Coping with Stress

As we have seen, the body system is designed to cope with stress on a moment-to-moment, day-to-day basis. It is a continuous process that goes on automatically every time a stimulus is received by the sense organs. Even when no stimulus is received, as during sleep, involuntary body mechanics like breathing or digesting are going on. When the stimulus increases in intensity or remains at a sustained level, we resort to the 'relievers', those little things that largely go unnoticed.

Yawning or heaving a sigh of relief are respectively the beginning and the end of a deep breath, and both these are stress relievers. Likewise, reaching for a cup of coffee or a cigarette is actually the act of shifting of attention, thereby relieving stress. Even an action as innocuous as drumming the fingers is a stress-reliever. You must have observed a serious student, in the midst of his preparation for an examination, flipping through a sports magazine or reading a light book. This is how some break away from the stress of monotony. Bracing against stress - a habit pattern.

Sometimes, we resort to involuntary actions like flexing the muscles. When we are continually exposed to uncertainties, we resort to instinctive and frequent tightening. Habitual and persistent reflex contraction of voluntary muscles becomes a habit pattern.

The practice of tightening of muscles initially ushers in a fuelling of exhilaration, leading to frequent over-exhaustion. Uneasiness follows with feelings of shakiness, jitteriness and fatigue. And soon, fatigue becomes a habit and sleep becomes tense all through the night. It is now a matter of time before muscle cramp sets in, prominently in the neck or the lower back.

Tension headache in the neck or lumbago in the buttock are the spots that define the fight or flight response. Tensing of the neck and shoulder muscles is preparatory to fight. Tension in the buttock muscles is due to the tightening of hips and lower back before flight. That 'pain in the neck' has its origin in stress!

Musculoskeletal disabilities

From tension headache and lumbago, there may arise a variety of musculoskeletal disabilities known as rheumatism and arthritis. These may be preludes to several physio-pathological disorders due to prolonged stress. Because of initial hyper-arousal of the reticular formation, the body system is perpetually on guard and becomes more sensitive to stress - either real or imaginary. This is the stage when several 'symptoms' may occur: clammy hands and feet, dry mouth, blurred vision, palpitation, diarrhoea, constipation, upset stomach, chilling, flushing, and sweating among others.

Emotional disturbances arise as the limbic system gets into the neuronal hyperactivity. Feelings of irritability, apprehension and anxiety signal the onslaught of a number of psychoneuroses which were not easy to explain earlier. It is also at this state when depression arises in the cerebral cortex. Its perception-association functions get over stimulated. When the sensory stimuli from various sources remain unidentified, the body-system begins to withdraw as far away from any stimulation as possible.

Mental defence mechanisms

Different people adopt different automatic, unconscious stratagems to help free themselves from emotional disturbances. These 'mental defence mechanisms' may include the 'projection' of an unpleasant motive as existing in someone else, thus disguising its presence in oneself. Or, as 'reaction formation' takes place, an underlying unpleasant drive or motive is counteracted through an unconscious adoption of a conscious attitude which is the complete opposite. For example, a hostile or destructive drive may be counteracted by an overtly polite and kind behaviour.

When these defensive mechanisms prove inadequate or break down, anxiety without any topical content, what is known as 'free-floating anxiety' ensues. Thus, 'psychogenic anxiety states of any kind represent the result of a failure of our psychological defences to prevent the subjective experience of anxiety'. Such a failure mainly occurs on two counts: one, as a response to external stress in excess of what can be accommodated; two, when the psychological functioning is impaled by the dysfunction of the central nervous system. Psychogenic anxiety may manifest as an acute panic attack; or as a phobic anxiety; or as a 'free-floating anxiety'; or in the form of bodily symptoms.

Coping mainly consists of either a problem-solving approach or an emotion-focussed one, according to Lazarus. In the problem-solving approach, the individual tries to change, alter or shift troublesome 'stressors' or modify the situation and make it better for himself. For example, you have to work with someone in the office day after day but you just cannot stand him. Maybe he is your boss. So you spend a little time thinking about it and working out pleasant methods with which to deal with him. The 'solving of the problem' in your mind over a period of time makes you better equipped to cope with the stress.

In the emotion-focussed modes, the individual's coping may take one of several behavioural patterns. In these intra-psychic or cognitive methods of coping, the individual may do things or say things to himself or herself just to feel better. These actions will not alter the actual relationship between the person and the environment, though the person's attitude may change. The individual may also adopt the act of denying, minimizing, distancing himself or herself, paying no attention, taking drugs, shifting attention or making a joke of the whole situation.

Relaxation

To most people, relaxation to get out of a stress situation is doing something which is not part of their work activity. Reading a book while stretched out on the couch, watching television, playing a game of chess or even chatting with friends are some of the activities that help to take the mind away from any preoccupation or stress.

Some of the relating activities may also create 'pleasant stresses' which are within the coping abilities of the body mechanism. If you watch a horror movie, you may feel 'relaxed' at the end of it but the raised adrenaline levels within your body every time the 'vampire' stalks a prey produce another form of stress. It has been found (Levi and colleagues, 1972) that watching natural scenery or a calm lake in a movie led to fall in the adrenaline secretion. On the other hand, the body would be geared for a fight if the game of chess one started to relax with turns competitive.

One of the primary requirements in the practice of yoga is a calm, relaxed approach. The very meaning of asana is posture, or holding a pose. And that's how most asanas are practised. It is strictly enjoined on the practitioner that at no point should he become breathless or his body begin to tremble. In either of these cases, he should immediately stop the practice and relax in any of the relaxation poses. None of the practices in yoga which induce relaxation of the mind and the body are involuntary. Meditation, ajapa japa, deep breathing, pranayama, yoga nidra - are all performed voluntarily, with full awareness and an alert consciousness.

Mental stimulus

Teenagers have discovered that if they take part in exciting things they can mask their depression. Young women suddenly go on a strict diet, even though they may not be overweight. Looking for more 'excitement' may lead them to the threshold of anorexia nervosa, and starvation produces mental stimulation and a sense of elation! It was found in those who fast that the brain is more excited and can cope better with problems; it works faster and more accurately with less sense of fatigue. Some of the other stimulants resorted to by people are sleep deprivation, constant work, loud music, challenging authority, fights, self-injury and drugs.

Entertainment

All forms of entertainment are pursued to relieve stress by switching over from the main 'stressful' activity to achieve a change of attention; or to induce 'eustress' to fight the stress of boredom. In fact, all forms of entertainment induce stress and each individual personality chooses his type of entertainment- the excitement of speed racing, the highly skilled game of golf, the violence of boxing and American football being among the several choices that are available.

However, even entertainment can cause problems if it is beyond the coping abilities of the individual. During major international sports the incidence of angina is generally on the increase. Unfavourable results of sporting events, like the failure of a team to win, have caused the death of fans. Even extremely joyful news can cause death due to sheer happiness!

The desperation with which the west is looking for newer ways of relaxation has reached the dangerous stage of playing with the mind through modern gadgets. The isolation or sense deprivation tank (SDT) has been in use for some years now. In the sound-proof, light-proof SDT with water heated to just about body temperature, the brain gets de-linked from the sensation of the body, and it becomes totally relaxed. The desensitization is so total that the mind is also reported to 'trip' in some cases.

The SDT works on the principle of pratyahara in yoga. The differences between the two techniques are obvious. SDT is an involuntary act of sense deprivation through the intervention of an outside agency. Also, the sense deprivation is almost instant, which could be unsettling or could have adverse reactions.

The electronic 'drug'

Another of these gadgets worth mentioning is an electronic one, DAVID. It simulates those fantastic visions that LSD had created in the sixties. According to David Siever, the inventor of DAVID (Omni, November 1989), "We live in a society that keeps us in a beta state, a fight-or-flight condition, and we weren't meant to be in this state all day long".

The DAVlD type of gadgets (there are quite a few of them) operate on the principle of the eye-brain connection. The brain begins to resonate to the same frequency at which a light is dashed on the eyes. The frequencies can be changed to get any of these effects: fantastic patterns in colour or a state of relaxed alertness or deep sleep.

All these attempts at relaxation are momentary and induce the sense or feeling of relaxation without reaching down to the root of the problem. In yoga, the technique of trataka uses the eye-brain link to achieve one-pointed concentration of the mind. Shambhavi mudra (gazing at the eyebrow center); bhoochari mudra (nothing-ness gazing); and nasikagra drishti or agochari mudra (nosetip gazing) utilize the eye-brain connection to enhance the functions of the brain- better memory, better concentration and relaxation.

During yoga classes, long lasting changes are seen to take place in people. Many walk into class with tension written on their face, and every action of their body and every word they speak is tension ridden. Their body and mind are filled with tension, worry; unhappiness, and aggression pervades their whole being. As they stare the practices, changes begin to take place. Slowly but surely the stress and emotional turmoil begin to evaporate. The students realise their relaxation at the end of the lesson when they find that they are smiling, not superficially but really, for the first time in days. They find that they feel lighter, more carefree and gain more confidence in themselves. By the systematic process of relaxation techniques, their whole attitude towards themselves and to life in general has changed. The transformation may last for an hour or so, but it leaves a wonderful impression on the mind, helps to attain a permanently more relaxed attitude towards life.