For several weeks now, I’ve wanted to write about stress for this issue, and have enjoyed reading and thinking at a leisurely pace. Now, however, legging it on down, and past deadline, I am reminded of an old Fireside Theater routine: “And now . . . get ready for another game of BEAT the REAP-ER!!” (whistles, stomps, shrieks background). In other words, this is written in the heat of experience.

Concentrated or prolonged stress may produce widely varying diseases. Considerable research is being done on this, underscoring the dynamic relationship between mental and physical events, rather than the traditional mind/body dualism.


Although, according to the existing medical model, specific illnesses are recognized as “psychosomatic,” disease is commonly regarded as a result of injury by external forces, such as infectious agents, trauma or environmental toxins. While this is indisputable, stress researchers are interested in the puzzle of individual susceptibility: why, for example, do some smokers develop lung cancer while others develop emphysema? In a class of school children similarly exposed to the same respiratory virus, why do only some become ill?

Some people feel that stress may be the “cause of the cause” — that intense or chronic stress alters the body’s physiology and immune mechanisms, increasing susceptibility to illness. Thus, stress, focused on a target organ already at risk by virtue of genetic or environmental influences, might trigger an illness. If this is so, it opens new realms in preventive medicine. Early introduction of stress recognition and relaxation techniques as part of one’s daily routine could have a significant impact on health.

The stress reaction can be viewed as a chemically-induced altered state of consciousness. Everyone is familiar with the “fight or flight” reaction which may accompany sudden fear or anger: racing, pounding heart; tight stomach; rapid, shallow breathing; tensed back and shoulders; cold hands and feet; flexed arm and leg muscles; and a general feeling of intense activation.

These physical manifestations are the result of neuroendocrine alterations in the body, mediated through the involuntary, or autonomic, nervous system. Emotional alarm is perceived as stress and channeled through the brain to produce a physical response — activation of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system.

This produces direct bodily effects in addition to stimulation of the endocrine system, most importantly the adrenal glands. These glands control the secretion of epinephrine and norepinephrine, which continue and intensify the physiological activation. This sequence of events is outlined in the accompanying chart.

Clearly, stress reactivity involves profound alteration of normal physiology, which, continued over time, might endanger health. For example, prolonged vasoconstriction may encourage high blood pressure in a susceptible individual. Researchers are also accumulating data suggesting that stress negatively affects the immune system, which is the body’s chief defense against foreign substances (e.g., proteins, bacteria, viruses; perhaps tumor cells).

It is important to note that the stress reaction is a normal protective mechanism, allowing alert, forceful response to perceived threats. This beneficial adaptive response has potential for harm only when there is no discharge of the initiating feelings, leaving one in a chronic state of physiological excitation.

Techniques utilizing biofeedback are being developed to document the persistence of stress in ostensibly relaxed individuals, and to aid in the recognition of individual stress patterns. Dr. Kenneth Pelletier comments:

For instance, when someone is in low activation alpha state, he may manifest a high degree of involuntary muscle tension, contrary to what is normal in alpha. When this occurs, it is possible to predict that the muscular system is the one in which tension and stress are manifest . . . Likewise it may be indicated that the individual’s peripheral skin temperature is low when compared to other parameters characteristic of alpha. From this it can be inferred that the individual manifests his stress in the vascular system.

(Pelletier, p. 122)

Many people are interested in identifying common ongoing sources of stress which can acquire significance if they occur concurrently.

Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe at the Washington University School of Medicine noted a direct correlation between the incidence of illness and the clustering of stressful events. They drew up a rating scale, listing common life events and assigning them values, reflecting their predicted significance in terms of coping. Events which have occurred during the past year are checked and points totalled up. Field testing showed that people with scores greater than 200 had indeed experienced increased illness and the likelihood of illness reached 90% for scores of 300.

General cultural stress is as important as personal stress. This may be so closely identified with the “norm” that it is invisible. For example, there may be considerable fear and anxiety associated with daily news reports of economic recessions, ecological disasters, new military gadgets, international starvation and privation, and so on. The achievement-oriented, time-saving, intensely competitive lifestyle rewarded by our culture has been identified with increased incidence of heart attacks. Values pertaining to family and sexual roles are in transition and adaptation to this change may be a source of stress. The relatively recent devaluation and alienation of the elderly may cause anxiety in all who intend, as a friend says, to live out this mortal daze. The list goes on and on.

In trying to become more aware of my own reaction patterns, I have found helpful a visualization exercise described in The Well Body Book by Mike Samuels and Hal Bennett. They suggest you construct a Health Colors Chart, which can be done either in fantasy or on paper.

Imagine your body and all its organs and systems, including blood, nervous system and aura. The latter two can appear as concentric rings around your body outline.

Then imagine the color you feel is most closely identified with each system. If no color appears, leave the area blank. When the chart is complete, try to feel the significance each color has for you. Does the color seem rich . . . weak . . . laughing . . . loving . . . stagnant . . . powerful . . . warm . . . alienating, etc.? In this way you may be able to focus on areas of blockage and tension.

After completing this chart, imagine a Bright Life Chart. Here color your body in the most radiant, glowing colors you can imagine. Feel your creativity, strength, love and relatedness, and these values will reflect physically in peace, relaxation, joy and intimacy.

This visualization exercise points out the relativity of “reality.” We define “reality” in terms of personal values based on learning experiences unique to each individual. We project our separate realities reflecting learned values, and as a teacher commented recently, what is learned can be unlearned.

This premise underwrites the holistic approach to stress management. By identifying and working through present and past conflicts, which manifest as fear, anger, sorrow and pain, we can change “reality.” Old business can be brought to closure. Mind-body therapies such as yoga and meditation can help translate new awarenesses and harmony to the physical plane and break old patterns of stress reactivity. I vacillate in my willingness to accept responsibility for myself. But finally there is nothing I would rather do than grow into, and ultimately out of, myself.

     It was her voice that made
The sea acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang,
            the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker,
            then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and singing, made.

                                                            Wallace Stevens


Mind as Healer, Mind as Slayer. Kenneth Pelletier. Dell Publishing, New York, 1977.

The Well Body Book. Mike Samuels & Hal Bennett. Random House, New York, 1975.






Sympathetic nervous stimulation

/ \
Direct effects: Stimulation of adrenal glands
Secretion of adrenalin & noradrenalin
1. sweating 1. effects noted opposite
2. erect hairs on skin 2. increased rate and force of heartbeat
3. constriction of blood vessels:
abdominal organs
skin of extremities
3. increased cardiac output
  4. elevated blood pressure
  5. increased blood flow to heart muscle
  6. metabolism increased by 150%:
increased oxygen consumption
rapid respiratory rate
increased release of glucose to blood
increased tissue utilization of glucose
  7. faster coagulation time of blood
  8. increased mental activity

Reference: Guyton, Basic Human Physiology. W.B. Saunders, Philadelphia, 1971. ​pp. 497-502.