When we are under stress, our adrenal glands secrete cortisol to prepare our bodies for dealing with a threat. This works well in the short or medium term, when there is an actual physical threat. Unfortunately, our modern way of living, with constant exposure to stresses big and small, leads to a constant output of cortisol, with detrimental effects on our health.
Our bodies cannot distinguish between an actual threat and the thought about a stressful situation – both lead to the same secretion of stress hormones and cascade of responses in the body.
It is also not necessarily about the outside circumstance, but about our perception of it. When we feel that a situation is out of our control, that we are powerless to take action to change it, we experience greater distress. For example, if we feel we are being treated unfairly by someone in a position of power over us, and that we cannot address or change the situation, it may lead to a greater sense of distress.
Does this mean we are doomed to suffer, that we remain powerless in the face of capricious fate? After all, despite our best efforts, we cannot control how life treats us. Not necessarily. We do have control of our perception of a situation, and consequently of our response to it.
This does not mean that we try ever harder, and ultimately unsuccessfully, to control every aspect of our lives. It does mean that we can learn to notice our reactions to situations as they arise. There is usually a physical sensation, somewhere in the body, which reflects our response. It may be a tightening felt in the chest or the pit of the stomach, or a tension in the shoulders, which comes up. By slowing down a little, opening up and noticing this bodily sensation, we can use it as feedback of how we are responding. We can create a little pause, a little space, just to notice what is happening.
And in that space, we can gently ask ourselves a few questions, at first about the physical sensation. What does this feel like? Do we want to feel like this? Is it possible to relax out of this physical sensation? Simply staying with the physical for a moment often interferes with the cascade of responses which come up habitually and unconsciously in response to a trigger. And in this space, we are better able to respond appropriately to the situation. It restores a sense of participation and control and undercuts the feeling of powerlessness. While we cannot necessarily change the situation, changing how we respond does affect how this situation impacts us. More than that, our altered response does in fact change how the situation plays out.