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Understanding stress, learning to relax …


It is thought that stress originates from an ancient reaction to danger called the ‘fight or flight’ response. Put simply, this means that, in situations of extreme danger, our ancestors needed to make split-second decisions about whether it was better to face their enemy and fight, or to run away from the danger. These decisions would have been made on a subconscious level which automatically released hormones such as adrenalin and noradrenalin into the blood. These hormones then hastened the heartbeat and so rapidly increased blood flow to the essential muscles.

Although we rarely require an automatic response to danger in modern life, we have nevertheless retained this emotionally triggered response. The equivalent stressors nowadays may be events such as speaking in public; standing in endless queues or meeting new people in social situations. We often feel a physical discomfort as we struggle with involuntary shaking or profuse sweating. These uncomfortable and distressing feelings emerge from the same ancient ‘fight or flight’ response which automatically prepared our bodies for action. However, fighting or running away from the situation is rarely the appropriate response when perhaps speaking in public (much as we may like it to be). Therefore, what we now experience is the body’s preparation for action, without the action itself.

Clearly, reacting in such a primitive and automatic way can cause many problems in life. For example, each time we enter the same stressful situation, we may anticipate the discomfort we felt before and experience an even more exaggerated emotional response. This can eventually become such a cyclical process that we employ avoidance strategies and start to limit the things we do. In the most extreme form we may even experience physical illness or ‘panic attacks’. These attacks can involve rapid heartbeat or unusual feelings in the arms and legs - as blood automatically rushes to the muscles.

Conversely, we may display our extreme emotional arousal as ‘anger’ and perhaps begin to blame others for the way we feel. Transferring our own emotions from ourselves to other people may make us feel exonerated of any real responsibility. However, this may simply cloud the issues and prevent us from getting to the route cause of our own distress. Blaming others may also be extremely counterproductive as we begin to alienate those around us and become further stressed by confused and conflicting emotions.

Therefore, we need to relax and take time out of our busy lives in order to allow our bodies periods of recovery. If we are affected by high levels of negative stress, this can lead to physical and mental health problems. Relaxing allows us to take a break and re-energise ourselves, so that we are better able to cope. We may also use a period of relaxation to re-evaluate the way we conduct our lives and work out more practical ways to deal with the things which cause us negative stress.

This re-evaluation could include more controlled or logical ways of thinking about our emotional responses and accessing our ‘emotional intelligence’. Becoming more attuned to our inner signals may help us to recognise knee-jerk reactions and keep them in check. Equally, retaining the ability to look at the bigger picture may help with more measured responses to specific situations.


Andersen Counselling & Advice, Chelmsford, Essex UK.
Andersen Counselling © 2005-2011. All rights reserved. Created by CWD
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