Stress: there are three main categories of definitions: Stimulus Definitions; Response Definitions and Stimulus-Response definitions. We all experience different levels of stress, from entirely benign and stimulating levels of stress, or eustress as it is called, to high levels stress that result in strain and illness.
Response Definition: this approach focusses on the organism’s reaction to a stressor, whether this is a human or an animal. This theory was put forward by Selye (1956) who saw stress as being ‘the nonspecific response to any demand’.
From this perspective, stress is seen as a disruptive experience which can range from being mild, right through to being severe and long term, so that it ‘throws us off balance’ metaphorically, emotionally and physiologically. When this happens, we often feel we cannot cope and we experience strain.
Stimulus Definition: this type of theory focuses on external stressors. Occupational Stress, for instance, has been well researched and has been described as being the ‘negative environmental factors or stressors, associated with a particular job’ – Cooper & Marshall (1976). There are of course many other external stressors, such as violence, bullying, divorce, moving house and any type of change that we have to adapt to.
We can also create stress for ourselves through our mental attitudes and perceptions, the ways we react to the world and our own internal conflicts.
Stimulus-Response Definition: the interaction between individual responses and the environmental stimuli and stressors are the main focus for this view of stress. This has also been referred to as a Relational Definition of stress, with the ‘relationship between the person and the environment (stimulus) that is appraised by the person as… exceeding his or her resources and endangering his or her well-being (response)’ ~ Lazarus et al 1984.
Sulsky and Smith (2005) define stress as being ‘any circumstance (stressor) that places special physical and/or psychological demands on an organism leading to physiological, psychological and behaviorial outcomes. If these demands persist over time, long-term or chronic undesirable outcomes or strains may result’ ~ Work Stress 2005
It is the person’s response to stressors that most interests teachers and pupils of the Alexander Technique.
As individuals, we may not have much control over our external stressors but we can learn to have some control over the way we react to them and the Alexander Technique is one tool we can use to help us with this.
Our minds and bodies automatically react to stressful situations, with the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) preparing us for a ‘flight or fight’ response. Hormonal changes take place, energy goes to the heart, lungs and limbs ready for swift action. Sometimes we exaggerate this reaction through our thoughts and actions, or we may hold onto that state far too long and the way we respond to situations becomes a habitual. After a stressful event is over, we need to calm down and allow ourselves to revert to a balanced internal state of mind and body and sometimes we need to consciously help ourselves to do this.
However, if the stress is strong enough, or continues for a long period of time and we do not have the skills and coping mechanisms available to use, we may be unable to allow our internal balance to return and we experience strain. When this happens, the physiological mechanism of homoeostasis is thrown ‘out of kilter’ and is unable to function as it needs to and many people eventually become ill. At this point people begin to feel ‘stressed out’, to experience emotional distress and to get aches, pains, coughs, colds and digestive problems. The longer the situation remains unchanged, the high stress levels can lead to ‘burn out’, with possible mental and physical illnesses.
After extreme trauma, some people may experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD.
The Alexander Technique is a wonderful tool we can learn to use, to help us manage stress. We can learn to bring ourselves back to a quiet resting state and importantly, we can also learn to stop habitually reacting to situations in ways that disturbs our internal and external balance. In this way, we are more able to maintain our equilibrium in the face of difficulties, protecting our nervous system, mind and body in the process.