What is Stress? An Experiential Example of Simple Stress
Simply put, stress is a biological response to overload. Think of our bodies, our nervous systems, our physiologies as finely calibrated machines with multiple inputs, and extraordinarily complex mechanisms distributed throughout the machinery to process those inputs. The processors are interactive, intricately interconnected with constant response and feedback. My washing machine has one input and 2-3 processors. It is “smart,” so it responds by matching the quantity of laundry with the quantity of water. It isn’t smart enough to know how hot to make the water or how much detergent is needed – you have to tell it. My cell phone is more complex: it has 3 or 4 sources of input with mostly single-channel processing of those inputs. It can receive email, you can key instructions into it, and it has a microphone and a camera for visual and audio input. For the most part, each “app” processes the inputs separately, except for the overall resources it is drawing from the phone (battery, etc.).
By contrast, our human mechanism not only has numerous inputs from the outside through our senses, but a powerful central processor that simultaneously handles and processes all the inputs automatically AND processes the information through multiple interactive filters – some of which include consciousness and decisions.
The Job Interview – The Easy Part
Here’s an example. You are a serious contender for a job and they have taken you out to dinner. With your companions you order a nice meal and a glass of wine. Eating and drinking occur through habit – no need to tell your hands to move or your mouth to open. Chewing and swallowing involves more automatic physiological mechanisms, not to mention the events in your stomach and digestive organs. You are looking at, listening, and speaking to your companions. Actually, as far as you are aware, that is where the action is, where your consciousness is focused. You want to make a good impression and you believe you are listening and responding to the content – what the job will require and whether your qualifications are up to snuff. The various parts of your brain that process that type of [thinking and analyzing] content is busy and active, retrieving the appropriate information and formulating speech.
At the same time, a larger part of your brain is on high alert, processing something even more interesting to your organism. Your eyes, ears, skin, smell are taking in social and emotional cues from your interactions, processing non-verbal and non-cognitive information such as the body language, tone of voice, and the emotions and felt-presence of the people at your dinner table. You sip your wine and feel a buzz. Your brain tells your body to override the buzz and concentrate on saying the right things. As the dinner progresses, you sense there is good rapport between you and your prospective colleagues. Your body relaxes, and now you don’t mind letting your mind slow down a bit.
So far, so good. No stress.
The Job Interview — The Hard Part
Then a latecomer joins the dinner table, someone key to your hiring, like the department head. Everyone, including you, becomes subtly more alert and tense. At some point, she asks you a pointed question about your last job, the true answer to which is “it’s complicated.” You know that response won’t cut it, and you fumble your answer. It is complicated and you haven’t yet found a way to talk your way through this in previous job interviews. In fact, this is the 3rd or 4th time you’ve been in this position, and the comparing and assessing part of your brain tells you that you will not succeed in getting hired now, either. With this “input” from within your own mind, a cascade of mental events is released. Visual images of specific bills that need to be paid come to mind. Visual image of your spouse’s face being told you didn’t get the job. Your mind projects forward and decides you have failed, although you are actually still in the middle of the interview and there is no real failure yet. The idea of failure – another input – activates another cascade of mental and physiological events that feedback on one another. Your imagination creates a future filled with unsuccessful job interviews. A different part of your mind calls up other failed ventures in your past and stitches them together to create a concept, which your meaning-making mind summarizes as “you never have, and never will, succeed.” You are providing yourself, and busying yourself with, a bevy of internal inputs. No need for a camera or microphone for the machine that is you. You are quite busy enough.
Although you are not customarily so harsh with yourself, at the moment the emotional tone corresponding to your idea (failing now), concept (failing frequently), and meaning-making (someone who always fails), is painful and punitive. With such input from your psyche, the rest of your body responds by flooding your body with hormones designed to respond to danger. After all, being a failure now and forever is a serious threat. Emotions of anxiety and fear escalate. Your gut cooperates by clenching and sidelining digestive process, to get you ready to fight or run. Your heart, breathing, and muscles get ready to do the same. You try not to, but you can’t help showing your distress to your companions, and this upsets you further. You want to put up a front of someone who is confident and relaxed, not tense and fearful. You feel you can’t control your facial expression, your negative thoughts and feelings, or the outcome of the situation, and you feel overwhelmed by all the things you wish you could handle during this critical moment, but you can’t.
This is stress.