When You Understand Stress You Can Manage It
Those of us who have chosen the life of an entrepreneur have chosen a life of stress. Our lives become a never-ending cycle of prospecting, selling, delivering, and then back to prospecting. As one fellow entrepreneur put it: we track the bear, we hunt the bear, we shoot the bear, we drag the bear back home, where we skin the bear. The only problem is while were skinning the bear no one is out there tracking, hunting, shooting, and dragging home the NEXT bear.
We have to do something about this stress before it kills us. Do you doubt that stress is killing you? A fortune is made and spent on drugs to treat medical conditions—from stomach ulcers to headaches—that are caused or aggravated by stress. While millions of people suffer from stress related scarce few of us do anything to appropriate manage the stress of modern life. Many of us have tired of the new age approach to stress and have resolved to “tough it out.” While this “grin and bear it” (no relation to the bear analogy unless you found some unintended profundity in it, in which case I am a genius) approach to stress management is an increasingly attractive approach it may actually contribute to a person’s stress and create even greater problems.
Stress and Its Role in Our Survival
Everyone these days seems to be talking about the dangers of stress and frankly many of them don’t seem to know much about it. When asked to define stress today’s pundits tend to either ignore the question or to cloud up their response with jargon and “psycho babble”. Stress, simply put, is our body’s way of protecting us from danger. Without stress we would blissfully roast our hands against a hot stove, or lop our way into on-coming traffic where smiling motorists would mow us down. We owe our lives to stress. When stress is properly applied to our bodies it saves our lives. We yank our hands away from hot stoves, leap in panicked jerks out of the path of on-coming traffic as the freak-out motorist careens wildly through traffic to avoid us. Yes, stress is an important part of our survival. But what about when stress is misused, misinterpreted, or misdirected by our bodies (did I miss any “misses”?) The same reflexes designed to preserve our fleshy behinds turns on our bodies like a jilted ex-lover.
Why do we tell our children not to take candy from strangers when everyone knows that strangers have the best candy?
Most strangers aren't out to harm our children with the possible exception of those times when we have our small children running amuck on a long and crowded flight. Yet (for the most part) parents tell their children to avoid strangers at all costs. For my part I am sixth of seven children and, reasoning that anything more than five children are spares, my mother would always tell me "if a stranger offers you a ride; you take it; you never know how long it will be before another stranger comes along." And candy, you better believe I was taking candy no questions asked. Again, I digress. So if the majority of strangers don't want to hurt our children why are we so adament that our children not so much as TALK to a stranger? It doesn't make much sense. The reason of course is that it is difficult to spot the child predators until something horrible has happened. So if we trust all strangers our children are at risk but if we don't trust any strangers our children our protected. To be absolutely safe we must treat the unknown as dangerous. Our brains operate in much the same way.
Most of the information our brains receive comes to us through our subconscious. In order for us to be able to focus and concentrate on abstract tasks our brains automate many of our routine tasks. Picture your brain as a computer filled with thousands of software programs that automate the simpler tasks, and even some tasks that are not so simple. How many of us have to stop and think about the physical steps required to turn a doorknob, start a car, or drive to work. We do all these things without thinking because our brain has automated these tasks.
While the conscious mind doesn’t bother with the mundane, the subconscious works overtime to get us through our day. In addition to running these “sub-routines” our brains must sort through tons of information that it receives and routes some of it to our conscious minds while filing most of it away in our subconscious where it is compared by the nervous system against our “database of danger.” Forgive my melodrama, but I think the analogy is an apt one. As infants we come into this world with very little information; we’re helpless. Through a concerted effort on the part of our brains we gather as much information as we can as quickly as we can. We quickly learn that a hot stove is far too dangerous to be trifled with and so we file away in our subconscious any inputs—visual, aural, oral, tactile, and olfactory— that are even remotely related to the danger we call a hot stove. Our subconscious even writes a program that cause us to remove our hand from a hot stove so fast that we have removed ourselves from the danger before our conscious minds even realizes what’s happening. Our subconscious has saved us using what scientists call the fight-flight reflex. (There are some who now call this the fight, flight, or freeze reflex but those people need a good throttling).
The fight-flight response is our bodies’ way of protecting us from the all the dangers that we have filed away in the “danger database”. As we our bombarded with information our brains sift through the small percentage that is necessary for our cognitive functions, or in other words the things that require us to think about, for instance, reading. Do you find it difficult to concentrate in a room filled with noise? Is it more difficult for you to read in when surrounded by a flurry of activity? Say for instance when someone is throwing softballs at your head, if so, the difficulty likely arises from your brain trying to sort through this input to determine whether or not a danger is present. In the time you are taking to read this, you’re brain is being deluged with sensory input. Perhaps a fluorescent light is buzzing nearby or maybe a television plays off in the distance. While you aren’t conscious of the input, your subconscious is carefully and quickly reviewing the information and checking it against your danger database. In most cases these inputs are harmless and your subconscious doesn’t bother you with them. In some cases these inputs match a danger in the database and trigger a conscious response. In still other cases, the input don’t provide enough information for a definitive conclusion to be made and the brain has to assume a “better safe than sorry” posture. In these cases the brain prepares the body for the worst-case scenario and the result is stress.
Whenever our bodies perceive danger our brains activate the “flight or fight” reflex. First it our bodies give us an energy rush as it releases stored sugar and fats into the bloodstream. Next our brains increase our breathing to supply more oxygen to the blood—oxygen that will be needed to give our bodies the short-term boost it will need to combat the danger. Our heart rate then accelerates to provide more blood to the muscles. Newly flush with more blood, our muscles tense for action. More blood is quickly supplied to these muscles as the body reroutes the blood from the hands and feet. Blood is also routed to the brain and away from the stomach and digestion stops. Our senses become more acute and actively scan for more signs of danger. Finally, alertness heightens to the point where it becomes difficult to focus. Our bodies turn into finely honed killing machines ready to strike down danger in its tracks. Unfortunately, not all triggers are, in fact, dangers.
Most people think of the fight-flight reflex as a binary action we are either relaxed or we are running like a spotted assed ape. The truth is more complicated; little bits of stress (unknown stimuli) results in a slow drip of adrenaline and other toxins that cause our bodies to react in a paired down version of the full blown fight or flight. Little drops of poison seep into our bloodstream and cause health problems often very serious health problems. It’s something of a dilemma: too much stress will kill us but not enough won’t keep us productive and motivated.