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Believe it or not, originally 'stress' was an engineering term. It refers to the effects an external force has on a body, for example wind forces on a bridge. It makes sense to apply the same idea to people and the effects their surroundings have on them. Every day, we face a number of situations which are annoying, frightening, worrying or infuriating. What we feel in response to these attacks on our peace of mind is 'stress'. I'll give a few examples.
All mammals, from miniscule mice to weighty whales (with us somewhere in the middle) are built similarly. In particular, we all have much the same means for coping with life-threatening emergencies.
There was a sudden roar ahead, and Hurd shouting, 'Bear!'
They snatched at spears. Hurd appeared from among the trees, sprinting for his life. The bear was on all fours, ten steps behind him and rapidly gaining. With great discipline, Hurd held his line until the beast was within range of their spears, and almost upon him, then he suddenly jinked to his right.
Ralosh and Tacinda threw their spears, hitting the bear's two shoulders. Ralosh immediately ran diagonally forward towards Hurd, who had stopped himself against the trunk of a fir and was ready with a spear. Tacinda ran to the side to give Gitugel a clear throw if the animal decided to follow her.
However, young Gitugel wasn't waiting. He took a couple of skipping steps forward. As the roaring bear started to rise onto its hind legs, he threw his spear with all the force he could muster.
The spear entered the bear's gaping mouth, angling up towards the top of its skull. The beast reared up to its full height, took three more steps, then collapsed.
Panting, the four came together over the still twitching body. Tacinda said, 'Gitugel, what a wonderful throw! Right in her mouth and through the brain!'
Our not-so-distant ancestors were hunter-gatherers. In many ways, their lives were a lot more free of stress than ours. But they certainly were equipped to deal with dangerous situations which needed maximum response, like suddenly meeting a savage animal. And so are we. In terms of the way our bodies are built, we are no different from our ancestors. Like them, we have special equipment for dealing with 'fight or flight' reactions. Most people have a fair idea of what this equipment is. We all know about 'butterflies in the stomach', the sweating brow in response to fear, the thumping heart and all the rest of it. Probably everybody knows that when you are angry or scared, your body produces 'adrenaline' which has widespread effects inside you. I'll describe all these reactions in the next chapter.
I am driving in my car, happily minding my own business, when a P plate driver suddenly comes out of a side street, goes through a Stop sign and swings in front of me. Action is quicker than thought -- I manage to avoid a crash. We both stop. The young person is shaken, and apologises profusely. Frankly, I am shaken too. I have just narrowly avoided death or at least serious injury.
I get back in my car and drive off. Unfortunately, there is a change. My previously smooth, automatic performance as a driver is replaced by a more dangerous style. I find myself driving too fast, following other cars too closely. When I catch myself doing this I slow down, but too much, and become an obstacle to other drivers. My attention is concentrated on fewer things, with the result that I miss important information. My steering and acceleration are much more jerky than usual. I react too fast, for example starting forward at traffic lights before the green comes on. At the same time, I still feel shaky and exhausted. All I want to do is to pull over to the side of the road and have a rest. I can't, the unscheduled stop has made me late.
I am now an accident looking for somewhere to happen.
I desperately need a switch to turn off the 'fight or flight' reaction.
Different people react differently to such a situation. Some 'freeze' and are unable to do anything. But for everybody, driving after a near miss is a dangerous activity.
When I was a teenager, I joined a boxing club for a while. The coach was a cluey little man. One of his bits of advice has stayed with me for life: 'Hop in there and keep your cool. Get him angry, and you've won.'
How many times have you lost an argument because your anger got the better of you? Have you ever said (or worse, done) things in the heat of the moment that you regret later? Wouldn't it be better if you were in control of your anger, not the other way around?
When she gave her ultimatum, Tim decided to seek help. He attended a group for violent men. This helped him a lot, and promised to give a long term solution to the difficulty. But, in the meantime, the immediate problem remained. Only two weeks after the start of the group, Madge happened to say something which set Tim off. He saw red, raised his fist -- then, at the last instant, punched the wall instead of his wife. Well, this was an advance. A hole in the plaster is more quickly fixable than a broken jaw. Madge however didn't see it quite this way. She took the kids and moved out.
Wouldn't it have been good if Tim had had a switch, which allowed him to gain control of himself, at least for an instant? If he'd just had a second's respite from his anger, he could have used some of the techniques he was being taught in the group, like walking out of the room and examining the thoughts behind his emotions.
Worry is probably the most self-damaging activity you can engage in. It is the 'fight or flight' reaction in slow motion, over a long time. You think certain thoughts which involve anticipation of trouble. This is the 'what if' syndrome. The adrenaline starts pumping, causing a whole string of changes, which will be with you for as long as you worry. Over time, your body can get used to being this way, and you can suffer the physical effects of worry even when you are not aware of thinking about your problems. The next chapter describes the changes worry causes in your body. You will then understand why chronic worriers are likely to suffer from various 'stress related diseases': heart attacks, strokes, stomach ulcers, diverticulitis, piles, varicose veins, asthma and several others.
Worry has lots of other effects. Many people try to escape the distressing thought patterns by using alcohol, tobacco or other drugs, taking sedatives, or through self-defeating activities like gambling.
So now you have one more thing to worry about: what worry is doing to you!
If only you had some control over worry!
There are about 300 people in the hall, all professionals. I walk out onto the stage. The chairman introduces me. There is the microphone. I know my stuff, all I have to do is to deliver my well-prepared talk.
Only trouble is, I can't get the first word out. My mouth is too dry, there is sweat on my forehead, my hands are shaking. The 'fight or flight' reaction is in full force, but completely inappropriate in this situation. If only I could switch it off for long enough to get out the first sentence, I'd be all right.
He gets out of the car, walks slowly over, then he tells them off with quiet but firm authority. They give him some backchat and show resentment, but do as they are told.
But what if Jim had felt afraid? This would have affected the way he walked, his facial expression, the tone of his voice, the size of the pupil of his eye, even his body smell. People pick up these subtle cues, and react to them without realising it. Jim had to be genuinely unafraid in order to handle the situation. He felt some fear before he got out of the car. How did he switch it off?
Teachers are in a similar position. How come some teachers can keep discipline effortlessly, while others have constant trouble? The little monsters will find every chink in a teacher's armor. The secret is to feel fully in control -- and you will be!
Most people are afraid of something. Many of these fears are unreasoning, unrealistic, and acknowledged by the person to be so. 'I know most spiders are harmless, but they just give me the shivers.' Others hate to go into water, perhaps because of an unpleasant swimming accident many years ago.
Unfortunately, for some people the fear doesn't stop there. It is something that takes over their lives. One of my friends crashed a car because there was a spider on the windscreen. (The spider escaped unhurt.) A client of mine was house-bound by the fear that if she got into a car, it might have to go across a bridge over water, and she couldn't stand the thought of water under her. Such debilitating fears are called phobias. Here is my friend Helen's account of her husband's very special fear.
Geoff has been scared of snakes since childhood.
This is an understatement. Geoff is terrified, petrified and disgusted by the very thought of snakes. The sinuous, slithery, scaly, slippery serpent gives him the shivers.
The letter S itself is too snakelike in both looks and sound for him. When he was young, he'd date any girl -- as long as she wasn't a Sally or a Sue, a Shirley or a Sheila. And later, he almost walked out of our marriage when I wanted to call our firstborn Stan after my wealthy uncle.
Other than snakes, Geoff is happy with the offerings of Nature. As the years went by, he used to feel increasingly constrained by city living. He dreamt of a little farmlet, not too far from prospects of work, but out of the suburbs with their noise, pollution, unfriendliness and increasing danger. Being a country girl, I agreed.
And then Uncle Stan died. My share of the inheritance was a house valued at $150,000.
'Now is our chance to buy that farm, Geoff.' I said. 'We can pay off the mortgage on this house, and still have enough left for a deposit on something.'
So we spent the evenings looking at the classified ads in the paper, and the weekends driving around the countryside. Eventually, we found a nice 10 acre block in Healesville, which was close enough to Geoff's work, and close enough to 'country' to satisfy us. There was even a little old weatherboard cottage on the block. I was pleased by this: we would have somewhere to live while having a proper house built.
Geoff was not so sure. He knew that snakes love to inhabit old wooden houses. However, he had to give in when I hired a pest exterminator who declared the cottage to be free of snakes.
So, we put the house in Balwyn on the market and moved out to Healesville. We coped like champions with the challenges of a frontier lifestyle: roof leaks during a ten day downpour; the lack of dry firewood; the chimney fire caused by burning wet wood; the mud and the cold. At least it was too cold for snakes.
Anyway, eventually it was spring, then summer. The kids had made friends by then, I was happy and busy, and Geoff enjoyed coming home to clean air and birdsong. The Balwyn house had fetched a good price, and the builders were working on the new residence.
Of course, there was the snake in the grass, or at least, the fear of one. Geoff made it a habit to wear gumboots even in the hottest weather, and carried a stout stick.
I used to laugh at him. The children and I went about barefoot. But did this reassure my husband? Not likely -- in fact, once more, Geoff's phobia threatened to disrupt our happy marriage.
Then, one Monday morning, it happened. Geoff was a little late for work. He gulped his breakfast, grabbed his briefcase and the stick, and ran to the car. He braked at the gate and hopped out. As always, the stick was in his hand, just in case.
And there it was, in its evil sinuousness! Coil upon black coil, flat triangular head, beady eyes, flickering forked tongue and all, the snake lay by the roadside, as if the land belonged to it.
Geoff froze for a moment, then went into the attack. 'Get away!' he screamed, and hit at the surprised snake with his stick.
The snake uncoiled and took off. Sweat pouring off him, breath short, Geoff followed, taking ineffective swipes at it with the stick.
Then, by some fluke, the stick connected. The snake was flung through the air, and did a flip as it landed. This disoriented it, and it now slithered towards its tormentor rather than away from him.
Geoff panicked. He swung the stick and missed. The snake was right in front of him, so he kicked at it. At this final provocation, the poor animal swiftly raised its head and struck.
'AAARGH! I've been bitten!' Geoff screamed. He threw the stick at the now retreating snake, rushed back to the gate, opened it in record time, then got into the car. He drove to the hospital in perhaps three minutes -- normally the trip would have taken him at least ten.
Chalky white, beads of sweat on his face, he entered the hospital with his right leg held stiff, the rest of him trembling. 'Snakebite!' he got out before he collapsed.
'Where were you bitten?' the nurse asked.
Geoff mutely pointed to his lower right trouser leg, where the venom had left a wet stain.
The nurse rushed off and returned with a large pair of scissors. At a nod from her patient, she cut the trouser leg open to inspect the wound.
Only, there was no wound. The snake's teeth had failed to penetrate Geoff's trousers.
From the outside, the way Helen sees him, Geoff looks ridiculous. This is one of the problems with a phobia: many others refuse to take you seriously, make fun of your fear. They try to argue you out of it. But from the inside, the fear is terrible. You may or may not acknowledge that it is unrealistic. Regardless, it is crippling. Your whole life centres around it. You try and reduce fear by avoiding situations which remind you of situations which remind you of the fear. And, as in Geoff's case, often the fear goads you into action which brings about exactly what you have been terrified of.
A phobia never stands still. It grows, slowly taking over more and more of the victim's life.
It can be controlled.
The annoyance cycle
Getting stressed is not something that happens to a person in isolation. Usually it involves the reactions of other people. As young Johnnie said to the teacher: 'It started when I hit back!'
'Hi Mom, I'm home!' Laura called out as she walked through the door. She snatched an apple from the fruit basket without stopping, then disappeared into her room. A few seconds later, her favourite CD started blasting through the house.
Mom sighed, pulled her shoulders back and marched to the door. She wrenched it open and yelled 'TURN THAT THING DOWN!'
'You don't have to shout!' Laura put down the magazine she was just starting and adjusted the volume control. 'All I want is to relax for a few minutes before I get into my maths!'
Mom took a deep breath. 'Laura. I've been waiting for you to come home. Can't you at least stop and have a chat before hiding in your room?'
'Well, it's not fair. I've hardly come home, and all you can do is shout at me and come barging in to tell me off. JUST LEAVE ME ALONE!!'
This may sound all too familiar. I am sure you can give similar examples from your own life -- at home or at work -- where two nice, well meaning people get each other angry over nothing.
What was happening between Laura and her mother?
Laura had a hard day at school. Doing Year 12 is no joke. One of her major assignments was being marked. It was due to be returned to her in a couple of days, and she was worrying about the mark she might get. She had to do her maths homework and she didn't really know how to go about it. And she just had to get it finished before going out with Steve in the evening.
Mom had her own set of worries. Most of them concerned money, now that she'd been laid off from her part time job. But mostly, she had spent the day alone, and was aching for some human contact. She'd hoped her daughter would have a cuppa with her before starting her homework. When Laura raced straight through into her room, Mum felt hurt and ignored.
So they started a fight, by both of them hitting back first.
Much of the rest of this book will teach you how to 'install a switch' which will control fear and anger in their various manifestations. Used alone, this technique will not solve your problems. You still need to deal with the source of the anger, with the cause of the fear. But immediate, temporary control gives you a breathing space, so you can cope with the task of the moment, and so you have the energy to deal with any underlying issues. The last chapter deals with doing just that.
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