Understand the Difference Between Physical and Emotional Stress
If you’ve ever talked to a doctor about depression, then you might be aware that there is a difference between the common usage of the word and the medical usage. There is a lot of overlapping territory – as feelings of depression often come along with clinical depression – but in fact the clinical term is much more complex than that. Stress is much the same in that there is a common usage – usually referring to feelings of anxiety, tension, worry, etc. – and there is a term with a more medical application that refers to the functional and structural changes that occur in fight or flight. If your goal is to reduce feelings of anxiety, tension, or worry in life, I have certainly seen that change occur in those who practice the Fajardo Method of Holistic Biomechanics®. As with the two uses of “depression” there is significant overlapping territory in these two uses of “stress”. However, the emotional state is not what we practitioners of the Fajardo Method use as an indication of stress or lack thereof. Why? Because it is possible to feel anxious or tense when the fight or flight nervous system is not active, and, perhaps more importantly, it is possible to feel calm or happy when the fight or flight nervous system is active. This page will discuss further why that is possible and give some examples in situations when this can occur.
Nervous System State Is About Information Delivery
Receipt of information from sensory nerves decreases in fight or flight.
This discussion goes back to the concept of information delivery from the nervous system section. To summarize, the nervous system’s function is to receive sensory information from the afferent (sensory) nerves, process this in the brain, and send an appropriate motor response through the efferent (motor) nerves. Metaphorically, this is similar to receiving mail delivery (receipt of sensory information), reading it, and responding appropriately by paying bills, renewing memberships, etc. In fight-or-flight, it is advantageous to decrease the flow of sensory information to the brain so that we can continue to fight when injured. This is achieved through nerve compression, dulling of nerve signals by endorphins, and deconstruction of nerve cells. Examples of this reduction of sensory information include the tunnel vision that some report experiencing during stressful situations, which helps us focus our attention on the immediate threat in front of us, and soldiers who report not feeling battle wounds until after a fight is over, which again helps them continue fighting even when injured.
Because the function of the nervous system is to deliver information through the sensory nerves and then to make an informed response, having access to all information does not necessarily make you feel good. But it does make you more adaptive and responsive, which makes you more effective at navigating situations in life and keeping your body healthy.
An Example Of How Stress Can Create Emotional “Calm”
The book Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzalez gives a more concrete example of how this plays out in survival situations. In one true story, the survivors of a shipwreck are stranded in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean. Two of the survivors stop receiving information about their surroundings, illustrating poor nervous system function, to the point that they are not able to relate realistically to their situation. Though they are in the middle of nowhere, they begin having discussions about sharing sandwiches and cigarettes, as though they had them on hand. Both men end up getting out of the boat, one to get cigarettes at SevenEleven, and the other to go to the car, both completely unrealistic goals in their present situation. They are both killed by sharks.
In the midst of their fantasy conversation about sharing food and cigarettes, these men may have felt a little calmer than the other two in the lifeboat, who are still receiving information about their environment and are fully aware that they are in a scary, life-threatening situation. These other two, whose nervous systems are still taking in information about their surroundings, are adapting to their environment, formulating plans, and attempting to stay alive through practicality. For example, they cover themselves with seaweed for warmth, and they sleep in shifts so that they can be aware of the unpredictable behavior of the other two men on the boat. They are miserable, but also adaptive and responsive, which gives them a better chance for survival. Ultimately, they do end up living until rescued.
Stress Is Not An Emotional State
The fight or flight nervous system activates pleasure pathways in the brain.
These are examples of how you can feel calm, and still be in fight-or-flight, or how you can feel tense or miserable, and nonetheless be in the parasympathetic (or information receiving) nervous system state. It is also not uncommon to feel good or happy in fight-or-flight, which can be in part explained by the production of endorphins and dopamine, and the stimulation of pleasure pathways that occur in fight-or-flight. (This is discussed in some detail in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, referenced on the Resources page). On the other hand, with the physical changes and poor body functionality that occur in fight-or-flight, it’s also possible for this nervous system state to produce some negative feelings. The point here is that feelings or psychological state are not an accurate indication of the nervous system state.
Nervous system health, therefore, is not direcly about feeling calm or peaceful or reasonably happy. Rather, it is about maintaining the basic function of information processing and appropriate response. Stress management, therefore, is not directly about reducing emotional or psychological anxiety or tension, but rather about addressing the physiological mechanisms that are impeding information flow so that we are able to respond to life situations or issues of body functionality or health in the most effective way.
Working With Emotional Anxiety, Tension and Trauma
As discussed on the Why Is Stress A Problem? page, the stress response is designed to respond to physical danger, and is pretty helpful for those situations. It is not optimal for responding to anxiety, upset, or tension in which no physical danger is present. The Fajardo Method of Holistic Biomechanics® approaches the issue of stress from the perspective of the chronic over-activation of the physiological stress response. Therefore, one effective approach for cases in which anxiety, upset, or tension is associated with an activation of the fight-or-flight nervous system, is to de-couple the physical stress response from the emotional response. This is possible using the techniques in the How To Reduce Stress section.
This approach can be helpful for addressing trauma, in which a past situation triggered the stress response, and now all current situations that remind us of the past situation also trigger the stress response. In de-coupling the stress response, it is possible to evaluate the present situation (through effective information receipt and processing) based on what is actually occurring in the moment, rather than based on similarity to a past situation.
This de-coupling of the stress response also often enables individuals to be more proactive about troubling situations and to take action to change them if necessary (the motor response aspect of nervous system function).