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The Key to Stress Management: Perception

March 5, 2009

Danna Ethan, professor in the Health Education Department, says the key to stress management is how a person perceives stress.

In her course "Stress: Awareness, Understanding and Management," Ethan says "before you can talk about stress, you need to know what it is.
She helps students understand that stress is a mind-body experience.

"When you perceive something as a possible ‘stressor’—for example, an upcoming exam—your body may launch into a state of 'fight or flight '" she says.  “It starts in your mind; then your body picks it up and acts defensively."

The “Fight or Flight” response, which is a natural part of our autonomic nervous system, works well in situations when you need to escape, to fight, or when you need to react acutely," Ethan adds. "There are good reasons why we should want to react quickly to very dangerous situations."

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is a regulatory branch of the central nervous system that helps people adapt to changes in their environment. It adjusts or modifies some functions in response to stress.

Evolutionary Origins for “Fight or Flight”
Scientists are researching how the brain works under stressful situations. The brain contains no system for detecting pleasure, but rather is equipped to act quickly and seriously to situations of apparent danger.

According to Ethan, there is an evolutionary reason for this. Millions of years ago, our ancestors faced the immediate danger of man-eating animals, such as the saber tooth tiger.

While humans are still able to use this quick reactionary advantage of fight or flight, we no longer live in a world where we see danger at every turn. Our mind and body need not react and perceive that predatory animals are lurking everywhere.

Change your perception of stress
While humans do have the ability to regulate their stress levels, we don't practice it enough, Ethan said.

"If you perceive spilling coffee on your jacket as stressful, your body will launch into fight or flight," Ethan says. "I give examples like these to my students, and ask them how else they may perceive the situation."

One specific scenario she presents to students -- this one a bit more severe than spilling coffee -- is a death in the family. "Students ask, what's so positive about that?'" she adds.

But when students begin to think about it, they began to find answers: "We get to see relatives at a funeral that we haven't seen for a long time," one student remarked,” we share stories, and there's even laugher."

Ethan says stress management is really about finding these angles that are positive, even in supposedly threatening situations. “We find ways to look at these situations so that they aren’t all bad and we don't walk away awash in stress."

How difficult is to find the positive in stress?
According to Ethan, the process of changing perceptions is not easy.

"I've taught this course for four years and I'm still working on it. Switching a perception to find the positive is not something you can pick up like that," she says, snapping her fingers. "You need to apply it every single day."

However, students do grasp the concept. Ethan recalls the story of one young female student—a "hot reactor,”—who had the tendency to react immediately and negatively to any stressful situation. The young woman worked at a Target store and one day she encountered a fellow employee giving her “attitude.”

"Her first instinct was to talk right back to her colleague and chew out the co-worker," Ethan says. "She would have launched into 'fight or flight' and then may have stayed at heightened alert the rest of the day."

Instead, keeping in mind Ethan's suggestions, the student stepped back, took a breath, and said "How can I look at this differently?"

"Sounds like you're having a bad day," the student responded, according to Ethan. The co-worker immediately continued, but now engaged in non-aggressive conversation.

"That, to me, was just beautiful," says Ethan. "It's such a great example of perceiving a situation differently and acting accordingly. She tamped down the stressful situation before it ignited."

Constant Stress = Sickness
Besides wanting to live a less stressful life, there is another good reason to reduce stress--it’s to stay healthy.

"When you're in a constant state of fight or flight this wears your body down,” Ethan says. “What normally happens is that after the fight or flight response your body usually returns to ‘homeostasis,’ which is the ability of the person to maintain internal equilibrium or return to his/her normal state. “

"But if we don't manage our stress, and we're up there," she says, putting her hand above her head, "Your body gets tired, and that's when you're vulnerable to illness and disease."


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