The messages provided by the stress reaction that something is wrong, or dangerous, or simply requires our attention are often very powerful, even debilitating. Just think of the feeling we get in our gut (seat of the enteric nervous system) when something is not quite right. Even though we might not identify the threat right away, the stress signal activates our body’s defense almost instantaneously and we become fully alert. In the absence of a clearly identifiable threat, or upon identification of a threat that we cannot immediately escape, we may choose to treat stress itself as if it were the enemy. The common phrase, “I have too much stress” should in fact be restated as, “I have people, situations or circumstances that are an emotional, physical or mental threat to my well-being.”
Turning off the stress alert system is possible, especially with the use of powerful drugs or alcohol, at least for time. In fact, this amounts to unscrewing the warning lights on a dashboard so as not to be bothered by what they signal. The stress messenger conveys valuable information in the form of neural signals (mediated by the limbic system), sensations, and subjective feelings. The messenger does its job, the way it should, to ensure our survival. Nevertheless, the repeated stress signals may rise to a high and uncomfortable level of intensity, depending on the perceived dangerousness of the situation. That noxious feeling of being stressed is trying to give us a priority notification, to make sure that certain signals (which represent an important message) grab our full attention. Refusing to heed the signals of stress, or simply shutting them off or ignoring them, is not an appropriate response.
The best use we can make of stress messages is twofold:
- Use its intensity and the timing of its occurrence to become aware and acknowledge that a psychological or physical threat exists, and gauge its significance. For example, an immediate physical danger will elicit a more immediate and dramatic body reaction than a psychological threat that may occur in the future.
- Identify and address the cause of the stress reaction (which is usually accompanied by more or less severe anxiety) and focus our attention on it, with the aim of confronting, reducing or eliminating the stressor. For example, in a relationship that isn’t quite working the way it should the stress signal is the anxiety and worry over it, the stressor is that painful aspect of the relationship that needs to be confronted, reduced or eliminated.
In short, stress is the message, the stressor is its cause. It is much more productive to focus our efforts on the stressor, rather than just unscrew and throw out the red light bulb.