Good stress and bad stress

By now, or quite soon if you have not yet completed the 10-day relaxation plan, you will be able to relax at will. With some more practice you will be able to relax at any time too. However, the 10-day programme did not examine the reasons why you were so tensed up in the first place, and that is what we will look at in this part of the book.

Anxiety and tension are closely linked and, like every other fundamental human mechanism, they have been programmed into us by Nature for some good purpose. But sometimes, due to reasons that are not always obvious, people experience an overdose – or rather a distortion – of good, useful tension. And so the ‘good’ stress that we all need to make us get things done gets warped and twisted and we feel anxious, worried and tense.

Let us take anxiety first. Anxiety is primarily a state of mind closely linked with primitive survival behaviour. If we think that something unpleasant or hazardous is likely to happen we experience fear, and this naturally makes us feel insecure and ‘bad’. Such an instinctive fear reaction is experienced by the body as anxiety-we want to fight or flee from the cause of the fear, and the symptoms experienced will be related to priming us for this reaction (see page 151).

One of the symptoms of anxiety that we commonly experience is a feeling of tension, in which our muscles are wound up to a high pitch of excitability. Tense muscles can of course cope with rapid action in the anxious situation in which we find ourselves.

Stress is a biochemical phenomenon that is to a large extent hormone controlled, in that the body uses chemical messengers originating in the nervous system to put into effect various voluntary and automatic body functions. The hormones are thus ideally priming the muscles and organs within the body to behave in an appropriate way to the degree of stress that is being experienced. However, inappropriate body reactions and mechanisms are experienced by all of us from time to time, and when these reactions become a major part of our experience of the outside world this is thoroughly bad stress, the type of stress that damages and destroys.

The trick is, of course, to use good stress to our advantage and yet prevent bad stress from spoiling our lives and making us ill. We know today how bad stress can act to our disadvantage. For example, excessive stress encourages the system to pour adrenalin and adrenalin-like substances into the bloodstream in excessive quantities. This upsets us in many ways. One of the effects is to disturb the internal body chemistry to such an extent that a porridge-like substance called cholesterol collects within the arteries to the heart and clogs the circulation. Then, when the heart is asked by Nature to increase its action, the restriction of its blood supply brings on the cramp-like pain of angina or even a heart attack because the heart is being denied the vital oxygen it needs to function.

Recent research has shown that there is a long incubation period between the first experiences of bad stress and the day when this stress-induced cardiac damage occurs. Various factors other than stress are also involved, for example smoking, diet and exercise patterns. This long incubation time can be both a disadvantage and an advantage to our health. It is long enough for the victim to put off doing anything about it; the stress symptoms are ‘conveniently’ ignored and he or she gradually but relentlessly goes downhill. But advantageously it gives time to intervene in the process as well. One important intervention is, of course, the relaxation response (see Chapter 13).

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