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In itself, stress is neither good nor bad. Rather, it is how we respond or react to stress-creating factors that makes the difference. Some people will respond to pressure or crisis with an increased sense of purpose. Others will respond with panic, denial, or fear. Faced with a deadline, one may find it spurs him or her on to greater creativity, while another becomes frozen into inactivity.
The difference is in our perception of our coping abilities. If you perceive a situation as one that you can deal with, one that excites your creativity and makes you feel empowered, then you will not have a negative stress response. But if you perceive yourself as being unable to cope, fearful of what is going to happen, and get yourself worked up into a sweat, then soon you will be displaying a variety of stress symptoms.
This perception of yourself is based on your personal emotional history. It may be due to past childhood influences and conditioning, beliefs, religion, or your social environment, but it is your perception of your inability to cope that causes the stress response in your body, rather than any external factors. That perception results in shutting down the digestive system, speeding up the heart rate, and flooding your body with hormones, without any direct physical cause.
However, the body-mind relationship obviously goes deeper than just how you perceive yourself in relation to stress-creating situations. What we find is that any emotion that is repressed, denied, or ignored will get stuck in the body. As Candace Pert defines it, “Your body is your subconscious mind.” And, as Caroline Myss says, “Your biology is your biography.” In other words, the thoughts and emotions you are not acknowledging, dealing with, resolving, or healing will simply make themselves known elsewhere.
“If a woman smokes to relieve the stress of an intolerable marriage, what is the ‘cause’ of her lung cancer? Is it a genetic predisposition? The histology of oat-cell carcinoma? The smoking itself? Her relationship?” asks Barasch in The Healing Path. “How thorough is her cure if she has a lung removed but does not change her marital circumstances, let alone inquire into the personality patterns that permitted her to cling to her longtime unhappiness?”
Such self-examination is not easy. You may prefer to believe that any illness you experience is entirely due to something external, rather than having anything to do with your own thoughts, feelings, or behavior. You may prefer to believe that it is inherited or due to a foreign substance such as a virus, bacteria, or pollution. Getting ill invariably feels like something over which you have no control, that you are simply the helpless victim. Despite living inside your body for so many years, when something goes wrong it can feel as if you are living inside a complete stranger.
Illness can make you feel disconnected, unable to understand how this stranger works or why it has stopped working. However, the more deeply you look into the causal chain of illness, the further you go beyond the more obvious, physical reasons, to ever more subtle layers of nonphysical, psycho-emotional connections. To help you start this process within yourself, try doing this body awareness review.
Body awareness review
Over the next week, practice watching the physical effects in your body of different situations, thoughts, or feelings. You may want to note these physical changes in a diary.
Be aware of times when you are irritated or frustrated. Take note of where you are experiencing those feelings in your body. If you are stuck in a traffic jam, a client is late for an appointment, or the children keep interrupting your conversation, what happens to your breathing, shoulders, back, or stomach?