4 The Mechanisms of Stress

The stress reaction

Stress is something we often have to deal with on a daily basis. We need the reactions of stress in situations where we have to give our all. At times it can be difficult to achieve a moderate level, however. The reaction is controlled by the autonomous nervous system, in which the sympathetic system stimulates the actual reactions of stress, and the parasympathetic system acts to calm, slow and repair us.

Calming down

Touch, rest, good food and sex help us to switch over to the calming system, so that we can rest and repair ourselves.

Why stress?

The stress reaction exists primarily so we can survive through dangerous situations. In the everyday situations in which we find ourselves, it is not a question of escaping from a tiger that might actually attack and eat us, but rather more a case of psychologically uncomfortable situations – things that seem insurmountable to us, that make us afraid or that we experience as unpleasant. The brain is unable to differentiate between imagined and real experiences in such circumstances.

Ways we react to stress

When we are exposed to a threat, there are three different ways to deal with this: fleeing, fighting or becoming paralysed. The feelings that are connected with these reactions are fear/anxiety, anger/fury and dejection/depression. How we function is that our impression/imagination results in a physical reaction based on the feeling that the impression/imagination creates. When the feeling of stress has begun, hormones are released that stimulate the mobilisation of energy in the body so that we become active and alert. The hormones that are secreted are adrenalin, noradrenalin and hydrocortisone. These affect the body by increasing blood pressure, making the breathing more shallow, tensing large muscle groups and sharpening our senses. We can handle this if the balance is restored after the threat has been averted and we can then regain our composure. Problems arise if the reaction is so strong that we can no longer concentrate on the task at hand, or if we remain in that state for a long time without regaining balance. The result is then a negative effect on the body. The breathing continues to be dysfunctional (short and tense), muscle tension in the body is high, and the heart and blood vessels are exposed to considerable strain. Occasionally, the process of becoming more excited can be so strong and persistent that it can even disturb our sleep.

Two different methods for combating stress

Physical methods

To exercise and get rid of some of the mobilised energy that the stress reactions produce most certainly minimises the feeling of stress. Breathing exercises affect both the oxygenation of the body and muscle tension. Our habitual positions when sitting and standing can eventually have a negative effect on the body with an increase of stress. If we sit or stand in positions in which we use the musculature in a non-ergonomic way, this will affect our breathing, and thus also the processes of oxygenation and circulation in the body.

Physical exercise, and exercises for breathing and relaxation

By adopting a very open and relaxed basic posture, in which we can breathe as freely, deeply and as spread-out as possible, we will increase our flexibility and stamina. Please look at the exercise for sitting position in Chapter 8. We can find these positions by allowing the skeleton to support us as much as possible, finding a feeling of relaxation in the skeleton, feeling support from the pelvis, hips, knees and feet, and letting the musculature make the least possible effort. This occurs when our centre of balance is in harmony with the force of gravity. If we train ourselves to become aware of having a relaxed basic posture, and if we can remain present in that awareness, then we will gain stamina and flexibility.