October 24, 2012

Imaginary Tigers: Ancient Stress in a Modern-Day World. ~ Sarah Warren

Photo: Keith Roper

Many of us feel stress on a regular basis, and we have evolution to blame.

Ideally, our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems maintain a balance—action followed by relaxation. When we experience stress, our sympathetic nervous system initiates a “fight or flight” reaction, restricting blood flow, raising blood pressure, releasing adrenaline and cortisol and slowing bodily functions so that all energy can be used to fight the stressor. After the perceived danger has passed, the parasympathetic system takes over, decreasing heartbeat and relaxing blood vessels.

Unfortunately, in our current high-stress culture, our stress response is activated so frequently that the nervous system doesn’t always have a chance to return to normal, resulting in a state of chronic stress.

We did not evolve to survive in this current lifestyle that many of us lead. We’ve been evolving for roughly three to four million years, and we evolved to live as hunter-gatherers.

Life was a lot simpler a few million years ago. Day-to-day life was focused on physical survival. It was very simple: get food, and don’t get killed. So if a tiger was chasing you, your sympathetic nervous system would take over, allowing you to react to that stress, and when the tiger gave up, or when you killed the tiger, you would know the stress was gone and your parasympathetic nervous system would automatically kick in.

Now, instead of physical survival, we are often focused on emotional survival. Financial survival. Social survival. Many of us take it for granted that we’re going to live to 70, 80, even 90 years old, and what we have to survive is not a tiger chasing us but this stressful life that we’ve created for ourselves. Our nervous systems have not yet evolved to help us survive in this kind of lifestyle. That is why we have to make a conscious effort to help ourselves relax.

Chronic stress has been shown to lead or contribute to cardiac problems, high blood pressure, weight gain, decrease in bone density, decrease in muscle mass, impaired cognitive performance, suppressed thyroid function, blood sugar imbalances, skin problems, headaches, chronic pain, diabetes, infertility and susceptibility to infection due to a weakened immune system.

Chronic stress has also been shown to decrease growth of new brain cells and damage your existing brain cells. Many other disorders, some say most, are aggravated by stress.


Just reading about all these stressful things—high blood pressure, weight gain, headaches, tigers chasing you—may have triggered a stress response in you. Whether or not you were aware of it, your heart rate probably increased, your breathing became shallower and maybe your hands started sweating. You started worrying about getting all of these stress-induced conditions, and you started thinking about the people that you know who have these conditions. These are perfectly natural reactions.

What you need to recognize is that you are perceiving stress that is not real. These are just words on a page. A tiger is not chasing you. You are most likely in a very safe place—at home, at work, sitting at your desk or surfing the web on your smartphone. You can completely relax.

Your ability to consciously recognize the difference between real stress and perceived stress has now become key to your survival in our modern-day world.

We are the only beings on the planet that have the ability to choose how we perceive our experiences, and being able to remain relaxed will help you to stay healthy and live a longer life.

Think about a situation in your normal daily life that would typically stress you out. Really imagine it. Close your eyes and picture it. Get a sense of how you feel when you’re in that situation. What about that situation causes you stress?

Now ask yourself: Is your life in danger? What is the worst thing that can happen in that situation?

Now, imagine yourself in that situation not being stressed. How does that feel?

Take it a step further—imagine yourself enjoying being in that situation. You’re there with a smile on your face, feeling happy. How does that feel?

You do not need to be stressed out in order to get through that situation. Being stressed is not helping you. It is not helping you to accomplish anything faster or do anything better.

Your stress is not helping the people around you, either. They can sense that you’re stressed, and the energy that you’re giving off and the way that you’re talking and acting makes them stressed.

You actually have the power not only to put yourself at ease but also to put others at ease.

You can change not only your perception of a situation but also the outcome of a situation, because people act and communicate differently when they don’t feel on edge or threatened.

It takes practice to change our thought processes and the way we perceive things. Don’t expect that it will happen overnight or that it will be easy. But when you think about the benefits—reducing your risk of disease, living a longer and more enjoyable life and having a positive effect on those around you—you will probably agree that it is worth the time.


Sarah Warren is a Clinical Somatic Educator who works with people who have chronic pain, musculoskeletal conditions and posture and mobility issues. She is the co-owner and co-founder of Somatic Movement Center in Watertown, MA. Sarah’s passions are helping people work with the underlying causes of their pain and teaching them how to get rid of their pain for life. Follow Sarah on Twitter @movepainfree and reach her through www.somaticmovementcenter.com.


Editor: Jayleigh Lewis

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