Stress and Distress

Longish but Hopefully Worth it

At the outset, I wish to make a distinction between distress and stress. Distress is a conclusion by the ego that something has gone wrong and that prospects are not good. Stress is the 'wear and tear' and chronic changes in the body that result from efforts of the body to maintain some type of homeostasis in the face of a constant imbalancing force.

As an example, it has been shown that palm sweating (a sign of sympathetic reaction) increases in proportion to crowding in a prison. However, subjective distress does not correlate with crowding. Many inmates adapt mentally but this is an ego adaptation--the body never totally adapts but rather copes chronically.

Even if initially distress has been quelled, ongoing stress will at times make its way back into distress. If the body is suffering enough, the ego will become alarmed. However, we live in a culture that encourages the ego to disregard internal signals if they conflict with the goals of the ego. Stress does show up in cognitive and emotional functioning, but fundamentally it is a biological state of the body. Of course distress usually adds to stress, because distress usually triggers more sympathetic tone. Mainstream culture, as well as mainstream psychology, endorses the mental maneuver of a reappraisal of stress as 'good.' While this may work partially as described later, if over-relied upon this furthers the dissociation between mind and body.

Hans Seyle famously demonstrated three stages of stress. The first stage is 'fight of flight', this produces strong sympathetic nervous system activation and puts adrenaline and nor-adrenaline into the blood. This produces the readiness to act strongly (if not gracefully) and it renders, at least for a time, what the person had wanted to do irrelevant and forgotten. It also renders irrelevant for a time those building blocks of satisfaction and health—rest, eating, relaxation, affection, play and wonder, etc... If the source is not removable, stress develops into the second or chronic phase which is dominated by the secretion of cortisol. Cortisol is necessary for life but has many harmful effects when present constantly in large amounts. Cortisol is among other things, a numbing agent.

The third stage is depletion or exhaustion (especially of endocrine glands like the adrenals and the thyroid). Seyle seemed to have conceptualized in terms of complete exhaustion, but this seems to be less common than relative exhaustion (or 'fatigue') in which adrenal response is possible but requires more stimulus. This results in a 'roller-coaster-y' experience, as the individual learns how to 'jump' his or her adrenals in ways that make functioning possible but maintain the overall depleted state. It is unclear if most chronic disease appears during the chronic or exhaustion stage, but it is clear that almost all chronic disease involves inflammation.

In fact, stress is a biological state of alarm. Alarm is what a person must undergo to be prepared to meet a threat (or challenge) when they are not otherwise ready. This could be because the external situation is a very strong danger, or unwanted, but even chosen challenges activate stress. The common element in all stress seems to be struggle. A struggle could be chosen, or it could be imposed, and while the difference is important in whether the experience is perceived as 'dis-stressful', the long-term effects on the body and the body's capacity to relax are similar.

Struggle is a situation of the body. However in our modern day, the body is placed into most of its struggles by the attaining mind. One could struggle with an actual assailant or calamity, but what most people struggle with is the way things are. Whenever a person decides things should not be the way they are, but cannot easily change it, a struggle ensues, at least internally. A feeling of helplessness or being trapped, does not decrease stress, it increases it. It does not matter how accurately one perceives reality, stress is a struggle with what one perceives is the case.

While all physical activity increases sympathetic tone, ideally the adrenal system is not activated often, and when it is, the body and autonomic nervous system rebalances when the exertion ends. This is one role of work breaks. However, increasingly in our culture we do not allow that to happen. As a result, the very set point for rebalancing shifts toward the sympathetic and vigilant. This is known as allostasis. Allostasis is like running the engine of a car continuously so that one can take off slightly quicker. It leads to greater wear and tear, and an actual decrease in performance.

Though Wilhelm Reich considered the challenges a society poses to its members, the major factor in illness, he did not work with a concept quite like the modern concept of stress. Alexander Lowen only came to describe stress in the 80's, in his book Love, Sex and the Heart, and in other writings. It could be that he was just adopting then current terminology. However, it could be, and this is also my opinion, that he was responding to the emergence of stress as a much greater contributor to illness and emotional dis-ease because of changes in society.

While some stress is unavoidable, much stress is due to the character attitude. I do not say mental attitude. A body that is in a more or less fixed state of readiness for struggle will struggle more or less constantly. Character attitudes include both cognitions and states of the body.

Another distinction needs to made between a challenge, and a struggle. A challenge is a stimulus for growth, and without any challenges at all, both the human mind and the human body deteriorates. Some activities are not very stressful for some, and very stressful for others. For instance, someone that has good balance will only struggle a little learning ice skating, and will not be unduly stressed, while someone with poor balance will struggle greatly ( worsening balance further) and be very stressed. This difference has been described as some people meeting the experience as a challenge, and others meeting it as a threat. This characterization can be badly misused, however, to imply that it is merely a mental label that makes the difference. The difference is the presence or proximity of the bodily state mastery. When someone attempts something that they are on the verge of, or have the component skills for, there is first a slight stress, then a reduction of stress as the skill is gained. When someone attempts something that they do not have the component skills for, they get confused and frustrated, and praise and encouragement does not change this.

How does one achieve mastery when one is a 'long way' away? It is possible but usually only by addressing fundamental capacities in a measured way that avoids triggering much struggle. Pilates, Feldenkreis, and the Alexander method are along this line. True remedial work is not too popular in our fast-paced culture.

It is also true that some situations are very stressful for some but not for others. This is because of differences in goals. For instance, one person goes to a party to be in proximity with other people. Since that is a given, he or she is not stressed. Another goes to a party to impress others. Since that is never certain and constantly 'wearing off' it is very stressful, even if successful. Constantly trying to 'exceed' is a guarantee of stress. Actually changing goals, and not just pretending to, requires more than sleight-of-mind, it requires a change of heart, and possibly some surrender. Even if circumstances can not be changed, an attitude of surrender can maintain integrity without impossible stress. Surrender is an acceptance of the limits of the will--will only intensifies stress. Moreover, this change in character attitude often leads a person to choose circumstances differently. A person may leave the 'rat race,' or may define success less competitively.

In addition, the chance to recover vegetatively is important after any challenge. The amount of time that is needed is often underestimated in our culture. In past eras, rest cures of several months were prescribed in a low stimulatory environment in those cases where 'nervous exhaustion' was recognized. The terminology seems old fashioned but the biology we have in the present day is the same. Another useful concept under the heading of recovery is reset. An extended challenge or struggle, as described above often leads to allostasis. The set point will not be reset without a good rest and the undertaking of some parasympathetically-aligned practices. Rest in this context does not imply complete idleness but does require a situation in which one 'doesn't have to do anything.' Allowing recovery time seems to be waste except that effectiveness is so enhanced that the results are qualitatively better for sure and commonly even quantitatively better.

While care must be taken not to mistake a decrease in distress for a decrease in stress, there are some modulators that decrease both actual bodily stress and distress, and there is value in examining them, not so an individual can engage in more stressful situations unnecessarily, but so that the societal aspect of stress can be made clearer: Modulators, which are not complete antidotes, include:

By the way, 'learned helplessness' is not so much a stress reducer, as it is an 'exhaustion' preventer. It is in fact, accompanied by a strong dorsal shift. With learned helplessness, there is no obvious struggle that completely depletes the person, but stress continues steadily.

It is true that in some endeavors, not accepting something leads to positive action to change the situation. For instance not accepting that a river is uncrossable can lead to building a bridge. However, in other areas, non-acceptance leads to futility, such as for instance not accepting certain traits in a spouse or not accepting human imperfection.

The basic external struggle is to outdo each other. This puts in place a permanent competition, in which internally one part of the person struggles against another part to conform to some image of special or lovable. Fighting for a principle need not be a struggle, it can be a creative act, in which the actions are harmonized with the feelings of the body.

A person capable of experiencing pleasure is not likely to be at war with the way things are. They will act, out of creative feeling, and in fact often end up changing things, but it won't be a desperate act. On the other hand, when it is difficult to experience pleasure, the world will always seem wrong. One may then try to change it but this leads to no real pleasure and so perhaps, if any thing does gets done, it seems there are many more things to get done before one get rest. Constant struggle results, and this struggle, because of the physiology of stress, blocks pleasure more, and a vicious cycle results.

Hans Seyle, and stress researchers after him, have been troubled by the implication of these findings. If stress is bad, then civilization, which is largely built of struggle, might be considered some ill-gotten gain, that is, it comes with an unacknowledged price, and an individual doesn't have a full choice whether he or she pays that price. Seyle developed the idea of good stress. Good stress is stress undertaken in a good cause.

But in doing this, he switched the focus of attention from inside to outside. The biological, wear-and-tear parts of stress can never be considered good. However, struggle could at times be justified by a good cause, could it not? Stress then came to refer to the nature of the social challenge, and the body (as usual) was dropped from awareness.

A great deal of struggle, (and therefore) stress is produced by trying to defend a self-image. Threats to a self-image are inevitable but they can feel integrity- or even life threatening if the ego is dependent on the image. These days people speak of stress (that is, they complain of distress) mostly only when they believe they are not 'succeeding' in life. If they are 'succeeding', they do not complain, because the cost to the body is outside awareness. That is, stress is present, but distress, at least subjectively and for the time being, is not present. Lowen writes:*

The maintenance of a facade predisposes a person to somatic illness because it imposes a constant stress upon the body. One tries to be what one isn't which deforms the personality and the body. When the deformation (stress) persists long enough, the internal structure of the body breaks down. It is not the facade that breaks down but the tissues of the body. The facade is maintained even at the cost of structural integrity.

What Seyle and others lacked as an alternative, but what Wilhelm Reich and Alexander Lowen (and others) introduced, is the idea of effortlessness and contact with others. Both reduce the internal struggle, while increasing social effectiveness.

There are other cultures, for example, indigenous and 'latin' cultures which are deemed lazy, however these cultures are probably just more in tune with the desirability of avoiding chronic stress if one wants to live a life worth living. In these cultures, people tend to act and cooperate not according to a rigid schedule but rather when everyone involved 'feels ready' The feeling of readiness is the opposite of stress. Readiness implies an acceptance of the present reality if not the permanence of a situation.

Creative and productive activity does not require stress. Also, strictly repetitive activity in a predictable situation, does not require stress (although it may have other costs) Stress is not just being busy, although the emptiness of chronic stress often leads us to over-fill our lives.

Our economy, though, depends on stress. That is, the majority of 'high-value-added' jobs involve humans being vigilant, conscientious caretakers of complex systems. Workers must always push and compete to keep 'margins' higher. The risk of failure is ever-present. Even once one is quite knowledgeable in a job, it is still necessary to on guard for small or novel threats to a plan or profitability. Education has many of the same characteristics. It used to be the case that all schooling and most business took the summer off. Now our culture considers that 'wasteful.' There is no opportunity to recharge. Again, in the words of Lowen:*

We all know that the lifestyle of modern society creates enormous stress for its members. The demands upon them are great, and often excessive .These demands are, broadly speaking, to produce, to achieve, and to accomplish. The goals are success power and fame. The attainment of these goals requires that the person devote almost all his energy to this task. This is especially true since the culture is very competitive. People who are committed to the goals of this culture have no place in their lives for feelings. The drive for success requires the development of a rigid personality structure based on the suppression of all feeling including sexuality. The person becomes a doer, an achiever, a performer. In most families the training for this lifestyle starts early in the life of the child.

So the concept 'good stress' makes little sense. Strong challenges that have a reasonable expectation of reward can be handled by using only briefly and then stopping using the adrenal system. A stronger sense of self-results. Chronic treadmills of stress, however, even if they provide status or the means of comfort, will 'burn-out' the adrenals, even if some one believes they are 'getting somewhere in life'.

Mainstream healthcare providers act under stress all the time. It is in fact part of their self-image that they struggle against 'what is' in order to change it. Also, they loyally give to others despite how they are feeling, and postpone for very long periods doing what they want to do. Therefore the suggestion that stress affects health draws strong opposition, despite scientific evidence, because it is counter-cultural, not only to the larger culture, but also and especially to the helping profession culture.

Chronic stress also blunts the perception of acute threat, that is, the strong 'heart-based' signals of acute danger are lost because chronic stress has both weakened the acute system, and desensitized the person to this type of signal. This can explain why smart people with traumatic histories, though they are suspicious and cautious overall, often fail to feel the risk in a specific person or situation.

*Stress and Illness: A Bioenergetic View (1980)