So that's the normal, healthy way of reacting to stress.
Yes. The long-term kind is what gives us trouble. This is a kind of stress that doesn't go away as easily as a turn on the freeway: job stress; family stress; emotional conflicts; money difficulties. All the vague but ever present problems and worries. There's no end point, no clear resolution to that kind of stress.
What happens physiologically is that all the bodily functions accelerate as though your life were in danger, and they stay elevated, without release. We experience it as anxiety, frustration, tension, and worry. If we were to hook someone in this kind of worry pattern up to a monitor, we'd see something like this:
They continue at a level of high excitation without the compensatory relaxation phase. This is the kind of biological stress pattern that leads to disease.
So what would the yogi or meditator do in the same situation?
What they've learned is to more clearly identify when the reaction is no longer necessary. They
would experience the same stimuli as a series of discrete short-term stresses:
The striking thing about this pattern is that it looks almost exactly like the EKG tracing of a series of heartbeats. What's missing in the chronic worry pattern is the parasympathetic rebound, the relaxation phase. What the yogis have learned to do is to induce this phase. To let go of those excess levels of self-stressing neurophysiological activity and simply quiet themselves down.
They can intentionally produce the "Whew!" phase of the short-term stress reaction.
Yes. Then it is possible to come back to the baseline level and continue on. When we get into the chronic stress pattern it feels like there's not going to be any end point.
You can think of your body as being naive. It can't tell if your life is really in danger or if you're just thinking as if your life were in danger. The fear of losing your job might feel just as threatening as if a speeding truck were coming at you. You might react this way to a nagging creditor or to your income tax coming due. Whatever the cause, you go up above the line, and before you can come back down, the next stressor hits—a job deadline, a family problem. And you go right back up again.
How long can that pattern go on?
A long time! In someone with a real chronic stress pattern, the only thing that's going to break the cycle is some kind of illness experience. You then see a very sharp drop:
This represents a state of complete nervous exhaustion, a nervous breakdown, a heart attack, a debilitating headache, an alcoholic binge—it can be any number of things.
Everybody has his or her own favorite way to break the pattern.
Exactly—and it's very often illness, because when you're sick there is a very different set of demands placed upon you. It's now okay to stay in bed and just take it easy.
How possible is it to predict who will get what diseases?
I think it's possible to some degree. The Friedman and Rosenman book (Type A Behavior and Your Heart) looks at the relation between personality and heart disease and cancer, respectively. I've reviewed the relationships between these two diseases as well as migraine and arthritis in Mind as Healer.
So people do have their own favorite illnesses.
Oh, yes. The same stress level that might produce a headache in one person might produce a heart attack in another or gastrointestinal trouble in a third. Certain families, both genetically and behaviorally, will predispose to certain illnesses. Your environment will predispose you one way or another. So will your lifestyle.