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Category: The Nature of Stress

The Bell Curve of Stress

The Bell Curve of Stress

Analogies to Know Series – Learn these analogies and you will know a lot about stress and relaxation

Shortly after the turn of the 20th century two Harvard professors developed a bell curve that has remained tremendously important in stress research to this day.

Their curve shows in very simple terms where our physiology is when we are relaxation or arousal. Our heartbeat, blood pressure, stress-related hormones, and many other bodily factors change whether are relaxed or stressed out. The curve doesn’t show any medical measurements because most body changes increase or decrease in a progression matching how much relaxation or pressure we are experiencing.

Yerkes and Dodson established that stress and relaxation:

  • Runs along a continuous path
  • We find ourselves somewhere on this path and we can only be at one point on the path not two, three, etc.
  • relaxation and stress are in a mixture nearly always, sort of a yin-yang setup. At points on the path relaxation is increasing and stress is decreasing. At other times, stress is increasing and stress therefore is on the fall

Beyond showing that we live and shuffle along a relaxation-stress path, there are locations that considered to be ripe for peak performance, where we are doing our best and usually feeling very, very good as well. Researchers looking at the psychology happiness find that people who frequently experience the peak performance points report higher levels of happiness than those who don’t

Peak Performance Peak

Now we need to take Yerkes-Dodson’s nice linear path and put a hump in it to form the bell curve.  At the top is the point of recognized peak performance.  It is a mixture of moderate relaxation with moderate arousal (stress).  If we are too low down on the peak, on the left-side of the peak, we have too much relaxation. If we reach the peak and start to slide down to the right, we have too much arousal. The sweet spots are at the top and around it. Flow, the special experience of sports people and anyone else who brings skill, work, and attention to the moment and focuses in, sits at the top of the peak.

So this means we aren’t chasing after pure relaxation and avoiding arousal.  If we pursued relaxation to its end point at the left bottom of the curve, we would experience extreme lassitude.  If we pursue arousal to the far right side of the curve, we would be in pure panic.

Yerkes and Dodson have given us a map.  We can always ask ourselves: “Where am I on the curve right now?”  If the answer is not where we want or need to be, then we can pull out a variety of tools to pick up our arousal or to tone it down. That’s where this blog comes in….showing you the tools to move you along the Yerkes-Dodson bell curve. Keep reading.

Wikipedia entry on Yerkes-Dodson –




Peeling the Stress Onion

Peeling the Stress Onion

Analogies to Know Series

Stress seems like such a simple thing when we first start. We know that we are stressed and we know the sources of our stress so we start practicing a relaxation technique.

With just a little bit of work we feel stress lift from our body, heart, and head. At last we are free….totally free.

If we don’t stop and we keep practicing, we notice things we had not seen in the beginning. Under the first layer of stress is another.  “This must be it, the final layer, no more,” we tell ourselves. We go after it and in time, we peel that one back.

All done.

If we continue to practice our technique and try others that will deepen our experience of relaxation we will find: “Wait!  This can’t be….there is more tension/stress!”

We have layers and layers of stress.

This can be seen as a burden, or, as I hope you will see it, a journey of discovery followed by a journey of work.  Discover one, work it to peel it and then go again to find more layers. This journey will be profound because with many layers, comes not only less stress, but heightened awareness, positivity, and creativity.

Find a handful of practices, practice, discover, and peel.


Soaring with Concentration (a.k.a. meditation)

Soaring with Concentration (a.k.a. meditation)

I maintain that it is important to demystify a lot of the ideas around stress-relaxation practices. Scrap away the mystery and we find that we already do many of the essentials of these practices as we go about our daily lives. What we need to do is polish what we already do, add a bit here and there and, boom, you’ve got something powerful.

Demystifying Meditation:  It’s Concentration!
When we think of concentration, we associate it with worldly concerns and worldly achievement. We think of students in the library, or a chess player, quieting sitting and intently staring at the chess board. Or a fictional figure like Sherlock Holmes intent upon unraveling the mystery wrapped in a clue. Perhaps a day-trader or a surgeon making increasingly delicate cuts, come to mind.

Concentration seems far from another mental state, meditation, but is it really?  Isn’t concentration the heart of meditation?

Concentration is a mental practice that burns energy, a heck of a lot of energy, around attending to something or things, and rejecting the rest.  Concentration is largely the art of rejection.

Let’s take a closer look at what’s involved. To concentrate (or meditate), we must:

-Build a mental wall
-Aim to maintain that wall
-Determine what is on our side of the way (what we consider is our object concentration)
-Set that anything that is not on our side of the wall must be rejected as distraction
-Remember all of the above rules and apply them constantly during a period in which we wish to concentrate/meditate

Meditation Using Concentration
The vast majority of meditation techniques employ the above rules of concentration. We may not think of it that way nor is it advertised that meditation sharpens our ability to concentrate, but that is what is going on.

Sometimes meditation  sets what we keep inside of our wall of concentration in very simple terms, such as the sensation of breathing felt at the end of the nose. As we breathe, air in, air out what anything but the sensation is kept out using our force of concentration.

Mindfulness meditation usually takes in broader stimuli, such as awareness of sounds, touch, or even the flow of thoughts. But, the wall is there and we reject everything else.

Highly complex movement meditation the Japanese tea ceremony or the long bow, takes in some movement and the implements of that activity (i.e. tea preparation devices, tea cups, and more), and the remainder of whatever else is happening outside and within is excluded.

A mantra, either spoken or articulated in the mind, again, excludes all but the mantra, or almost everything.

Candle gazing, places our eyes on one attractive point and excludes the surrounding landscape.

Concentration (a.k.a. meditation) – What we get out of it
At times a free, wandering mind is a great pleasure and can lead to creativity.  Most of the time, the wandering mind takes us to dark places such as past traumas and current ruminations around our worries. Anxiety and depression, is major or subtle forms, flourish in that soil. Also, we tend to think constantly and emote constantly. Nothing against thought and feeling but constantly? We overtax ourselves.

We can simply be ourselves, from time to time, and simply experience what is going on in the moment. Striving, worrying, calculating, slowly loosens, dissolves, and even can disappear for a time as we concentrate.

A long record shows that concentration can free us from worldly concerns, lower self-watching and therefore self-criticism, comparison-making, endless wishing for something else, impatience, and more.  When that happens, we are at last….freer than we have been in a long, long time.

The freedom feels like soaring.

Simplicity releases a surprising amount of energy and uplift that can’t be missed. This is probably our unconscious letting go and stopping all of the behind-the-scenes work it does for us and the energy comes free. 

The center of our attention—mantra, candle flame, sound, etc— becomes brighter, more alive, more relevant to us. We feel connected to the object of our attention, and for some unknown reason, we feel more connected to the larger, world.



We Need to Leave the Planet

We Need to Leave the Planet

The planet is our:

– social self
– self-image
– self-demands

The way we leave is not really by rocket ship; that would be way too fast, but through steady (and hard) work of learning to disengage at will. This work feels less like rocket travel and more like running in quicksand, at least for the first 1000 times we try it.

I might add here, getting off the planet does not mean permanently nor irresponsibly. I’m talking about leaving the world for 5 to 30 minutes or perhaps for a slow Sunday afternoon.

Our social self is the inner and outer connections and obligations we have to others, real and imagined. That can be from very real caretaking to holding conversations in our head as we walk down the street. We are more than our social connections and our social usefulness.

We are more than our self-image. That has mostly been thrown together in our early years from a little of this (what our parents and siblings told us), a little of that (what our grade school peers told us), and that (what media told us when we were teenagers). No matter how comprehensive or detailed, self-images are incomplete and inaccurate.

We are more than the demanding inner chatter that fills our head and hearts. Some of that comes from society, and some come from desires, wishes, and internal tendencies that press us without asking us.

Blasting off from earth involves determination to take a break from all of the above and to move into uncharted spaces. These spaces are us just being very simple and very open to the moment. Instead of turning to society, our self-image, or our inner demands for guidance on what to do next, we leave things ill-defined and just hang out in a more relaxed place. When earthly needs come up, we simply let them go and return to space.

Space is not empty in our experience. It is filled with a sense of: flexibility, freedom, ease, possibility, newness, simplicity, self-worth in an ultimate, grander sense, and more.  Space allows to be big again, not squashed down with the weight of the world we have just left.

What is Your Calmer Self-Image? How to Build One

What is Your Calmer Self-Image? How to Build One

We can pretty easily describe a metaphorical image of what we look like when we are highly stressed. For instance, we may refer to ourselves as a “wild-eyed, wild hair, raging beast” or a “racing tornado just like my mother.” Or we may see ourselves as a “warrior, battling the world.”

It is worthwhile to watch ourselves carefully when we are stressed to spot additional details of this inner character we play when things are not going well. This is not a casual, unimportant imagining of our minds for our minds take this stuff very, very seriously, indeed. The mind, and more specifically, the unconscious, loves this stuff. It is a primary fuel for our inner world.

If we run inner dramas of with us being a wild, barely in control character, we will live that role out. If our go-to role is the harried, I can’t believe nor accept us with every stressor there is no room and no experience playing a different role.

But there are many other roles we can, with lots of practice, learn to act out. We see them in literature and movies:

The Clever, Self-Possessed Hero – These characters range from Sherlock Holmes to James Bond, to Laura Croft.

The Wise Person – Usually associated with the wise, old male, this characterization of a calm person is not limited to men. Many wise women who can see the big picture, hold things in perspective, who are patient can also be found.

The Centered and Detached Sports Person – Think balance-beam gymnasts; professional poker players, golfers.

The Bounce Back Person – We find these not only in literature but in life; the person who goes through tremendous trials but comes right back and keeps on keeping on.

The Immersed Artist/Craftsman/Worker – These people immerse themselves into something finite but seem to get almost infinite vitality, enjoyment, and relaxation from what they are doing.

The Keep to the Simple Person – Look for literary characters who keep a simple life that stands in contrast to the people spinning, busily around them.

How to Build Your Inner Relaxation Self-Image

1. Find an image from the list above (and from your list) the clicks for you. Note, it doesn’t have to be a single inner character. Our stressed out inner image is usually made of a little this and a little that, so you can make your relaxation self-image a little this and a little that, too.

2. Imagine that self-image a little bit each day for a month. We are talking about a few minutes each day. Do this until you feel connected to your image and that it is very clearly in mind.

3. Bring your self-image up in stressful but lower stress situations and start to act as if you are that image. See what you discover.

4. Apply imagining that self-image to memories of stressful situations and see what you can imagine as how you would have responded as that sort of character.

5. Practice, Practice, Practice steps 1 through 5. It takes awhile to develop our stressed-out image, it will take time to develop an inner image we know can pop up on its own when we are facing stress.

Photo attribution info

Know Your Relaxation History

Know Your Relaxation History

Switching from concern about stress let’s look at the other side of the coin, at relaxation. What is your history of relaxation?  What I mean is what has relaxed you?  Do you remember? Do you remember several sources of relaxation for you?  I know, it is hard to remember, at least most of the time, what has worked for us over the years.  No time to look backward we automatically concluded, got to take care of today.

Seriously, what have been things, places, people, and events that have brought you peace and perhaps brought you very positive feeling?. Take your time, don’t rush.

What brought you peace, relaxation within the last six months?
The last year?
Over the last 5 years?
Ten years?
When you were quite younger?

Again, don’t rush it. You don’t have to come up with everything right now, think about adding to your list over the next few days but be comprehensive. Dig deep. Pull hard. Assemble your list of what has worked for you, whether it was large or small, still possible to repeat or impossible to have again, what did it for you?

Look at the list. What was it that gave you that relaxation? What were the qualities of the person, place, thing, event that had such an impact on you?

Which are your top three?

Can you find and experience them again?

Tornado in the Doorway

Tornado in the Doorway


I alert people to what they will experience once they start applying  stress reduction techniques to their most stressful situations. Frequently, things feel worse! How could this be? I thought stress reduction techniques work by cooling things down such as  stress hormones or our emotional brain systems. Cooling should make us feel less anxious, confused, angry, defensive, etc., right?

As beginners,  our anxiety can increase and our bodies can feel pretty bad. I think this happens for a couple of reasons:

  • We put some of our focus on how our bodies are feeling in that moment. Frequently when we are reacting to a high-stressor, we go to our well learned responses which can be quite separated from body awareness. We are thinking a mile a minute and our emotions are following familiar paths and forms of expression. Our body does not get its due even though they are very involved in the situation.  When our focus returns to our body we can feel our breathing is off, or our bodies are pumped up with stress hormones, or our hands are shaking and more.  That doesn’t feel good at all.
  • We split our focus from just what’s happening to working our technique.  That’s a heck of lot to juggle.
  • We probably discover that we have not practiced the technique enough to know it well so we find ourselves trying to remember all of the steps.
  • We probably discover that the experience produced by the technique feels too unfamiliar to make us feel comfortable doing it in a high stress situation.

Diminishing the Tornado and Passing Through the Doorway
The increased discomfort caused by the forces above is the tornado.  The doorway is where we can pass from high discomfort of a body and mind in stress, to feeling better and having more control over ourselves. There are three things we can work on to make getting through the doorway easier or even possible.

  • We can diminish the power of the tornado by getting very familiar and practiced with our stress tools. Daily practice, in the face of lessor stresses, can really sharpen our mastery.
  • We can learn to expect the tornado and therefore have a better chance of persisting with our technique. When discomfort rises (hello, tornado) we stick with our stress tool and not back off. Most of the time, eventually it will produce some results (perceivable stress reduction and/or clarity of thought/feeling).
  • We can expose ourselves to the stressor or similar stressors and bring the discomfort down.  As the level of stress decreases the power of the tornado to rattle us diminishes. When a situation is less stressful, the tornado may not even appear. The balance between the stress and the effectiveness of our stress reduction technique will be such that the technique matches or exceeds the capacity of the situation to produce stress. Piece of cake.

Funnel cloud photo – Public Domain. Credit: OAR/ERL/National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL).

The Three Boxes of Stress Control

The Three Boxes of Stress Control

I use three boxes to keep myself sane.

When I’m alert enough to catch myself in loop of anger, worry, regret, or facing a major change that I don’t know how to handle,  I drop my problem in one of the three boxes.

It took a long time for me to be open to using these boxes but they help when I’m stuck repeating the same thoughts and same feelings.

The boxes represent the toning down of my drive to take control or hold control of what happens in my life. Because I, like everyone,  really, really want to have control. For decades I thought the best approach was: pushing hard and/or ruminate about the situation for hours, days, weeks, and sometimes months.

I slowly (very slowly) came to two realizations that made use of the three box approach possible: First, I had to recognize that ruminating on something beyond a short period of time is useless in terms of producing important new ideas or insights.  If there were new ideas to be had, I probably would have them within the first 50 times I ran a difficult situation through my mind. One thousand repetitions of the same coulds, shoulds, how could you’s,  wasn’t going to producing anything worth while.  I was just fooling myself  if I thought “I was thinking things through.”  Actually, all I was doing was chasing my tail, or mind tale, nothing more.

Secondly, I had to intellectually know and emotionally acknowledge the huge cost of rumination. Rumination costs a lot. Looping around and around blocks us from using our energy elsewhere.  It narrows our focus so we can’t see the big picture or other options. It keeps us locked in shame, regret, disgust, worry, or fear. Looping is  potentially harmful. Loops can lead to a downward spiral that at a minimum suck the joy and effectiveness out of life  and, in the worst case, lead to depressive hopelessness.   No thanks. That price is way, way too high.

Once I truly understood and bought into these realizations I thought about the common patterns of my ruminations and what would be a realistic approach that honored my concerns but moved my progress with them to some degree forward.  The progress, I saw could be external change or change within me in terms of relaxing my grip. Relaxing my grip, a bit, and for a short, moderate, or long time, gave me something realistic to do with all of my energy that I had been spending on useless ruminations. It also shifted me into a higher perspective, to see just how universal problems are and how there are principles of wisdom contained within the handling of each.

I saw a few common patterns and came up with with these boxes:

The Wait and See Box
This is where I mentally put some issue that just is going to have to play itself out. I can’t do anything more. This type of situation is common when you have told a person everything you know and strongly suggest to them to take this action or that. Of course, you want them to decide right then and there to do what you want, but alas, they want to think about it. Or maybe they just need to see how things will play out a bit first before they turn to you and and say: “Oh goodness, you were right!  I should have done so and so as you suggested.”  Sometimes, you just have to wait. And wait. And wait some more.

It’s Percolating Below the Surface
I use this box when I know that I have studied, thought a great deal about, and struggled with an issues as much as I can. When I put it in the box I’m not putting it there to forget it, but to turn it over to my unconscious to do the work below the surface. When I put it into my box, I actually ask my unconscious to keep working away. Keep crunching until new ideas form and then, pop them up. It seems wild or not to be trusted, but our unconscious is constantly working for us and is seeking new solutions to our new and old problems.

I’ve Got That Covered Box
This comes into use when I catch myself going over a hundred times, no, make that a 1,000 times what I plan to do if such-and-such happens. It might be some sort of comment, a point that I want to get across in a presentation, or a set of behaviors. It took me a while to arrive at that plan because I had to think through alternatives, weigh each, and dump them all but this one. A lot of time, energy, and emotion has been invested in this process. I know the plan, I don’t need to ruminate hours and days on the plan. Again, I’ve got it. To help pull back from this cycle, I envision putting my plan into my “I’ve Got That Covered Box.”  It’s there, is safe and ready to use at a moment’s notice.

Practice, practice, practice
There is nothing automatic about this approach.  It is not like some promise that a single hypnosis session will cure all ills. The boxes approach will only work for you if you consistently use them. With much practice (don’t worry daily life will give you many opportunities to practice), slowly they will start to take on power as an effective way to manage your life…and protect your sanity.

You can visualize each box as you need it or you can buy actual boxes to keep around where you can see and use them. Some people write out the problem on a slip of paper and drop it into the box. This is sort of a ritual. I’m sure some day there will be a 3 box app.  So far I have not found the exact sort of box setup as I have outlined here, but there is one app that is pretty close: Box Your Issues

The Three Fires of Stress

The Three Fires of Stress

Stress is like fire. Our attitudes, thinking, feeling, and the sensations in our body, can  feel like a fire out of control.  The analogy gets more solid when we think about what is happening under stress: our fight or flight system gets cooking; our emotions crank up; our body dumps stress-related hormones into our blood and our brain releases alerting neurochemicals. Everything feels sped up or at least tense.

We know from experience that fires range in intensity, size, and speed of growth, among other factors. Our stress levels follow the same terms.

A Fiery Explosion – Stressful conditions can come at us like a: Boom! Something happens and in a split second we are under stress; someone pushes one of our major “hot buttons”; we are forced to stand up and introduce ourselves; someone robs us. Our limbic system takes over the show and has us reacting much faster than our conscious mind can piece together what is happening. We instantly become loaded with stress hormones and off the fire goes.

A Three-Alarm Fire – This one comes at us more slowly (i.e. we know we have a meeting with problematic people coming up at 3 PM) but soon the fire of stress is raging. This is a more powerful fire and is growing quickly pushing our ability to handle it. If this was a real fire, we would be signalling for more fire-fighting help by using the multiple alarm system. Here we use the popular level of alarm, three-alarm, but the system can go all the way up to ten alarms. Send more help now! Got to get this thing under control.

A Simmering Fire  – Simmering is slow cooking: steady heat applied for a long time. We still get burned but it just doesn’t happen all at once. A perfect example of this is rumination or having some issue hanging around that we can resolve or even look at. The fire is there, sometimes off to the side of our vision as we work or try to relax but other times it flares up and blocks our sight for anything else. Always there, cooking us.

Firefighting – Using the Right Stress Management Technique for the Job – Just as firefighters use different tactics and tools based upon the type of fire, we must know which tools and tactics we need for our three fires. A real disservice provided by the medical, stress management, and psychology communities is the marketing of stress techniques as one size fits all situations. This is simply not the case. A slow method that requires months of practice (i.e. mediation) is going to be of no or very limited help to some in a crisis situation that is a total shock. What is needed there is something very fast, simple, and powerful.

– Fiery Explosions require fast-action and fast-acting stress management. We have to have a well-practiced routine we can jump right into. Something like this routine would work: 1. Say “Stop!” forcefully to ourselves the moment the stressor occurs (this starts to put our mind into the situation and holds off automatic reactions such as anger for at least a few seconds) 2. Center in your body by doing a head to toe scanning with the purpose of drawing attention into the solidity and certainty of one’s body in this hectic moment; 3. Take several abdominal breaths to induce a calming into the body to bring stress arousal down a few notches; 4.  Listen for the three sounds (mindfulness); 5. Say “Stay Centered” to remind oneself that we have the ability to control ourselves. 5. Repeat steps 1 through 5 as many times as needed to create some distance between what is happening

– Simmering Fires respond well to slow methods applied consistently (everyday or nearly everyday) such as: mediation, guided imagery, breath training, biofeedback. These methods bring about a cumulative effect to counter the simmering negative experience and negative side-effects.

– Three-Alarm Fires require fast methods (not as fast as Fiery Explosion methods) but ones that can be applied to moderate depth. Especially helpful is: abdominal breathing, referring to already practice imagery of places of comfortable and stability; mindfulness (simple observations of the sounds, sights, etc. in the area); and passive muscle relaxation.