Stress & Wellness: Understanding Stress – Real or Imaginary?

By Emily Harrison Some years ago a doctor told me I had the equivalent stress of five sabre-toothed tigers chasing after me.

They were all in my head of course, but the state of stress and tension my body was experiencing was real - sabre-tooth real. Things had to change, but importantly my understanding and perception had to shift too.

Whether you call it stress, tension, or pressure, none of us are immune, particularly now as we can fit more into our lives and move about more than ever.

Sure there’s the type of stress that helps you meet a deadline or fuels a positive surge of energy to paint your masterpiece. The trouble is when we find ourselves in a perpetual ‘stressed out’ state. It doesn’t leave much room for creativity to flow when the body is operating in survival mode. Rather than pondering or manifesting brilliant ideas it is busy sending all its resources and energy to keeping you on red alert…just in case that sabre-tooth appears.

It all starts in the brain

What I found interesting is that stress starts in the brain. The brain is the first part of the body to respond by sending signals throughout the body, triggering commands to release stress hormones and put all stations on alert for action.

Which probably explains why I’m not one for scary films – it doesn’t matter if you are in the story, watching it on TV, hear it or read it – the body responds the same. The brain perceives it to be real and so it triggers the nervous system to kick start the warning signals.

It’s when you stay on red alert all the time that it can start to become a problem and do harm to the body.

Changing the stress perception

At the time of my standoff with the pack of tigers I wouldn’t have said I was ‘like stress, stressed’…under pressure yes, anxious and probably tense, but not obviously ‘stressed.’

I was perhaps (somewhat naively) under the impression that stress was a manifestation of my external environment. Things like work, relationships, time and finances. I hadn’t considered my internal environment, or my thought processes, as a caused-based trigger.  Or to put it in the words of Shakespeare ‘ …there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so’…

The empowering flip side to this is that if you can create it in the mind then you can also change it in the mind! Could my sabre-toothed terror be turned into a cuddly tiger teddy?

It’s also worth remembering that we have many distractions in our world which we can use, sometimes without even realising it, as a form of ‘dealing’ with stress or under the guise of ‘stress relief’ – alcohol, smoking, drugs, sex, caffeine, workaholics just to name a few.

Understanding the underlying cause of stress is just as important as the approach to managing it.

Changing the stress reaction and perception

For me I had to look at what some of the stress triggers were and then the way I was responding to them.

From here, the goal is to try and shorten the time and manner in how you respond to such events or situations. It takes time, it’s ongoing and it’s not always easy, but the outcome I’ve found is a more stress-free internal world, which is better able to deflect and deal with the circumstances of the external world.

Stress buster suggestions

Next month we’ll look at some ways to put the brakes on stress, but in the mean time I’d love to hear your thoughts on managing stress and any tips you can share?

Emily Harrison is a yoga teacher, writer and communications adviser with a passion for health and wellbeing.  She encourages people to discover the vast potential and possibility that lies within each and every one of us. In 2012 she takes a leap of faith out of the corporate world and further into her writing and teaching…you can read more at