Too Many Tigers: Stress Management

By Kathy Benham
(copyright 2000)

You are walking through the jungle when a jaguar jumps out of a banyon tree. Your mind rapidly scans the scene and assesses the threat level while your body prepares to protect you by activating your fight or flight response. Adrenaline courses through your body. Your breathing becomes shallow and fast, your pulse quickens. Blood is pumping into your contracting muscles preparing you to run or fight. Every nerve and cell inside of you is mobilizing to give you the best chance of surviving this unexpected turn of events.

The jaguar lands and slowly turns towards you. You look towards his feet to avoid making eye contact that might be interpreted by this big cat as adversarial. Time stops. He slowly assesses you and determines that you are neither a threat nor interesting enough in this moment to chase. He bounds into the rain forest leaving only the sounds of his paws and your heartbeat echoing in your being.

Unless you mind starts playing tricks and haunting you with the possibility of the jaguar's return, your body will quickly relax and re-stabilize. In less civilized settings, the body and mind can quickly recover since either perceived or actual threats are not common.

Too bad civilized life isn't more like the tropics! Rather than being faced with an occasional jaguar or pit viper, the typical American is constantly bombarded by stress inducing incidents. We wake up with too much to do and too little time.

Deadlines and the fears about what happens when we miss them become our personal pit vipers. We dash to a convenience store and join fourteen other people in line juggling coffee and sugar to jump start our day. The line moves slowly and we feel an increasing sense of urgency.

For some people, your brain will provide a set of dominos which become modern day threats. What if I am late to work? What if I don't get the big report finished? What if I loose my job? What if I become a bag lady? Suddenly, your modern mind has taken the experience of being in a slow line and turned it into a survival issue!

You leave the store and traffic moves to a crawl on the interstate. Drivers start getting nervous. The tension mounts in the traffic jam. Cars start zipping and zooming where they can squeeze in. A large semi-truck cuts in front of you and you slam on your brakes. The rest of your day continues in this frantic pace. Day after day of this type of existence takes its toll on your immune system and spirit.

Stress is a natural, physiological reaction to perceived or actual threat or change. Sometimes stress comes from external events or demands. Internal pressures from negative self talk or unrealistic expectations can also evoke the stress response.

Everyone needs some stress. A helpful stress level, called eustress, can help us become motivated and propel us into personal growth. However, when the stress response is triggered too frequently and the body doesn't have time to relax and re-stabilize, we move into distress.

Imagine walking through the jungle and having a jaguar jump out every 30 seconds!

You would become hyper-alert and your body would begin to adjust to that level of stress response. With all the external pressures, the quickening of deadlines and responses due to changes in technology and the level of perfectionism seeking in our culture, we begin to live life as if we are facing a new jaguar every 15 seconds! We may be living life in an unhealthy and heightened state of tension.

All of our time saving devices have created a world out of rhythm with the human body and spirit. We are loosing our rest times. Distress is becoming the norm.

Sipping a cup of tea while handwriting a letter has become an instant email message on our screen demanding that we drop what we are doing to respond in a few seconds.

Moments of delicious alone time in our cars are shattered by the ringing of our electronic leashes: beeping, ringing and demanding instant response.

A quiet game of face-to-face chess with a friend in a café has become an internet computer game full of images which change shape every three seconds. Strolling through a book store and lovingly handling the leather bound books is becoming replaced by impatience when a book store web page takes more than a minute to load.

Under ongoing stress, the body (and thus you!) begins to loose touch with what is normal. Purely for demonstration of a concept, let's assign a number to the stress response.

Under eustress, the adrenaline system functions at a 5 as a normal rating. Suppose you go for weeks under constant stress and your ongoing response rate begins to be a level 8. Before too long, this heightened state will start to feel normal. If your body doesn't relax and return to level five, your baseline becomes a level 8.

Another big stressor comes along: a work deadline or even a happy occasion such as a wedding. Your body now has to crank even more to get the stress response. Now, in order to get the stress response, you have to function at a level 12! If the stress level continues, even that can start to feel normal.

With this stress spiral, the body will begin to break down. Your emotions get fried. Life is out of balance. And, you start to think that this is what life is like!

There is a lot you can't change about modern life and the pressures it evokes. However, this doesn't mean that you have to keep feeling more and more stress until you overload, burnout and short circuit.

There are two primary ways to reduce the ongoing impact of stress on your life. First, look at what stressors you can control and take steps to change those. Second, increase your self care and relaxation skills.

To reduce your stressors, you first have to understand what they are. Take out a piece of paper and write down "I feel stress because________". Brainstorm and list all the reasons you feel stress. Once you have a list of your stressors, take a new piece of paper and divide it into four columns.

In column "A" list the stressors you can control. For example, if you feel stress in the morning deciding what to wear and your indecision makes you late, list it.

In column "B" , write a specific behavior you can do to reduce that stress. In this example, you could write "lay my clothes out the night before and get up 15 minutes earlier".

In column "C", list the external events over which you have no control. For example: your elderly mother is ill.

Then in column "D", write a strategy of how you might approach an area you have no control over. In this example, you could write "practice prayer to help me with my feelings of helplessness".

Sometimes with external stressors such as a hurricane, we don't control the event but we can control how we respond to the event.

Frequently when people are experiencing distress, they feel helpless and overwhelmed. Defining what you can control, what you can't control and knowing the difference can significantly reduce some stress. This is modeled after the Serenity Prayer which is used in Twelve Step programs.

Another way to reduce your stress level is to improve your self-care and develop relaxation skills.

It is physically impossible to be tense and relaxed at the same time! Developing relaxation skills provides the body with the rest periods necessary for re-stabilization after a stress response. It helps reduce the frequency of the pouncing jaguars.

Here are some stress management tips:

  • Learn deep breathing techniques. The breath is one of the fastest ways to slow down the stress response.
  • Exercise regularly. Exercise helps stabilize the sleep cycle and creates changes in the brain chemical production to help with reducing anxiety and minor depressive symptoms.
  • Explore your self talk. Practice affirmations daily. Practice thought stoppage for recurring negative self talk.
  • Own pets. Even fish appear to increase relaxation!
  • Practice time management. Schedule time when you have no expectations to meet.
  • Develop a strong network of friends.
  • Cultivate a spiritual life.
  • Keep a journal.
  • Eat a balanced diet.
  • Practice a form of meditation that fits for you (sitting, walking, dancing, etc).
  • Practice self-forgiveness.
  • Learn to name your feelings and share them with a trusted friend.
  • Reduce your caffeine
  • Assess your life and if it reflects your value system

In our rapid culture, we have misplaced our resting places and relaxation skills.

Life is like music compositions. Without the pauses between notes, there is no music. A constant note will not sustain the soul or body. Pauses make our lives symphonic.

Rest, relax, hear the music of your life!

For more information on how coaching can help you reduce your stress, call Kathy at 804-353-7886 or email Kathy@benhamconsulting.com.


Kathy Benham is a full time Life Enhancement and Business Performance Coach and Consultant. Kathy specializes in coaching underachieving gifted individuals, professionals with ADD, and small business owners and entrepreneurs (many of these overlap!).

Kathy Benham of Benham Consulting, LLC in Richmond, Virginia

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