Why Do We Suffer From Stress?
Without learning about the problem of the stress, a discussion Yoga and Meditation will remain inadequate and incomplete. In order to understand stress, we have to go into evolution of humans and what makes them unique.
Humans have two unique features which differentiate them from all other living beings on earth.
- Their brain is largest and most complex in comparison of body weight and has a large memory capacity.
- They have the faculty of extended self-awareness, which makes them conscious of their memories.
Self-awareness in a human child starts around the age of three to four years, which brings the consciousness of death and life and its fear. In order to escape from the fear of death and life, the child seeks protection from the family and the culture which conditions the brain. Conditioning of the brain forms a complex mind with a vast store of memories. Those memories are both negative and positive, memories of happy and sad moments, memories of love and abuse, gains and losses, and so on. These emotional and thought memories constantly affect the brain and body, causing low grade chronic stress. Our normal state of living is of low grade chronic stress. This is a universal phenomenon, and generally the person copes with this ongoing stress and able to live life with reasonable comfort. But a powerful and negative event in a person’s life may disturb the coping mechanism and that person will experience a full stress reaction.
The stress response is the part of the body’s functioning to survive through dangers. The body’s stress mechanism was extremely useful in dealing with emergencies thousands of years ago when humans were surrounded by predators and natural disasters. But in modern times when our lives are more safe and comfortable, the stress response is still active. It is mainly due to the burden of the memories with self-awareness which initiates the stress response. We live in the state of chronic stress without many external dangers. Our own mind is the cause of the stress.
Stress can be defined as the perception of threat to physical or mental well-being resulting in Fight, Flight, or Freeze response. People have different personality or Doshas. People with Pita (fire) dosha or personality respond to stress by fighting, Vata (wind) by fleeing and Kapha (earth) by freeze response.
Many think that stress is caused by outside factors such as work, relationship or important life transition. But the fact is that stress doesn’t come from outside. It emerges from within but external factors precipitate it.
It will be worthwhile to mention here two great researchers who brought the problem of stress to the limelight in the field of medicine.
The first was Walter Cannon, a physiologist from Harvard university, USA, who introduced in 1915 the term “fight or flight” to describe an animal’s response to threats. He described the bodily changes that occur during states of pain, hunger, fear and rage. He also coined the term homeostasis.
The second great researcher was Hans Selye, who worked in the University of Montreal. In the 1940s, he coined the term “Stress”, which he defined as the non-specific response to many stressors which include –
Physical – Excessive physical work
Emotional – Anger, fear, Guilt etc.
Cognitive – Automatic negative thoughts
Existential – Questions about life and death and the meaning of life.
Another important researcher was the psychologist Kobasa, who described disease- prone personalities as well as stress- hardy people. Stress- hardy people approach stressful situations using three key strategies -Commitment, Challenge and Control. They are able to make a firm commitment to a task, even when the going gets rough. They tend to interpret problems as challenges rather than disasters. Finally, they look for aspects of the problem that they can control – perhaps making a change in their lifestyle, learning more about a problem or taking a small step to resolving the issue. All of these three strategies help them to weather life’s storms in a more effective way.
Stress is not always bad. Some stress is good for the body and mind and helps us in exploring new paths and different ways to live and create. Stress becomes a problem when it becomes persistent and chronic.
During stress, the sympathetic nervous system in the body becomes hyperactive and causes a fight and flight response. The freeze response comes from an ancient part of the Vagus nerve, and is intended to help the animal hide and avoid danger.
Relaxation is caused by the decreased tone of sympathetic nervous system and increased activity of parasympathetic system. While this function of the parasympathetic system is helpful and adaptive for the human being, excessive stimulation of parasympathetic nervous system may be harmful, producing a depression-like state.