Dr Hans Selye

One topic eventually appears in nearly every conversation with my executive coaching clients: stress. Everyone is aware of increased stress. For many, stress is the dominant experience. Let’s examine the mechanism, symptoms, and treatments.

Stress is a word imported from engineering, where it refers to pressure sufficient to cause a body to deform. High stress can permanently alter the form and function of the material bearing the load, even to the point of destruction. No wonder that endocrinologist Hans Selye chose stress to describe the reactions of lab rats to his injections of what would later be labeled stress hormones: cortisol, adrenaline, etc. You and I do not need an injection to experience the symptoms of stress; we make plenty of these hormones ourselves.

Some immediate symptoms of excessive emotional stress are:

  • Headache
  • Memory Loss
  • Lack of concentration
  • Stomach upset
  • Difficulty Making Decisions
  • Back pain
  • Overeating & Malnutrition
  • Insomnia or Hypersomnia
  • Depression
  • Anxiety & Panic
  • Alcohol Abuse
  • Anger & Irritability
  • Crying
  • Restlessness or Lethargy

The link between stress and disease, obvious to our ancestors, was recently brought back into the mainstream of Western medicine by Dr. Esther Sternberg. Over time, emotional stress is a major contributor to physical disease, perhaps the major cause of debilitating illnesses:

  • Common Cold
  • Hypertension
  • Hemorrhoids
  • Ulcers
  • Varicose veins
  • Heart disease
  • Bruxism and TMJ
  • Senile Dementia
  • Allergies
  • Immuno-suppression

Why is this? How did our emotional reactions become threats to our life?

Our magnificent brains are not unified, integrated, simple systems but an agglomeration of discrete parts accreted over ancestral eras. One of the brain’s most primitive structures, just above the “reptilian” parts of the nervous system that keep our lungs and heart working, is our limbic system. The limbic system, shared with other mammals, includes the infamous amygdala where we perform our instant, barely conscious threat detection. The fast but limited limbic system responds to emotional threats with the same violent arsenal we evolved for physical dangers, releasing a flood of hormones that help us flee or fight.

Escaping up a tree or swinging a war club is rarely attempted in the home or office, so the chemicals unleashed by our startled limbic system turn on our bodies. Instead of fleeing, we freeze. Muscles ready to run stay rigid, then tense and tear. A heart eager to circulate oxygenated blood instead puts pressure on our blood vessels. A mouth primed for a battle cry instead craves sugar and fat. Lacking a bandit to battle, we batter our bodies. Emotional pain and career disappointments seem to pose no physical threat, yet we feel stress that causes fatigue, depression, disease, and early death.

The reptilian functions seem automatic and the limbic system fires at will but the neocortex outweighs them both. This highly evolved seat of language, choice, and culture can quiet the heart, ease the breath, and relax the muscles. Trained and supported, our neocortex can even reset the standards for what the amygdala considers a threat. Yogis can stop wounds from bleeding, Tibetan monks can melt ice from their bodies, and anyone can learn to lower their blood pressure or stop a headache. The neocortex can let us approach an armed adversary–or even a podium–with calm.

Your neocortex, and thereby the limbic and reptilian systems, responds to your conscious choices.

How do you take command of this powerful system, instead of leaving it at the mercy of random stimuli and other people’s limbic reactions?

  • Take slow, deep, relaxed breaths.
  • Practice being physically centered. Click here to listen to my instructions.
  • Get physical exercise. You do not need to wait for a trip to the gym.
    • After a distressing telephone call, do a few push-ups at your desk or hop for a minute.
    • Take a brisk walk.
    • Grab a book in each hand and pump your arms over your head.
  • Learn to meditate. Click here for instructions.
  • Express your gratitude for someone–or anything.
  • Work with a coach trained in somatics and the ontology of language.
  • Talk to friends with the intention of releasing your concerns (as opposed to reinforcing them).
  • Find a task you can complete and cross it off your list.
  • Choose a task you are never going to complete and cross it off your list.
  • Stretch a few muscles–gently–without leaving your desk chair:
    • Interlace your fingers and turn your palms away from your face; push. Raise your arms and interlaced fingers above or just behind your head; push and breathe out.
    • Put  your feet flat on the floor, twist your upper body while keeping your spine straight and shoulders level. See how far you can turn your shoulders clockwise. Reverse. Repeat.
  • Take a walk outdoors. Breathe. Swing your arms.
  • Share a long, relaxed hug.
  • Laugh. Find your favorite comedian on YouTube.
  • Examine a flower as though you have never seen one before and may never see one again.
  • Enjoy a moderate amount of caffeine, tobacco, sex, chocolate, or alcohol. Observe and appreciate the effects.
  • Close your eyes and listen to soft music.
  • Wave your arms and dance to loud music.
  • Demonstrate love for someone. Start with yourself.
  • Notice before you whine, “I have to” when the fact is, “I get to.” Shift your speaking–and your mood.
  • Chase your dog. Pet your cat. Chill with exotic fish.
  • Listen to your kids, without judgment.
  • Accept what is. Start from where you are, not where you “should” be.
  • Engage in a Flow experience.
  • Read some positive, inspiring quotations.

I had only one answer to give:

You are free, choose–that is, invent.

–Jean-Paul Sartre

Existentialism & Human Emotions

There is much more information, on this blog and elsewhere, about stressdepression, meditation, centering, etc.

Need even more specific ideas? Here are 123 at HealthGrinder.

You have choices. Take care of yourself.


© 2009 Tony Mayo


Meditation for Managers video


See free, easy Meditation Instructions on this blog.