by it. They think stress is something that happens to you. Well – no – shit happens and then some people get stressed and some don’t. Selye’s point was that people get ill because they have been unable to adapt to challenges. The emotional overload that comes with that eventually leads to a break down in body function.
You can put two people through the same circumstances – unemployment, break up, financial disaster, or fleas on their dog – and one person will react beautifully and the other will get ill.
What that means is that the ‘stressed’ person will get stuck in Headmind, will overload with fear, frustration and grief, and the General Adaptation Syndrome will kick in – the stress response. This happens as Bodymind tries to keep things going and uses symptom-signals to kick start the person into action. While no action is taken we get the Resistance stage, then the Alarm stage (first appearance of stress symptoms) and then the Stalemate stage (symptoms become chronic).
One thing Selye got wrong was that he thought there were only two responses a person could make: fight or fly. But those two are often dumb responses. There is no point in thumping the boss if she is exploiting you – that just makes it harder to get another job. Nor is there any point in running away from her – that just encourages her to abuse you some more.
The emotional subtlety of Bodymind cues you up for plenty of smart moves if you are aware enough to be able to decode the feelings that go with them. For example, you could use assertive language, find some allies, clarify what exactly is it she wants, or start looking for another job.
Now the reason some people get stuck is that they have no memory banks that tell them what to do about problems. If you have never learned how to say ‘no’ then you are not going to be able to defend yourself against unreasonable demands – so you have to start to practice doing just that. If your partner leaves you and that has never happened to you before then you are going to have to get advice, help and support from others.
Now this is where Headmind can create a road-block. When it focuses on problems rather than solutions, past failures instead of future prospects, and when it assumes that learning something new or asking for a help represents ‘failure’, then you have a problem. You won’t be able to adapt to the challenges, problems will mount up, the emotional overload will become acute, and you will get ‘stressed’.
When Headmind gets stuck in hopelessness then you will just give up. The secret is to reverse that by focusing on the possible, not the impossible.
Let me conclude with a story about one of the most ‘stressful’ experiences a human being can go through – as a prisoner in Auschwitz. Now many people would think that undergoing starvation and torture in one of the death camps would be one stressful experience people could not survive. But Victor Frankl – who spent three years in one – found that it was not entirely so. Those who had not been gassed were put to slave labor and many died. Yet he observed one simple fact – people were more likely to survive if they had something to live for – whether that was a spiritual faith, another human being, or a vision of the future. On one morning when he had collapsed in the freezing cold and was near to death he imagined being applauded by an audience after talking about his experiences and his discoveries about the power of faith. That enabled him to get up and try to carry on. Over twenty years later Frankl was talking at a conference about this experience and the entire audience got to their feet to applaud him, many with tears in their eyes.
“When we are no longer able to change a situation—just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer—we are challenged to change ourselves”
Victor Frankl 1905-1997