Good stress motivates and mobilizes to action. Bad stress, of the pathological kind, ambushes and attacks with vicious relentlessness. Its favorite areas of attack are self-esteem, self-assessment and analytical abilities as they relate to past experiences, present situations, and expected outcomes. When stress strikes, the past can become a repository of bad precedents, the present a bleak landscape of dangers, and the future a (seemingly) real possibility of annihilation. Sounds exaggerated? Yes, when stress is at manageable levels. However, in the presence of a real or perceived grave stressor, one’s abilities to cope with or respond to the challenging situation can become severely impaired, leading to three possible outcomes: flight or running away from the stressor, fight or direct confrontation, or the glacial paralysis of freeze.
Can we prepare for a stressor of significance, e.g. a major financial loss, with any degree of success? If so, what needs to happen before the stressor occurs? What mental/physical preparation can one make?
A great planning tool is the ability to anticipate one’s own reactions, by getting to know them well enough so that they do not become stressors in themselves. A good example of this is the anticipation of the feeling of panic, chest constriction, shortness of breath, increased heart rate, and sweating that can occur upon first learning of a stressful event. The very fact of knowing that these physiological reactions will take place, and allowing them to happen as a natural and perfectly understandable mobilization response in the face of a threat to our well-being, is beneficial. If on the other hand, we find ourselves unprepared for our body’s reaction and think that maybe we are having a heart attack and start worrying about it, the natural stress reaction becomes a stressor in itself. At this point, a curious if not terrifying phenomenon may occur, the “panic attack”.
The panic attack is about as close to anticipating imminent death as one can get, without anyone else’s intervention (no one else needs to be present), without any real physical danger (it can strike a person comfortably seated in his or her favorite recliner), and without any clinical danger of death. When it reaches a certain level, a panic attack may trigger a loss of consciousness through hyperventilation (prolonged shallow breathing) and this usually resolves it by momentarily taking the brain out of the picture. The body returns to its homeostasis. When the person comes to, the panic attack is gone just as suddenly as it came. Exhaustion is not infrequent at this stage, as a panic attack can be a real workout for the heart and muscles.
A workable alternative to a stress attack is the anticipatory acceptance of the stress reaction. Allowing the body to react, in concert with the mind, to a situation that may objectively warrant fear, sadness or worry is not only strategically sound, it is also physiologically healthier. Just as courage is not the absence of fear, rather, it is simply good fear management—allowing a naturally-occurring biopsychic response to a stressor is simply good stress management.
The reaction to a stressor thus ceases to be a source of stress. It remains as a light on the dashboard signaling that something requires our attention. Properly addressing the need signaled by the stress response does not consist in shutting off the light or ignoring it—this will not produce a good response to the situation, logic tells. Yet, many situations that cause stress (blinking amber or even red) go unattended and are allowed to worsen because it seems to make more sense, at least at some pathological level, to simply do nothing and hope for the stressor to somehow resolve itself. In chronic stress, when the dashboard glows unattended for weeks, months or years, the stress itself becomes an illness with psychological and physical impairment.
Thus, the key to successful stress management is not in denying or attempting to prevent the stress reaction (our natural reaction), rather it is in what we do next (our chosen response). After the initial physical reaction ebbs and subsides and the heart rate naturally returns to near-normal levels, the real stress management response has a chance to begin. This response may consist of diverse and specific steps that can be taken to address the stressor, depending on the situation, the individual’s available resource, and time and place factors.