What is Stress and How Can You Control It?

“There are no such things as stressful situations. There are only stressful reactions to given situations.”

Professor Hans Selye

Episode Summary

Stress is very much misunderstood.  Most people think of stress as something that happens ‘to us,’ that our stress is caused by outside situations or stressful circumstances, but this is not the case.  We know this because we can all react differently to the same situation.  What makes you stressed might cause no reaction at all in someone else, thus demonstrating that it’s the physiological capability of an individual to adapt to circumstances that is the source of the stress, rather than the circumstances themselves.

In this episode of the podcast, you’ll learn that not all stress is bad, how and why we have different reactions, how the body reacts when we are stressed, and the link between stress and premature aging.   

More importantly, Thom shares the good news about the simple technique of Vedic Meditation and how you can not just manage inbound stress but you can even release accumulated stress in the body, easily and effectively.

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Episode Highlights


The Father of Stress



General Adaptation Syndrome



Fight or Flight



There Are No Such Things As Stressful Situations



You Have to Change Now



It’s Not All Bad



Cool Hands. Cool Car



Eustress vs Distress



A Hearty Effort



A Bad Taste



System Failure



Attack Mode



A Heavy Weight to Carry



Seeing Red



100,000 Premature Cognitive Commitments



Growing Old Before Your Time



Eliminate Stress Through Vedic Meditation


Jai Guru Deva


What is Stress and How Can You Control It?

[00:44] The Father of Stress

Today, we’re going to talk about what stress is.  Stress is a very interesting subject, and I feel particularly qualified to talk about it because I studied with the father of stress, a dubious title I imagine.  The father of stress was a lovely epithet given to Professor Hans Selye, Professor Hans Selye who was the researcher, a Canadian man, the first researcher to use the word “stress” as a function of human physiology.  Prior to Professor Selye, the word stress was simply an engineering term that had to do with various kinds of loads and stress pressures on forms and functions.

[01:39] General Adaptation Syndrome

Stress, according to Selye, the man who really coined the term, is part of a larger concept known as the general adaptation syndrome (GAS), and it has to do with our either failure to adapt or capacity to adapt.

The idea of it goes something like this.  Each of us has a propensity, a capability, which we can call “adaptation energy” in our physiology.  How much of this you have is going to be determined by a large number of factors.  How well did you rest recently?  How well have you been resting in general?  How frequently are you able to de-excite your body and mind in order to have restorative functions?  To what extent are you healthy?  To what extent are you compromised by onboard disease?  What age are you?

These things all are contributors to how much adaptation energy you’re going to have, and there are genetic predispositions as well.  So think of adaptation energy as the energy that we have that’s made up of our innate physiological intelligence, it’s made up of our innate staying power and our innate creativity or capacity to improvise.  Those three things, creativity, improvisation, we’d call that staying power, stamina, and innate body intelligence.

[03:18] Fight or Flight

Now, we have, in our life, developed a series of expectations about what’s next.  If sitting right now, recording this, a thunderclap were to occur, even though there’s clear sky outside, it certainly wouldn’t be within my realm of expectation.  So then when 150 decibels of sound comes cracking through the air and gives everybody a shock, then that change of expectation is going to ask of me that I adapt.  

And here’s the demand, to what extent do you have sufficient adaptation energy to meet that demand interactively, successfully?  Or to what extent do you not possess sufficient adaptation energy to meet that change of expectation, that’s the demand, is a change of expectation, in any kind of functional or interactive way?

So we can think of this as an adaptive response to a demand on you to change your expectation or a maladaptive response or reaction to a demand on you to change your expectation.

Maybe you didn’t expect today that your lover would send you a text and break up with you, citing that they’d fallen in love with your best friend.  That would be perhaps, for you, a change of expectation.  If you don’t possess at that moment, sufficient adaptation energy to meet that demand successfully, then you’ll have what is a maladaptive response, which is known as the fight or flight reaction.  Fight/flight reaction is what is the stress reaction.

[05:08] There Are No Such Things As Stressful Situations

A stress reaction is a maladaptive response when you cannot effectively interact with a demand on you to change your expectations.  When you cannot change your expectation quickly enough, when you cannot adapt to a demand, whether it’s a noise or a piece of information, then a whole spectrum of behaviors begins in the human physiology that is involuntary.

We use the word in science, autonomic.  Autonomic means it’s automatic.  In order to protect you from a perceived danger, your brain will move into telling the entire body to go into a stress reaction.  So a stress reaction, and stress itself is a reaction, it’s not an environment.  It’s a reaction that you’re having to an environment.

Professor Selye was fond of saying there are no such things as stressful situations.  There are only stressful reactions to given situations.

[06:13] You Have to Change Now

What is it that determines whether or not you will react stressfully?  Well, it’s how much adaptation energy you happen to have right at the moment of a demand being made on you.  

So we could look at the size of the demand, whether the magnitude of the demand is so great that almost any human would have a stress reaction if confronted with that magnitude.  Or we could look at demands being relatively small magnitude, but people having low adaptation energy levels will have stress reactions, nonetheless.  

So a stress reaction is a reaction that the body is having in an attempt to make the demand for change go away.

When the world says, you have to change now, the world meaning the world of sounds and influences and people and all those things, the world saying you have to change now, if you are not in fact adaptive enough to change in that moment, then you’ll go into a reaction.  “Let me fight the demand.  Let me make the demand go away and not be a demand.  Can I kill it?  Can I kill whatever it is that’s making a demand on me?” 

If the rapid assessment of that is no, you can’t kill it, then the next move is flee from it.  Flight.  Fight or flight.  “Let me get away from it.  I have to run from it.”

[07:36] It’s Not All Bad

Fight/flight mechanism is a very interesting mechanism that’s triggered in the human nervous system.  It’s a very essential mechanism.  It’s allowed us to be here today.  The fact that our ancestors had it at appropriate times allowed them to survive difficult situations and to survive that for long enough to reproduce, and in successive generations, produce us.

So we’re not looking at the stress reaction and saying, “We want to eliminate” it.  It must not be thought of as something that should be or could be eliminated.  However, we can certainly modify the frequency of it.  Because most stress reactions that are had by modern day humans are stress reactions to stimuli, that is to say, demands for change, which do not warrant fighting and fleeing.

[08:28] Cool Hands.  Cool Car

So for example, there was a researcher in California many years ago who had some teenage boys in his lab.  He was measuring their galvanic skin response, that is to say the degree to which their hands sweated, showing stress levels.  The 14 boys who were in the room were within six months of each other’s age, but they were chosen, recruited from across a spectrum of socioeconomic groups.

Some of them came from racial minorities and economic minorities, poor people.  And others came from racial majorities and economic levels that were more comfortable.  He wanted to see what, as he was going to apply stressors to them, what were the stressors?  To cool their hand down by putting their hand into an aquarium filled with crushed up ice and water.  It’s harmless, but it’s stressful.  He wanted to see what different kinds of stress reactions these boys might have.

And while he was calibrating his machinery in the other room, he began to hear a signal that notified him that these 14 boys were all, at the same moment, reacting very stressfully to something in the other room.  He came into the room to see what it was, and they happened to be watching a television, which was mounted in the upper corner on the wall, that was showing the boys a television commercial, an advertisement for the kind of car that they all thought was cool.  

So there they were watching an ad for a car that they all thought was cool and having major stress reaction.  Their bodies were in fight/flight mode.

[10:05] Eustress vs Distress

What does this mean?  It means that our bodies in modern times have learned how inappropriately to trigger stress reactivity based on stimuli that are not in fact life-endangering or do not warrant stress reaction.  This is because we’ve been exposed again and again to overloads of stimuli that have given us a tendency, as a group, as a collective, to have a hair trigger of stress reactivity.

Whether something is desirable, a desirable kind of demand made on you, we refer to as eustress, EU in Greek means good, good stress, or distress, D-I-stress.  Distress means the kinds of demands you would prefer not to have on you.  Eustress means the kinds of demands that you would prefer to have on you.

But stress is stress.  Whether it’s caused by something you would prefer to have like a car that you’re watching in a TV commercial, or something you would prefer not to have, like having to be confronted by a bully, the stress is stress and the body behaves in exactly the same way.

[11:17] A Hearty Effort

When the erectile dysfunction drug, Viagra, was first released onto the market, medical practitioners began to become alarmed because older men who were, by far, the largest percentage of people who were taking this drug became extremely fit in one particular part of their body, but they were not fit in any other part of their body.  They began engaging in sexual activity at levels that were presumably for a man far younger than their actual age.  And what was happening was cardiac arrest during sexuality, during coitus.

Presumably, the men who were either dying or having heart attacks while having sex were in a very pleasant state when they were having the sex.  It doesn’t matter that it was a pleasant stressor or an unpleasant stressor, the body that reacts stressfully to a demand being made on it still has the same set of reactions.

[12:21] A Bad Taste

When we have a stress reaction, our skin begins to quickly change from its normal, relatively alkaline levels of pH value to acidic value.  

The evolutionary effect of this was probably that if a tiger were attacking you, causing you to have a stress reaction, then the skin that tasted little sour and acidic might cause the tiger to let go for a moment and review whether or not it wanted something sour at this moment.

During stress reactivity, our calcium uptake in our bones shifts dramatically and we end up losing some capability to produce calcium on a regular basis because there is an attempt of the body to harden the bone structure instantaneously to prevent broken bones.

Our peripheral vision, which normally is about 180 degrees from where we’re looking on each side to left and right, we can see faintly what’s going on, begins to narrow down in the direction of tunnel vision when we’re under stress.  

[13:24] System Failure

Our ability to digest food stops.  So whether we have food on board in our digestive canal or not, our stomach will be flooded with hydrochloric acid to break up all of the food, which will be shunted down toward the colon for possibly immediate elimination.  In other words, most people under stress could have the possibility of diarrhea or they’re moving in that direction.

Under stress, our body begins to dehydrate.  That is to say, water is one of the heaviest expendable elements in the human body and our body wants us to be nimble, and so not only does our body want to get rid of the weight of food that’s in the body by expelling it through diarrhea, but the body also wants to get rid of water.  

Whatever is the quickest way to get rid of the water, whether it’s perspiration or whether it is urination, the water will start leaving the body at high speed.  So dehydration occurs in order to make us lighter, because water is heavy, so that we can be more nimble and so on and so on and so on.

[14:30] Attack Mode

Our immune system is gravely affected by stress.  Our immune system is historically geared to identify bacteria and to produce antibodies as a defense against bacteria.  

When we’re under stress, our body’s ability to distinguish a virus and to produce macrophages, which are virus-killing machines, is greatly reduced.  We begin to immunosuppress in that area, but we immunomodulate in the area of producing antibodies against bacteria.  Because our body’s assumption is that if you are bitten by a tiger, you’re not going to be suffering from a virus, you’re going to be suffering from bacterial influx.

When our body produces too many antibodies and there are no new bacteria, then the antibodies go berserk and begin attacking the myocardial tissue of the body and begin attacking the connective tissue in the joints.  

Like an army, any army, that has been built up to attack mode, but doesn’t find an enemy, it’ll start attacking anything that looks like it could be an enemy.  So the body begins to attack itself.  Virus recognition goes down, not up when we’re under stress, and so macrophage production, which is virus-killing goes down, not up.

[15:50] A Heavy Weight to Carry

Our body begins to hold onto cholesterol and other fats when we’re under stress because there’s the potential of not being able to eat if you’re fighting and fleeing.  

So things that normally would not cause you to gain weight will cause you to gain weight because of your body’s tendency to hold on to fats as a reserve against famine or a reserve when you’re fighting and fleeing.

So we have dehydration, we have a narrowing in of the peripheral vision, we have a change in the pH value of the skin, acidic skin ages at twice the rate of alkaline skin.  So stress causes skin aging.  And what is this all in aid of?

In the case of the teenage boys, a reaction to watching a television commercial for the kind of car they wanted.  They were having all these effects in their bodies, no digestion, dehydration, et cetera, et cetera.  

[16:38] Seeing Red

Now, because we have, as a culture, learned to overload ourselves regularly with changes of expectation and with stimuli, we have turned on a tendency for our bodies to have a hair-trigger stress reactivity.  And every time we have a stress reaction, there’s accumulation of information about what happened to be around at the time we got stressed.

Right now, I’m looking at a beautiful Navajo weaving that’s on my floor, and it has some bright red elements in it.  Supposing I was looking at those bright red design elements, and my phone rang and I received news that was shocking and I couldn’t adapt to the news, not only would I have a stress reaction based on the information coming down the telephone line, but my brain would automatically memorize the color red, and it would assign to that color red ‘stress-trigger status.’ 

That color red has now become, for me, a premature cognitive commitment.  My brain has prematurely made a commitment to the meaning of red as it being dangerous and worthy of fight/flight reactivity.

Now, it might be that five hours later, I receive a second phone call and everything’s normalized and the previous dangerous signals are canceled out.  My brain will still hold on to the red as danger information.  Consequently, whether I know it intellectually or not, every time I see red after that, my body’s going to slightly move in the direction of stress reactivity just in case the dangerous thing is around again.

[18:19] 100,000 Premature Cognitive Commitments

Likewise with fragrances, with tastes and flavors, with musical chord changes that might’ve been playing at the time that you had a stress reaction.  These things, these premature cognitive commitments are the stress elements that are retained by our brain and cause us continually to react stressfully every time we see one of these stimuli.

Some scientists, led by the Nobel-prize-winning Sir John Eccles, reckon that by the age of 20, the average westerner may have accumulated at least 100,000 premature cognitive commitments.  That means 100,000 bits of information, any one of which, if you saw that color, heard that music, or smelled that smell would cause you to begin moving in the direction of stress reactivity very rapidly.  

So you might be in a perfectly safe environment, but somebody brings you a red napkin and you start getting sweaty hands, losing your peripheral vision, and losing the ability to digest.

[19:23] Growing Old Before Your Time

So stress accumulates in the body.  The more that stress accumulates, the less adaptation energy we have to meet the next overload of information successfully, and so we end up with a vicious cycle.  More stress accumulation causes lower and lower thresholds for the next stress reaction.

And eventually we have a population, which is the population we do have today, of people who are reacting stressfully multiple times a day, and this causes aging.  Any gerontologist, gerontology is the science of aging, any gerontologist will tell you that the word stress and the word age are the same word.

[20:08] Eliminate Stress Through Vedic Meditation

So we have to rid ourselves of stress, and fortunately there’s an easy solution.  Learn and practice Vedic Meditation twice every day.  When you meditate, your mind settles down to its least-excited state and your body rests dramatically deeply, this deep and profound rest that is accrued through meditation, allows the body to restore its adaptation energy and to release these onboard stresses.

Our body begins to lose the capacity to be reactive for no particularly good reason other than you saw the color red or something.  And as we become more and more liberated from the accumulated stress in our body, then our creativity is liberated, our intelligence is liberated, our energy is liberated and life becomes better in every way.

So meditation is the solution to the accumulation of stress.

Jai Guru Deva.

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