Let’s start with a basic truism. Every thought that you have is electrical impulses moving through that gray matter called a brain. That means, I’m sorry to tell you, that — Thoughts Are Not Real.
So, what does this imply? First and foremost, every thought about the future is not real, only a possibility. I’m going to go even further and say that all thoughts about the future are fantasy. The future is imagined, and not real. Once you come to understand this, then this emotion called anxiety becomes a product of your imagination.
At some level, we all know this. You can imagine that you are having chicken for dinner tomorrow, only to find that you forgot to thaw out the chicken and decide to go out to eat. Every anxious thought you have is about something you think (believe) is going to happen. And how often are you right? Me, maybe 8 to 10%. That’s not very good odds. So, if my imagined future is inaccurate, why do I continue to do it?
My theory is that creating anxiety about the future, imagining problems coming, is a survival technique we have inherited from our ancient ancestors. Our cave ancestors used anxiety to avoid dangers, be they predators waiting out in the dark or strangers from another tribe. It was the fearful ones that didn’t get eaten or killed. So, anxiety was an evolutionary necessity.
At least it was. In our current society, there are few predators. Yet the tendency towards anxiety, by predicting danger continues. Anxiety causes stress. And stress is a killer.
It was 1936 when a young Austrian began his research on the impact of the environment on living things. Hans Selye, joined McGill University where he researched the issue of stress. He developed a theory he called general adaptation syndrome (GAS) based on experiments injecting mice with extracts of various organs
Noticing that people with different diseases exhibit similar symptoms, he described what he saw as effects of “noxious agents. He later coined the term “stress”, which became universally recognized.
Selye discovered and documented that stress differs from other physical responses in that stress is evident whether one receives good news or bad, whether the result was positive or negative. He called negative stress “distress” and positive stress “eustress”. The system whereby the body copes with stress, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis) system, was also first described by Selye. He also pointed to an “alarm state”, a “resistance state”, and an “exhaustion state”, largely referring to glandular states. Later he developed the idea of two “reservoirs” of stress resistance, or alternatively stress energy.
John W. Mason, of the Walter Reed Institute of Research, challenged Selye’s ideas. Mason was convinces that the rats were not impacted by external substance, but rather, they were upset. It was their reaction to the experiment, their stressful response, that was the change Selye had been measuring. From this research, duplicated over and over again, it became clear that this concept of stress was psychological, rather than physical.
Selye was clear that psychological stress is not directly created by external events, but instead by the anxiety/negative emotions surrounding a situation, such as pressure, discomfort, etc., which people then deem “stressful”. Humans experience stress, or perceive things as threatening, when they do not believe that their resources for coping with obstacles are enough. Thus, stress becomes the responsibility of the individual. This is the first of many steps on our path to freedom and serenity.
How do you respond to the daily stress of life? This would be a good time to inventory some of your favorite ways of dealing with the pressures you feel from day to day.
Hans Selye wrote The Stress of Life (1956), From Dream to Discovery: On Being a Scientist (1964) and Stress without Distress (1974). He worked as a professor and director of the Institute of Experimental Medicine and Surgery at the Université de Montréal. In 1975 and 1979 respectively, Dr. Selye and eight Nobel Laureates founded the Hans Selye Foundation and the Canadian Institute of Stress.