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Too often people tend to interpret ambiguous situations as threats. They try to be vigilant and prepared in advance. How many people swear by the rule that it is better to be vigilant than to be ambushed? Joanna Zapała, clinical psychologist from SWPS University talks about the consequences of ‘all work and no play’ attitude.

The perception of the environment and the interpretation of cues play an important role in experiencing various events in life. Everything begins with a psychological reaction, which stems from your beliefs and previous experiences that determine the way your body reacts to the stressors. When something is perceived as a threat, a biological reaction, which affects your muscles, your brain and your immune system, takes place in your body and a sudden chemical imbalance occurs.

Natural Doping

Your brain quickly sends electrical impulses that activate the pituitary gland, which begins to release the adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) to the adrenal glands. Next, the adrenal glands activate your body, by increasing the production of adrenaline and other stress hormones. Your body becomes ready to act in approx. 8 to 10 seconds. During this time, electrical impulses, transmitted via neurons, send signals to the heart, the lungs and to the muscles and prepare your body to respond to whatever is coming its way. Some muscles shrink, blood vessels narrow, which increases blood pressure and impacts the blood supply and the toning of the main muscle groups responsible for action. The liver begins to produce glucose, which, as a source of energy, is required by your muscles and the brain. Your breathing becomes faster and the amount of oxygen in the blood increases. Your heart beats faster and pumps blood to various parts of your body. In this process, the less important organs, such as the stomach and the intestines are omitted and receive less blood.

Stress situations provide a natural doping. To achieve a similar result of increased strength and effectiveness, athletes undergo mental practice, which is helpful in defeating their rivals.

As the result, you may experience digestive problems, due to long-term stress. Your hands and feet also receive less blood to prevent excessive bleeding in case of injury – stressed individuals often complain about cold and sweaty hands and feet. Blood coagulation increases and the hearing and sight become more acute. You are ready to fight-or-flight. The length of this phase depends on your own assessment of the situation and the estimate of the perceived threats. Stress situations provide a natural doping. To achieve a similar result of increased strength and effectiveness, athletes undergo mental practice, which is helpful in defeating their rivals.

The best illustration of the capabilities resulting from a short time biological stress are stories of superhuman capabilities, for example when someone, in a life and death situation, is able to lift a car to save a child trapped underneath. The evolution has prepared humans very well, for this type of stress. Especially, if it relates to a physical activity that is immediately followed by a period of rest.

Things are completely different in case of a long-time psychological stress, which unfortunately is present in the lives of many people, nowadays. If you are apathetic, irritable, and annoyed; if you have trouble sleeping or concentrating and if you have a tendency to overreact to potential threats, you may be suffering from a long-time stress. Often, you do not even notice when and how you come to this point, because the stress has been accumulating gradually and imperceptibly. You get used to stress, like frogs, which placed in a room-temperature bath, do not notice that water is being gradually heated until they get cooked.

Change – the only sure thing in the world

Every time your brain perceives something as a threat, the stress reaction is turned on automatically. It is good to understand that your brain reacts the same way to real and to the imaginary phenomena. Therefore, the way you perceive reality is important, because it triggers the self-defense reaction. In other words: the perception of reality is as important as the reality itself. The good news is that it is possible to have a greater control of your psychological and physical reactions to stress.

To counterbalance stress you need some peace and relaxation. Your body is also well prepared to deliver this state. Just as the stress reaction is managed by the sympathetic nervous system (a part of the autonomic nervous systems responsible for stimulating the fight-or-flight response), the relaxation reaction is managed by the parasympathetic nervous system (a part of the autonomic nervous systems responsible for the rest-and-digest response, i.e. for improving the well-being of your body), which counterbalances the sympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system initiates the wound healing process, body regeneration process and it re-establishes the overall balance. Therefore your task is to create better conditions for the parasympathetic nervous system. Perhaps the time has come to plan your free time, instead of planning your work day?

The most important goal of your life

There is an old story about a very wealthy merchant, who invited a friend for supper. Throughout the evening, the merchant was telling his guest about his business ventures conducted around the globe and kept complaining about numerous problems related to his profession. He talked about the wealth he had amassed in India, about precious stone mines in Africa and about the lands he owed in his own country. “Oh, my dear friend, another journey awaits me soon”, said the merchant. “But later, I am going to rest. After all I have earned it by working so hard. This is what my heart desires the most. But first, I must make sure that the transport of minerals from Africa to India goes smoothly and that the minerals are sold at a good price. While I am at it, I will arrange a transport of myrrh to Europe, then I will transport antique furniture from Europe to Africa, because they are highly valued there. Next, I will ship raw materials from Africa to Scandinavia. From there, I will take glassware to Yemen to finally return home with a load of lumber. And then, finally I will have peace and quiet”, the merchant concluded with a sad face. “Then I will devote all my time to thinking and contemplation. This is my most important life goal.”

Idleness is not the devil’s workshop

Those who always postpone rest or feel guilty taking time off, raise your hand. Haven’t you forgotten what gives you joy and purpose in life? Has the free time become an obstacle, seemingly hard to overcome?

A simple method, such as planning your free time, will help you to modify your habits to include some healthy behaviors. However, it is important to treat your leisure activities, the same way like you would other important tasks that cannot be skipped. To begin, make a list of your favorite pastimes.

What type of activity do you need: intellectual, physical, creative, emotional or related to socializing. Perhaps you could study the history of your city or just sit in a sidewalk cafe and watch the world go by or you could choose wine tasting, hiking, playing an instrument or playing table tennis or maybe teaching your dogs some tricks. For low budget options, you could also check what your local NGOs or community centers offer.

Another way to reward yourself for a job well-done is a moment of rest when you reminisce about a pleasant experience, imagine a safe place, where you can be yourself or take in a few breaths of fresh air. Focusing on your surroundings, feeling the warmth of sunshine on your skin, admiring the whiteness of snow, smelling freshly baked bread or admiring an art piece, is also a good alternative. This could become your own gratitude and mindfulness practice.

It takes just twenty minutes of your time at the start of each week to plan your leisure time, which is the time for your regeneration and pleasure. Establishing a balance between your work and rest will help you to enjoy a better quality of life and to actively and consciously plan your leisure activities. Stress is an inherent aspect of your life, therefore it is important to know how to deal with it.

The way your body works

Sympathetic nervous system, responsible for the fight-or-flight reaction, causes the following symptoms:

  • slowed down functioning of the smooth muscles of the digestive system
  • relaxed gallbladder
  • contractions of uterus during orgasm
  • contractions of testicular ducts and seminal vesicles
  • stimulation or inhibition of insulin secretion
  • increased delivery of glucose to the muscles and the brain
  • secretion of tears
  • hair standing on end
  • sweaty palms
  • adrenaline production
  • inhibition of peristalsis
  • dilation of bronchial tubes in the lungs
  • increased arterial blood pressure

Parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for the rest-and-digest function, causes the following symptoms:

  • narrowed pupils
  • slowed down heart rate
  • narrowed bronchial tubes
  • dilated blood vessels (lowered arterial blood pressure)
  • increased peristalsis
  • contracted bladder
  • increased insulin secretion

The article was first published in the Polish edition of "Newsweek Psychologia Extra 1/16”.
Magazine available here »

About the Author

258 joanna zapala

Joanna Zapała - Clinical psychologist, psychotherapist, psycho-oncology expert and psycho-oncology supervisor. Director of the Integral Psychotherapy Center, President of the PSYCHE SOMA POLIS Association in Poznań, Head of Psychosomatics and Somatopsychology program at the Professional Certification and Training Department of SWPS University.