The Phenomenology of Stress
There is no denying that stress has made its home in today’s culture. Unfortunately it is a well-known fact that stress is the fundamental contributing factor to the health problems plaguing the western world. Flip through pages of any popular magazine and you’ll find articles on stress –how to cope with stress, how to reduce stress and how to avoid stress in the first place! Research of this modern phenomenon revealed some universal symptoms: tightness in the body, a disorganization of thoughts, the mood of commotion, a staccato tempo and a pressure that threatens break us. Stress itself is like drug-pusher; it offers an intense high as a broker of compulsive activity. So what are we to do with this everyday life experience, and what if we could even allow for stress to be a valuable wake-up call and reveal the power of the soul to help us play like the sailor’s ship dancing with the wind?
Stress is broadly defined as a situation “in which environmental demands, internal demands, or both, tax or exceed the adaptive resources of an individual, social system, or tissue system.” (Monat, & Lazarus, 1991, p.1). During research interviews, all participants acknowledged two versions of stress: internal and external. Consider all the ways in which the world brings us circumstances which seem relatively out of our control: everyday situations like traffic, car accidents, missing a deadline, or life-changing events such as trauma and major losses like chronic or life-threatening terminal illness, divorce, addictions, domestic violence, death of a loved one, bankruptcy or job loss. These are external stressors.
Internal stress begins with an emotional reaction, which spirals into muddled, inefficient and negative thinking. Concentration is poor and the situation is replayed over and over in a scattered way. “The stronger the stressor, the more I dwell on the situation, to the point of obsessing over it,” said R1*. A popular movement in the dialogue for stress reduction is mindfulness-based therapies designed to decrease emotional reactivity in the face of negative affect-producing stressors. “When I can back off internally and remind myself that my emotional reaction is likely distorted by illogical beliefs and old hurts that are not necessarily being re-inflicted, it helps turn the cycle around.” (R1*)
With stress, all research subjects brought up the predictable arrival of playmates like anxiety, depression and fatigue. One subject named stress as the foundation and anxiety as an overlay (jittery thoughts and stories in an endless loop). “I'm floating out there in this sea of insecurity and I have no stability or safety net. The ground beneath me is moving. I want to make it all go away and hide from the responsibilities of the world.” (R2*) These co-occurring phenomena can hop from one to the other, in a loop which keeps the stress going and often cause more external stressors. The chain reactions go like this: I lost my contract job-> anxiety (my mind spins recklessly with worries about money) -> can’t sleep (exhaustion) -> in a state of panic I spend more time looking for new work than working on a paying contract -> can’t find work = depression. Although this may seem linear, stress more often is a complex and non-linear process that does not dwell in one feeling/experience for long.
Under any of these stressors, we can find the whisper of what fuels our desire to control our stress: fear. “Fear arises in the soul when change occurs more rapidly than our soul capacities can keep up with. We are pushed way beyond ourselves, emotionally and psychically, and tremendous stress results from this fundamental discord.” (Sardello, 1999, p. xxxiii) While sitting with the idea of control and fear, one subject realized her fundamental fear under stress is rejection and abandonment. This fear has playing a rapid ping-pong in her mind between the external situation and her internal battle about what could happen if she didn’t take action. Stress therefore motivates her to resolve conflict with others to be relieved of this fear. This raises a good stress management question: is it more powerful to regulate our internal emotional and thought reactions to stress, as seemingly insurmountable as they seem, than to try to control external stress?
Every research interview was loaded with extensive descriptions of physical affects from stress: our muscles tighten, our jaws and fists clench. We shrivel up. We shake. Rushes of cortisol shoot through arms to chest, bringing tension headaches, back pain, heart palpitations, even, for one research participant, a spastic right eyelid! “Whatever occurs in our environment, our body receives on a somatic level. There are no boundaries around the body and there’s no way you can protect yourself unless you go into a dark dungeon and shut the door. No matter what the mind thinks or wants, the body knows.” (Ray, 2008, p.107) The pressures, the weight, the tension, the load of stress… they all land here, in our body. “Everything is constricted. I get that sick feeling in my stomach that things aren't going to be okay.” (R2) The arrival of physical pains from stress comes with the desire to make it go away.
Universally, stress also alters our breathing. The breath becomes shallow, short and rapid under stress. The natural rhythm of contraction and expansion of the inhale/exhale gets disrupted. From this symptom in particular, we can again locate the driver underneath stress: fear. It is clear that “fear brings terrible discomfort to the body and acts on the very organs of the body. The moment fear strikes… our body contracts. We become acutely aware of our breathing, of the racing of the blood, of the pounding of the heart.” (Sardello, 1999, p. 36) Some research participants described their “survival brain” taking over, even “vibrating and zig-zagging black lines shooting through my brain.” (R5*) We know, on the primordial level, fear is essential for our survival. Fear triggers the "fight or flight" response, characterized by increased heart rate, breathing, and muscle tension, and thankfully allows us to escape from danger (as if to defend ourselves against a predator).
A more subtle shade of this survival fear shows up when we’re under stress with the phrase “running around.” But just what are we running from? And we’re running around “with our head cut off.” Even our thoughts are not quiet under stress; they are running too. It’s as if we are being hunted by stress. “So many things in the world impair our ability to face fear. Our senses are already constricted from overstimulation and excess. Our culture moves so quickly and efficiently, that little time or space remains for inner [aliveness].” (Sardello, p.6) Maybe we are living in a state of a masked terror, running around in circles trying to stay ahead one step ahead of our fear; our fear that even with our advanced high-speed lifestyle, we are just the walking dead.
One commonality in the stress dialogue is a sense of “pressure” (a term which is borrowed from the notion of pressure and tension from the engineering world – picture a suspension bridge with pulleys resisting stress in multiple directions). We are living in a time and age where things of the material /physical are what is most valued and considered real; and how we speak of stress parallels this directional / physical concept: we say we are “under” a lot of pressure, “under” a lot of stress or we ask “how are you holding up [under the stress]?” Some people say that they feel so much stress they will explode (like a volcano). Are we trying to control our stress for fear we might break under this pressure?
All physical structures have a load burden, and if the weight exceeds capacity, the structure will be compromised; and nowadays we Humans are the symbolic vessels for the weight of stress. Technology is the delivery method: globally there are nearly as many cell phone subscriptions as inhabitants– roughly one for 86 of every 100 people. “Stress is a reality in the contemporary life world and unique to the modern age… a characteristic of a world that is constantly changing, chiefly from the pressures of technological change.” (Kugelmann, p.163) Our smart phones are a lifeline; just sit for a few moments in a coffee shop and you’ll feel the nearly constant ping-ping-ping as people race from text to email to phone calls to Facebook and back again. All of this technology is essentially just facts and information, and all of it has to be categorized and stored somewhere, somehow. The accumulation happens so fast and in such a pressured way that could be felt as threatening – for where will we put all the information? How can we contain it so as not to explode?
“Interruptions have evolved in both frequency and nature from phone calls, instant messenger to a continuous stream of e-mail notifications and other electronic interruptions, mediated through a large number of technological devices that constantly beep and buzz... [and]these technology-mediated interruptions ‘steal’ resources and all of which lead to stress. ” (Tams, 2012, p.4650)
The proliferation of data has required that we expand our vessel to hold the information – but what are the limits to our expansion, and what are the consequences to adding more to our already heavy load?
The “pressure” aspect of stress also has roots in our culture’s relentless demand for production, delivery and output; we are a results-oriented culture and we believe that we must finish things at all costs. R5* agreed, “Stress always appears when I have a lot to get done.” Perhaps the beginnings of our modern day stress even point back all the way to the Industrial revolution, when the creative aliveness of a worker’s delicate hands was replaced with machines. Today, “everything becomes a task and the tasks crowd around – imploding space and time. ‘I’ am consumed by what ‘I’ must do. Everything costs time and energy... every action becomes work. Today stress never ceases.” (Kuglemann, p.17). These obligations for production force us each into a state of isolation; as complicit believers in the dream of free enterprise, we are each on the hook to survive.
There is one interesting contradiction with the aspect of production and stress. Stress can actually be helpful by creating energy that helps us to get motivated and take action. “Stress is not undesirable. In controlled amounts it is good, for it means that ‘I’ am productive, engaged, important, and useful, and not marginal, homeless… stress is transforming me into a primitive powerful being who overcomes mere human limitations.” (Kuglemann, p. 17) On the other hand, in excess, stress can hamper production, making it difficult to accomplish things; noted one research participant, “this is ironic because the thing that is making me stressed to begin with is being destroyed by stress.” (R5*)
Now that technology is inexplicably tied with speed, this causes our sense of time itself to be scarce. In particular with communication, we prioritize whatever requires the least amount of time and the least amount of effort. What once were reliable forms of creative, rich and alive communication (letter writing and social phone conversation) seem to take too many words, time or effort. If I need something, I not only need to know the something from you right away, but I can rely on you to immediately respond. “Everyone feels like he or she has to rush. We measure distance in minutes and a well-fed uneasiness persists. The complexity and tempo of advanced Industrial society have amplified difficulties in living.” (Kuglemann, p.2)
We are spinning and whirling, reaching wildly left and right, believing that accomplishing multiple things will get us “done” sooner. We have adapted to these pressures of time by organizing according to “clock-time, which has a disciplining effect on behavior, and the notion of progress.” (Kuglemann, p.156) In absence of having enough time to do it all, “The only rational act is list making. The list acknowledges that every action has the character of a demand, requiring the expenditure of energy and time.” (Kuglemann, p. 17) As we are making checkmarks on our lists and crossing off tasks, we are living in a mechanical and flat reality, and could be missing the richness of a more meaningful way living. “We can't be happy with a state of relaxation, because it means that we're not doing enough.” (*R2)
The daily bombardment of stimulation has created a backdrop white noise; just turn to the news station CNN, and you see not only the live broadcast, but a running ticker on the bottom of the screen with “breaking news.” The only way we can cope with this accelerated sense of time and tempo is to live “forgetfully” – and how we escape this great pressure and fear is to become numb. Research participants universally spoke of the need to numb: “I deliberately forget about good habits and tend to use eating as a pacifier, as well as zoning out by losing myself in a book or watching television.” (R1*)
We know that prolonged stress deteriorates our physical and emotional health, but it is actually our persistent failure to return to a more organic rhythm that is damaging our health and vitality.
“The change in our feeling of time – that time is now speeding up – results from an imbalance between duration and tempo. Duration decreases, while tempo increases. We pick up the pace, become hurried, have too many things to do, try to squeeze as much as we can into a day. The organic tempo that belongs to us, which balances us with the world, has been altered from the rhythm of the heartbeat to the mechanical pace of the machine and the fitful rhythm of the electronic world. With the ubiquity of computers, faxes, Internet, cellular phones, e-mail and global communications, the tempo of modern life has been accelerated beyond recognition.” (Sardello, p.70)
Consider the rhythm of our heartbeat; the heart has a pulse which contracts and expands, along with just a second of silent pause in between. There is both room for busyness and rest, and the in the metaphoric space of our hearts, if we listen to the rhythm closely, we discover a rich soul pumping here. We can imagine this intimate time-space of the soul, unlike modern “clock-time,” to have a texture of experience like twilight, dawn, with our lover, floating in the ocean.
Stress wears down the body’s resilience systems. The popular term “stress management” tries to address the way we can stop, and recover, a more natural rhythm which would allow for more space in our lives. “I am thinking that you come into my life to tell me to stop. When I stop and become still, you stop.” (R4*) While enormous amounts of data are available to understand the scientific mechanisms that trigger stress responses, tuning into our reactions, and working with them, requires a different kind of work.
STRESS MANAGEMENT: RECOVERING THE SOUL
Our modern response to dealing with stress turns into “management” (do a little more of this, a little less of that) and is really just an attempt to package, bundle and be numb. This stress management model asks us to sidestep the impact of this stress, instead of opening the door and sitting in the room with the depth of fear, tension and intolerable pressure.
Using the rhythm of the heart model, we could hear the arrival of stress as a call to action. “The effort-recovery theory suggests that people must invest mental and physical resources to deal with demands. This investment results in a depletion of resources and a need to ‘recover’; however, recovery will only occur if the depleted systems are no longer taxed.” (Dawson et al., 2011, p.5). So maybe instead of trying to complete projects, fix stressful problems, or be a superhero, we could work with stress to understand that this whole thing is a messy non-linear process.
In the return to an organic, primordial rhythm, we connect more to the pulse of the earth. The earth has its own natural pace and cycles of busyness. In the spring, everyone is busy growing something – look at the birds hurrying to build their nests, and the enormous energy little seedlings muster to burst up from the ground. In contract, in the winter all is quiet, all resources are withdrawn in order for deep rest and replenishment. The earth offers us a peace like no other, like the blissful feeling of floating in water, where we can receive a deep psychic and physical healing.
If we were heed the call to action, if we were to stop and sit with the sensations of stress, we might enter a fresh world calling forth a devotion to tend the soul. Thomas Moore writes at length regarding the care of the soul, and suggests that perhaps instead of trying to cure our worries and problems in psychotherapy, we could give these life problems more ongoing attention. “Our work would change remarkably if we thought about it as ongoing care rather than a quest for a cure. We might take the time to watch and listen as gradually it reveals the deeper mysteries lying within daily turmoil.” (Moore, 1992, p.19) Sardello also addresses the organic nature of the soul, and its predictable response to living in our stressful world;
“The soul requires duration of time- rich, thick, deep, velvety time – and it thrives on rhythm. Soul can’t be hurried or harried. It has to take in events slowly, ruminating over them, turning them into its own experiences. When the soul is instead bombarded with a rapid sequence of events that have little depth, fear enters soul life… this fear that ‘time is running out.’ It is as if the time soul lives in is a fluid, and it is being squeezed. For the soul to be deprived of duration and tempo takes away its capacity for expression in the world. We live in a temporal anxiety.” (Sardello, p. 71)
Paying special attention to our bodies, our breath, our fears can help to ease some of the pressures we feel. “I have noticed a dance back and forth between the contractive fear and the open expansion. I am using the feelings of contraction in my body as a reminder to relax, open, breathe, and let go into trust.” (R3*) We also might notice when we are reaching a kind of stress “burn-out.” We could look into the very nature of “burn” (like the catch phrases “burning” the midnight oil), and work with the simmering volcano that lies beneath the stress.
What if we soften and trust that relief will come in the space, in the silence? Perhaps the reason we don’t want to truly take a break from all the running around is that we would have to face what’s in the silence. What would we find there? “Within the body’s tension is an invitation for release. This invitation brings with it critical information: as we become more aware of the uncomfortable tension… we [can] find a boundary dissolving, [as we discover] a sudden, somatic fear, almost a panic, that arises.” (Ray, p.85)
The silence and space could reveal our fatigue, our failures and our shortcomings. Maybe we would have to face an aching need for a major life-change; maybe we would uncover some gritty sorrow from the roots of our past. To do this kind of soul-tending, we would let go of the linear problem-solving and approach this new sense of time to allow for recovery. Kuglemann refers to this as “empty time.” In fact, this new reality would actually be a return to something that is more familiar than foreign. We could take its cues and gain energy from creating more real, meaningful encounters and exchanges with the natural world, with our work and with others. If we can create time to wander in a goal-less, empty and quiet space, we would establish a rhythm that gives us more authentic and soulful way of moving in the world.
Kuglemann, Robert (1992) Stress: the nature and history of engineered grief. Westport, CT, Praeger Publishers.
Monat, A., & Lazarus, R. S. (1991). Stress and coping: An anthology (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
Moore, Thomas (1992). Care of the Soul; A guide for cultivating depth and sacredness in everyday life. New York, NY, HarperCollins Publishers.
Ray, Reginald A. (2008) Touching Englightenment: finding realization in the Body. Boulder, CO, Sounds True.
Sardello, Robert (1999) Freeding the Soul from Fear. New York, NY. Penguin Putnam.
Tams, Stefan ; Dissertation Abstracts International Section A: Humanities and Social Sciences, Vol 72(12-A), 2012. pp. 4650.
Pseudonyms - R1, R3, R2, R4, R5