Freedom from Stress

Free yourself from debilitating, damaging stress through a powerful array of methods for deep relaxing, releasing contraction, and stepping through and beyond unwholesome emotions

© Copyright 2008 by Timothy Conway, PhD



OVERVIEW

Walter B. Cannon (1871-1945) working from 1900-1942 in the Department of Physiology at Harvard Medical School, was the one who first (in his 1915 book: Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear and Rage: An Account of Recent Researches into the Function of Emotional Excitement, NY: Appleton) to coin the phrase “fight-or-flight” to colorfully describe stress-response which occurs when an organism perceives itself to be in a threatening, “stressful” situation. (We could use the expanded phrase “fight-or-flight-or-freeze” to more fully describe the stress syndrome). Cannon was also the first (in his 1932 book, The Wisdom of the Body, NY: W.W. Norton) to recognize that the human organism needs a state of “homeostasis,” a relative constancy in its internal state.

Hans Selye (1907-82), Vienna-born, educated in Prague, Paris, and Rome, and a professor of endocrinology at Canada's McGill Univ. and Univ. of Montreal from 1936 on, is the much-acclaimed “father of stress research” (19 honorary degrees) and the author of 32 books including The Stress of Life (1956) and Stress without Distress (1974). Whereas the word “stress” as used in recent decades tends to have a negative connotation, Selye used it neutrally, seeing stress as the common denominator of all adaptive reactions by the body. Thus it should not and cannot be avoided; nonexcessive stress is a natural occurrence of the body. A stressor is anything treated by the mind-body organism as a challenge to comfort, constancy or safety. Selye discovered and documented that stress differs from other physical responses in that stress is stressful whether one receives bad news (like the death of a loved one) or good news (like winning the lottery). He called negative, disease-producing stress “distress” and pleasant or curative stress “eustress.” In either case, stress, which involves the “sympathetic nervous system” (in contrast ot the parasympathetic nervous system), motivates us toward a state of dynamic alertness and responsiveness. Stress can be created by any agent or stressor, such as an infection or an insult or physical exertion. Exercise is a form of stress (mild or severe, depending on how hard we exercise), yet exercise builds up fitness and wards off flabbiness. Selye posited the General Adaptations Syndrome (GAS), the body's three-stage response to distress: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. Normal, active people undergo the first two stages frequently. Most of the time, the effects of exhaustion are reversible because of the body's (finite) reserves of adaptive energy. But one can, in certain circumstances, become maladaptive and suffer diseases of adaptation, which are medically detectable through blood levels of adrenalines, corticoids, ACTH-hormone, blood eosinophils, as well as blood pressure, brain wave activity, and galvanic skin resistance. A person can detect for themselves certain emotional-mental-behavioral-bodily signs of excessive stress: irritability, hyper-excitation, depression, a pounding heart, dry mouth, urge to run or hide or cry, inability to concentrate or think clearly, feelins of unreality, weakness, dizziness, low energy, nonspecific anxiety, insomnia, trembling or nervous tics, nervous laughter, stuttering, teeth-grinding, hyper-activity and restlessness, sweating, headaches, etc. Selye saw that prolonged stressors lead not only to wear and tear, but can also lead to sudden or gradual death from various disstress-related diseases such as cancer, stroke, cardiac conditions, or breakdown of other internal organs.

Selye did not stop with describing the neuro-biochemistry of stress, he also advocated a life of love, work and service (usefulness), eliminating egocentricity, discovering the causes of one's stress, keeping one's mind and body active, and coming to a better understanding of human motivation so as “to avoid the stress of conflict, frustrations, and hate, [and] to achieve peace and happiness.”

In the late 1950's, Drs. Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman led the field of cardiology into a study of what they later called “Type-A” behavior, which, in contrast to the “Type-B” personality, is characterized by overly-rapid talking, moving, and eating; impatience; trying to do more than one thing at a time; interrupting others’ talking; greater interest in results than in the process of getting to those results (Type A persons look only at goals, unable to appreciate the moment-by-moment path to reaching such goals); extremely competitive and judgmental (both toward themselves and others); aggressive, hostile, and short-tempered. By contrast, the Type-B individual is basically much more relaxed, process-oriented, patient, non-judgmental, fun-loving, and guilt-free. Type-A individuals are thought to be more “distressed” and more prone to heart disease than Type-B individuals.

Yet in the 1980s, Suzanne Kobasa, of the Univ. of Chicago, discovered that some people, even “Type-A” individuals, are more resistant to stress-- i.e., less distressed-- than other persons. They possess more of what she termed “stress-hardiness,” or simply hardiness. She found out that people can still have low incidence of illness even in “high-stress” positions if 1) they are much more actively involved in and dedicated to their work and social lives (that is to say, “committed”); 2) they are more oriented to seeing difficult situations as “challenges,” not disasters or onerous burdens; and 3) these people feel more “in control” of events, if only through the power of attitude. A “hardy” personality was found to be twice as likely to stay healthy as a non-hardy personality. Kobasa and her colleague Salvatore Maddi, who later co-authored the book, The Hardy Executive: Health Under Stress (Irwin Professional Publ, 1984), believe that hardiness—the attitude of commitment, challenge, and control (the "3 C's")-- is a personality trait that can be taught to people.

The field of stress management has generated various other “methods” to alleviate debilitating, harmful forms of stress.

Dr. Edmund Jacobson (1888-1983), trained at Harvard University, with an M.D. in internal medicine, psychiatry, and physiology, one of the fathers of psychosomatic medicine and biofeedback as well, developed his famous “progressive relaxation” method as a means to counter stress in the body. The technique is as follows: slowly go through each major muscle group in each area of the body and first tense the muscle (so as to exaggerate the tension and make it clear to you what you are doing muscularly to create the tension) and then relax the muscle. Eventually you will learn to feel in your daily life how and when you are tensing your muscles, and you will find it easier to then relax them, because you will know that it is in your conscious power to tense or relax your body. (For more information, see Jacobson's two most famous books, Progressive Relaxation [Univ. of Chicago Press, 1929], based on 20 years of scientific research, and his most popular work, You Must Relax [1934 and reprints] for the general public.)

In 1932 the German psychiatrist Dr. Johannes Schultz, with his colleague Dr. W. Luthe, published his book on a method he had developed, “Autogenic Training” as an effective means to alleviate many stress-induced psychosomatic disorders. (Their work was published in an English-language edition in 1969 as "Autogenic Therapy," republished in 2001 by the British Autogenic Society.) Schultz' technique is very simple: slowly go through each major muscle group and mentally or subvocally suggest to yourself a few times (in the manner of auto-hypnosis) palpable feelings of “heaviness and warmth” so as to have these muscles fully relax. The only muscles continuing to noticeably function will be the muscles involved with breathing (i.e., the diaphragm and chest muscles). It is the experience of most people that the word “heaviness” cues a deep muscular stillness and tranquility, while the word “warmth” stimulates greater flow of blood, oxygen, nutrients and energy.

Albert Ellis (1913-2007) helped pioneer the field of cognitive therapy in developing his “Rational Emotive Therapy.” This challenges people's irrational belief-systems, such as, “Work is necessarily distressing,” and replaces these with rational beliefs: e.g., “I have the choice to feel that work is distressing or not.” Other irrational belief systems include the idea that “everyone should like me”; “I must never fail and should be able to do everything well”; “if something bad happens, I must worry about it”; and “people and things should be different from how they are.” Ellis posits life's “ABC's,” which are, in any situation: A) the activating event--the neutral, simple given fact of experience; this is followed by B) our belief, rational or irrational, about the activating event; and our belief determines C) our emotional reaction to the event (happy, sad, amused, angered, afraid, etc.). We can eliminate negative emotional reactions and stress in the face of various activating events by maintaining rational beliefs­—not irrational beliefs­—about such events. Ellis and other cognitive therapists like Aaron Beck are teaching people to correct defective thinking or negative attitude with healthy thinking or positive attitude.

Positive self-talk,” a less formal approach than cognitive psychology, has been promoted in the last century by all sorts of people, from Dale Carnegie (1888-1955, How to Win Friends and Influence People, 1937, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, 1948, etc.) to Norman Vincent Peale (1898-1993, The Power of Positive Thinking, 1952, etc.) to Dennis Waitley (The Psychology of Winning, 1985, etc.), and countless others.All of this is based (consciously or unconsciously) on earlier positive thinking and healthy attitude strategies promoted by the New Thought churches of the late 1800s (i.e., Christian Science, Unity, Religious Science, Divine Science), and, long before that, by various pre-modern, medieval, classical and ancient sages of East and West. Positive self-talk replaces negative self-talk (e.g., judging oneself and others, worrisome or catastrophic thinking) by simply “looking on the bright side” of life, and learning to comment subvocally to oneself in a consistently uplifting, optimistic manner, no matter what the situation may bring.

Guided fantasy, developed by Roberto Assagioli (1888-1976, founder of Psychosynthesis) teaches people how to use their nonverbal brain hemisphere (the right hemisphere in right-handed people) to image pleasant, relaxing scenes (beaches, forests, meadows) and thereby cut down on stress by eliciting the relaxed state which our muscles “remember” from the time we experienced such relaxation.

“Image-rehearsal,” a “behavioral modification technique” from the field of Behavioral Psychology, is another strategy for dealing with stress. Basically, you visualize yourself staying relaxed in a potentially stressful situation, and handling the situation successfully. When the situation actually comes to pass, you can more easily slip into the relaxed state that you have practiced in advance.

Robert Alberti and Michael Emmons wrote the books, Stand up, speak out, talk back (1975), and Your Perfect Right: Assertiveness and Equality in Your Life and Relationships (now in a 9th edition), which popularly launched the “assertiveness training” discipline, though it was rooted in the women's movement of the 1960s, when women were encouraged to stand up appropriately for their rights in their interactions with others, particularly as they moved in greater numbers into graduate education and the workplace. Assertiveness, the attitude of respecting the needs and feelings of both yourself and others, is essential if you are to avoid, on the one hand, the pitfalls of self-destructive passivity and submission to stressful demands (which is disrespectful to yourself), and “other-destructive” aggression (disrespectful to the other person) on the other hand. Thus, assertiveness training is a form of behavioral therapy, especially using body language and verbal communication, to helping persons learn strategies for identifying and acting on their desires, needs, and opinions while remaining respectful of other persons.

Time-management is considered crucial to prevent hurrying and to prevent an “overwhelming” amount of low-priority items from causing you to feel weighed under by a psycho-physiological “burden.”

Healthy nutrition is a major “ingredient” in stress management. The main insight here is that you must radically reduce all saturated fat, simple sugars (sugar, high fructose corn syrup, etc.), salt, alcohol, caffeine, red meat, and overly processed foods (white bread, white flour, etc.). Eat plenty of fruit, vegetables, and natural carbohydrates (whole grains), nuts, seeds and healthy oils (from olive oil, avocados, etc.). You also do well not to eat too much at any one sitting, and to not eat anything within two hours of going to sleep at night.

Regular, proper and safe exercise is another major factor connected with low stress and heightened well-being. You should regularly (minimum: three times per week) get a good cardiorespiratory aerobic workout. In each workout spend at least twenty minutes exercising at 70-85% of your maximum heart-rate­-taking care not to exercise too strenuously, and also taking care to warm-up and “cool-down” before and after the period of aerobic exercise. (Note: Max. heart rate = 220 minus your age in years.)

Meditation is being recommended by an increasing number of people in the field of stress-management. There are numerous forms and styles of meditation available, and you can carefully explore these practices to find one which is truly enjoyable and beneficial for you. Such meditation practices include reciting a sacred syllable or prayer or mantra, contemplating spiritual truths, gazing at an inspiring or “centering” visual object, staying with sensations associated with the natural rise-and-fall of the breath, unattachedly noticing (witnessing or being mindful of) the play of sensations-emotions-thoughts-memories.

A special kind of meditation or contemplation, going back to our most ancient wisdom texts, the oldest Upanishads of India (c.800 BCE), is self-enquiry along the line of contemplatively asking, “Who or What am I?”; “What is this Absolute Awareness that is aware of the mind's contents, the body's sensations-energies?”; “What is this deep-down sense of changelessness amidst all changing phenomena?” “What is the unseeable Seer of seeing, the unhearable Hearing of hearing, the unfeelable Feeler of feeling, the unthinkable Thinker of thinking, the Host for all "guest-like phenomena?” Such self-inquiry practice allows a profound, prior-to-the-mind Intuition (Divine Gnosis/Jnana/Prajna) to realize that we are NOT a thing, an entity, or a target for distress or trouble, but are, in fact, the very Principle of Peace, Bliss, Freedom and Power.

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What creates stressful living?

The latest research has shown that the much-dreaded “life changes” (new job, divorce, death of loved one, and so on) do not create stress in and of themselves. It has also been demonstrated that a very difficult job-situation does not necessarily create stress. And whereas problems with physical health may cause tremendous pain, discomfort or inconvenience, these physical problems in themselves do not create stress.

What, then, creates stress?

Alas, you create stress, through feeling and believing that 1) you are a limited personal "entity" or "thing"; and 2) you are powerless to maintain competency and well-being in given circumstances. Stress is the disturbing experience of perceived powerlessness of a "me" in any situation. It is the sense that there is a big "something" outside yourself which has the power to make you feel overwhelmed, fatigued, sorrowful, angry, frustrated, nervous or inept.

In giving up your power to what you perceive as a threatening external entity or environment, you feel overly-vulnerable as a fragile "self." Your mind-body organism in turn reacts as if it is under threat, and begins to churn or contract into a psychosomatic posture of chronic tension. Such a syndrome of agitation, contraction and tension brings the various stress-related psychosomatic diseases widely afflicting us: cardiovascular diseases, inflammatory diseases, ulcers, respiratory disorders, gastrointestinal upsets­—even cancer, arthritis, viral infections, and other conditions. These are all now considered to be stress-related.

Many psycho-pathologies or mental-emotional disorders such as major depression, manic-depression (bipolar disease), schizophrenia, and various forms of neurosis, even if many of them have a genetic basis, are known to be triggered in major part by a chronic syndrome of stress, which, in turn, is due to this limited, narrow, fragile and "thing-like" sense of self.

In the organizational world, stress surfaces all-too-often in the form of low and slow production, absenteeism, tardiness, alcoholism, imprecise work, poor morale, backbiting, dishonesty, and so forth.

Previously, stress management practitioners tried to “manage” stress through relaxation techniques, pleasant fantasy, positive self-talk, biofeedback, changes in one's environment, eliminating toxins from the diet, increasing the amount of cardiovascular exercise, and better managing one's time-schedules.

All of these strategies certainly help to mitigate the effects of stress, but they do not solve the fundamental problem and real source of stress: perceived powerlessness due to a sense of limited identity.

But there is a very effective solution to the stress problem. At RARE LEADERSHIP SOLUTIONS, as part of our RARE Training and as an independent seminar on its own, we have developed the STRESS-FREE LIVING modules as “the next step beyond stress-management.”

Our STRESS-FREE LIVING program utilizes some existing techniques in the field of stress management, but is mainly derived from original and/or little known psychological and spiritual research, insights, and practices which help an individual to live from an unlimited, open-empty-full sense of authentic Self, rather than limited, "thing-like" self. Thus one is empowered to take full responsibility for the creation of stress, and to actually eradicate debilitating stress by dissolving the problematic sense of false self or limited ego-identity.

Does this sound “too good to be true?” In our work, we have a different saying: “So good to be true!” We know that now there is a real solution to the widespread severe problem of stress.

STRESS-FREE LIVING works to help us become our own expert diagnosticians of personal stress by becoming exquisitely sensitive to how and where we hold stress in the body-mind, and becoming aware of the exact nature of our stressful sensations. We then become aware of how these sensations are actually being created by a three-fold process:

1) Subliminal patterns of negative imagery in the right-brain (or non-dominant) hemisphere­, our “visual psyche”;

2) Negative verbalization/beliefs in the left-brain (or dominant) hemisphere, our “verbal psyche”; and

3) Contracted psycho-somatic energy in our “kinesthetic psyche.”

We then eradicate stress by remedying these three causes through state-of-the-art techniques of cognitive therapy, visualization, and energy exercises. We complete the STRESS-FREE LIVING process with the "owning" and integrating of all released energy, experienced as a much greater sense of Aliveness. Last but not least, through radical forms of self-inquiry and Self-Realization, we realize the birthless-deathless Awareness or spiritual nature of our Real Being.

For a free consultation on how our STRESS-FREE LIVING program or The RARE Training seminar (provided by RARE LEADERSHIP SOLUTIONS) can serve you and your organization, please contact:

Timothy Conway222 Meigs Road #8Santa Barbara, CA 93109(805) 564-2125email: t.conway1@cox.net

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TECHNOLOGICAL / ELECTRONIC AIDS TO STRESS FREEDOM

In the last few decades, a variety of gadgets have become available for helping people enter more relaxed, peaceful states. Until recently, almost all of these devices worked by slowing down the brain waves, as measured by EEGs or electro-encephalograms. Whereas most people function throughout their day in a somewhat frenetic "beta wave" mode, it was discovered in the 1960s and 1970s that one could use meditation and/or visualization skills to slightly slow those brain waves down to "alpha wave" patterns. This was the usual way of "de-stressing" a person, and the technological aids and gadgets that were developed in the 1980s and 1990s worked to entrain one in alpha-brainwave activity. In the San Francisco Bay Area and other trendy places, some "mind-fitness gyms" began to arise: people could enter these places and experience specialized mini-environments and/or connect to certain "brain machine" technologies taking the form of special goggles or headgear. The person was subjected to various visual and/or auditory patterns of light-sound stimulation to promote alpha waves, or even slower, more deeply rhythmic brain-wave activity-- the theta- and delta-wave patterns.

Moving down from the brain, over the last 15 years, pioneering work has been done by Doc Childre, founder of the Institute of HeartMath (IHM), and his colleagues on the relationship between Heart Rate Variability (HRV), stress and emotions. Childre and others have found that stress creates incoherence or disorderliness in our heart rhythms. By contrast, when we are flowing in a smoother state of heart-rhythm coherence, our nervous system, heart, hormonal and immune systems are working efficiently and we feel good emotionally.

Childre and a team of scientists and engineers at Quantum Intech (where Childre is CEO), using the HeartMath Institute's research findings, have developed a small, lightweight (2-ounce), medical-grade device, the emWave Personal Stress Reliever, to help people reduce stress and promote positive emotions by increasing HRV coherence. The emWave Personal Stress Reliever lessens emotional stress by displaying-- via colorful LED displays and audio feedback-- our level of heart rhythm coherence (or incoherence) in real time, and guides us toward stress-relief by training us to shift into a coherent state for reduced stress and increase vitality, mental clarity and emotional balance. The emWave Personal Stress Reliever also comes with the Coherence Coach CD, an entertaining stress relief software application that teaches people the HeartMath Institute's "Quick Coherence® technique" for stress relief and increasing performance. The whole emWave package can be bought for $199, fully $100 less than a competitor's product, Helicor's StressEraser, a similar small (iPod-sized) biofeedback device that trains you to optimize your Heart Rate Variability (HRV).

Again, the principle behind these newer gadgets is this:Your heart speeds up and slows down in a wave-like manner, akin to the motion of a roller coaster. Heart Rate Variability or "HRV" is a measure of how deeply and how steadily those coronary waves fluctuate. Most people's HRV looks scattered and non-rhythmic, but this can be trained toward a smoother, more coherent pattern. Medical research has found clearcut correlations between a "deep and steady" or coherent HRV pattern on the one hand, and vagus (pronounced: (VÂ-gəs) nerve activity on the other hand. The crucial vagus nerve is connected to your body's physiological relaxation response, which is orchestrated by the body's parasympathetic nervous system. (The vagus nerve, the tenth of twelve paired cranial nerves, is the only nerve that starts in the brainstem-- within the medulla oblongata-- and extends, through the jugular foramen, down below the head to the neck, heart, chest and abdomen, where it connects to the viscera responsible for digestion and elimination.) The emWave or a similar device trains you to optimize your Heart Rate Variability (HRV), a measure of your body's relaxation level and emotional well-being, by telling you or guiding you on how to pace your breathing with your heart cycles to induce optimal HRV within one to several minutes. Such stress reduction, in turn, has been linked with better sleep quality, normalized blood pressure, and healthy function of our digestive, immune, and hormonal systems. Studies also suggest that HRV mirrors subtle changes in our emotional states. And what does optimal HRV feel like? Many people describe it as a great feeling of "loving appreciation," "deep contentment," and "relaxed flow," located kinesthetically in the region of the heart.

Many yogis and spiritual aspirants in our sacred traditions have discovered on their own how to access tremendous states of relaxation and positive emotions of love, bliss, flow and oneness by breathing rhythmically and deeply from the belly and up into their heart and chest, thus stimulating the vagus nerve and parasympathetic nervous system. Now, medical science and the hi-tech digital world have come up with a technological device to promote the same kind of "soul-full" breathing.

The product description for the emWave Personal Stress Reliever reads: "The emWave is easy to use. Simply place your thumb on the sensor or attach the Ear Sensor. After your pulse is detected a breathing pacer which synchronizes to your heart rhythms begins. As you practice the Quick Coherence Technique, breathing with the pacer while at the same time activating a positive feeling like the care you have for someone or the appreciation you have for the good things in your life, your coherence level (indicated in a large colorful LED) will begin to change from red [low level of coherence] to blue to green [high level of coherence]. emWave offers four challenge levels to help you sharpen your coherence building skills. You can change the brightness of the LED displays and the audio feedback level. Additionally, it incorporates an accumulated coherence scoring display so you can track your progress during a session and an advanced user mode."

Internet buzz on the emWave Personal Stress Reliever and, to a lesser extent, Helicor's StressEraser, indicates that these devices definitely work to create greater HRV coherence, less stress, more relaxation and calmer emotions and thoughts, with all the attendant benefits for improved energy, sleep, digestion, etc. Even experienced meditators who want a bit of help before, say, giving an important speech or presentation, performing artistically or athletically, or dealing with a major stress-challenge (deadlines, moving to a new residence, getting over a traumatic event, etc.), can benefit from having and using this kind of device. And, as one reviewer wrote, "It's also a great way to introduce your non-meditator friends and family to meditation."

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At RARE LEADERSHIP SOLUTIONS, we can "heartily" recommend the emWave Personal Stress Reliever, and promise that it will work even more effectively in combination with the psycho-spiritual "inner fitness" skills we have been successfully teaching to individuals and groups for decades.

May all sentient beings be authentically free of harmful stress, aversions, attachments and delusions!

May all be utterly liberated in Divine Love, Peace, Bliss, Freedom and Power.