The Curse of Stress, and How to Break It

Our primal fight-or-flight instinct has metastasized into a grinding, chronic disease.

I see him everywhere: the man cursed by stress. Though his face and name may change, the story is always the same. Today he’s standing in line at Starbucks, a line that overflows out the door onto the shopping mall floor, all the way to the cell phone kiosk and the distressingly large ad for a distressingly large cinnamon roll.

I see him everywhere: the man cursed by stress. Though his face and name may change, the story is always the same. Today he’s standing in line at Starbucks, a line that overflows out the door onto the shopping mall floor, all the way to the cell phone kiosk and the distressingly large ad for a distressingly large cinnamon roll.

It’s Sunday afternoon, and it’s dawning on all these shoppers that the weekend is almost over. Just one last jolt of caffeine to carry them through the drive home, the unpacking, the dinner and TV, and the disappointment that it all went by so quickly again.

Right now, our man is the middle of the line. His two kids—four and seven years old, I’d guess—circle around him in what can only be a sugar-fueled frenzy. His face is frozen in a barely contained expression of impatience and frustration while his wife, loaded to capacity with shopping bags, gives him a sour look. I can’t hear what they’re saying, but I can feel the passive aggression as thick and sickly as the smell wafting from the Cinnabon behind me.

I see the curse of stress coursing through him. It’s in his posture: his sunken chest, his slumped shoulders, and his locked knees taking tiny steps forward as the line moves almost imperceptibly. It looks like he’s almost holding his breath, inhaling rarely, like a drowning man getting his head above water for just a moment before sinking back down into the black. He smiles timidly and mutters meek apologies as shoppers walk past him, trying to get through the line that cuts across the flow of foot traffic.

In front of him in the line stands the specter of his future: an old man, hunched over further than seems possible, as though the weight of world had finally crushed him. But our man can’t see he’s headed there, too. His vision is too myopic, too distracted and consumed by the stresses of the moment. It’s like he’s watching his life on TV with his face right up against the screen, unable to get in and change the script.

The Universal Curse of Stress

It’s a curse as old as man himself. Stress. Tension. And at the root of it, a primal, animal fear, a vestige from a distant past, a fight-or-flight response gone haywire and made chronic, as though some terrible danger lurking just out of sight could pounce and strike at any second.

But nothing is pouncing. Nothing is striking. He’s surrounded by the din of a crowded mall filled with plenty of food, plenty of shelter, plenty of people, plenty of everything. His bags overflow with stuff he probably doesn’t even need. He and his family are safe. But in the night of his primal mind, a nameless, formless dread hangs like a mist.

Maybe on some level he’s aware of the curse. Maybe he has some self-help books in his Barnes and Noble bag, books that will gather dust on his shelf, or that he’ll read through once for a small sense of vicarious relief, and then forget about forever. But more likely, he’s grown so used to this chronic stress that it’s become almost invisible, far in the background, like a heavy curtain swaying slowly behind a stage.

Looking at him, I can only wonder if he knows that this is it. This isn’t a practice round, or a dress rehearsal. This is his life. And it’s slipping away a minute at a time while he worries about his phone plan and his car payments and whether they’ll make his pumpkin caramel latte right this time.

I see him everywhere, this man cursed by stress. I used to see him in myself, years ago, before I took action to break the curse. And once in a blue moon, he’ll return in brief flashes to haunt my mirror again as a reminder and a warning.

Maybe he haunts yours, too.

The same neurological response that used to let us deal with saber-toothed tigers is now triggered by credit card bills.

The Origins of the Curse

One of the coaches I trained—a former corporate consultant who quit that world because of the overwhelming stress—calls this curse “civilization disease,” and something about that phrase rings true. There are those who romanticize the time before civilization, as though it were pure Eden before the agricultural revolution, when we started building walls and guarding surpluses against invaders. And maybe those really were the good old days. We’ll never really know for sure.

But we can find a clue by taking a look at animals in the wild; those lucky creatures untouched by the curse of stress. Sure, they have to fight for their survival, but after a potentially traumatic event, they shake it off. Literally, their bodies go through convulsions where the stress is discharged from their nervous systems. They’re then able to return to a relaxed state of “rest and digest,” and reset their neuromuscular systems entirely.

We humans, on the other hand, tend to hang onto stress for a lifetime, never discharging. We get stuck between gears: rarely fully in flight-or-fight mode, but never entirely out of it. We can speculate about why that is, but the important thing is that somewhere along the way, our natural, primal mechanism for discharging stress got disrupted.

That means the stress doesn’t come from the outside, but from within, and hits you with the same signals in your brain you’d be getting if that credit card bill were an actual saber-toothed tiger. But since there’s no saber-toothed tiger to run away from or fight, the body and brain get stuck. The primal life force becomes stifled, and with nowhere else to go, it turns against you.

That accumulation of stress and tension is particularly pronounced in people who have undergone traumas, and for them the process of dismantling must proceed very carefully, at least at first. But the simple act of being born and growing up, even for the average person in a loving environment, can be at least mildly traumatic. And when tension continues to build upon itself without ever discharging, all those little incidents can add up to as much inner pressure as a full-blown trauma. We are all, in a way, traumatized by chronic stress. We’re the walking wounded, and we don’t even know it.

How to Break the Curse, Once and for All

To get back to a natural state—or more likely, to get there for the first time—you need to break the dam of tensions in the body, and let the water find its own level. But by the time you’ve reached adulthood, or even adolescence, these inner resistances are so deeply entrenched, you need some strong medicine to crack them open. That’s where Neuromuscular Release Work (NRW) comes in.

If that man in the mall were to find his way past the distractions of the day to find me and my work, I’d start him off on a steady diet of daily NRW exercises. Nothing too heavy at first, but enough to start cracking into the surface levels of tension, and to get him into a daily rhythm. Most importantly, I’d start getting him out of his head and into his body, where the real battle always takes place.

That may start out feeling uncomfortable for him. After all, he hasn’t been solidly in his body for years, even if he happens to be physically fit in a traditional sense. There’s nothing unusual about that: the body’s natural response to the chronic discomfort of the stress state is to numb out. Those daily exercises would gradually re-sensitize his system, while also draining tensions from the areas that hold the most low-hanging fruit: the shoulders, the face, and the breath.

Then once a week, I’d guide him through longer, full NRW sessions, including a very specific type of breathing; exercises that dig into deep tensions all over the body, and a mindfulness meditation to help broaden the scope of his conscious awareness. Some of the exercises would be gentler, and others more cathartic and aggressive. It all depends on him, and how his body responds moment by moment. These sessions will hit a lot harder than the daily exercises, and his system will need time to recover and adjust, as it does after any kind of workout, so I’d make sure he doesn’t go too far too fast.

And when the dam truly breaks, his body will wake up and participate, helping shake off the tension on its own, like the animals in the wild. But since that process hasn’t happened in him for a while, there’s going to be a big backlog of tension to discharge. As that occurs, he’ll likely feel some new sensations and bursts of energy. This is nothing esoteric, just the natural energy of the nervous system releasing itself from his blocks, though it might feel almost supernatural at first if he never knew such a thing was possible. I’d make sure he knows it’s perfectly normal, and to get used to it. Because the fact is, his system wants to get back to its natural state, to shake off the stranglehold of tension. All we have to do is get all the junk out of the way and let the nervous system do its thing.

letting go of stress

Your body doesn’t want to stay in a stressed state, but you have to learn how to let go of it.

As it does, his body will begin to adjust itself into a more natural, primal posture. His spine will lengthen and align, and his muscles will relax more deeply than he thought possible. And though this movement is really just returning to his natural state, he will experience it as almost a miracle, having been exiled from himself for so long.

All of this will likely precipitate some big shifts in his attitudes, and his life. Crystallized patterns of behavior will start to break loose, and in all likelihood, people around him will notice it before he does. He’ll just look around one day and say, “Huh, didn’t there used to be some sort of problem? Something I used to stress about?” He won’t even remember. All that will be in its place is a pleasant absence, an empty space of mental freedom and flexibility.

And when that starts to happen, he can throw all those self-help books in the fire, because what they try to get you to imitate, he now possesses for himself. The floodgates of his primal life force have opened, the usurper of stress has been dethroned, and the curse has been broken.

Life After Stress

I realize I may have seemed a little harsh describing the guy in the Starbucks line. For most people, he may just seem like an ordinary guy doing ordinary things, wandering through life in an ordinary trance. And of course, I’m sure he has plenty of wonderful things in his life and his relationships. It’s not all bad, even if you are accursed.

That’s the funny thing about breaking free of chronic stress. When you’re in it, it just seems normal. After all, it’s the quicksand everybody’s stuck in, and we all drearily commiserate about how stressful our lives are, what a big problem it is, but without ever taking seriously the idea that we could make actual, meaningful change. In a backwards sort of way, stress itself has become our safety blanket. Our tension actually protects us from the vulnerability and high voltage of life lived raw and direct.

Of course, once you get used to life beyond stress, it ceases to feel vulnerable and high voltage. It just becomes the new normal. Crossing the bridge may demand some adjustment, but once you’ve made it across, you can’t imagine you ever lived like you did. You start to see that the so-called normal state of being is not the natural state, and that the natural state of high energy, ease, and flow is desperately rare, not only in our society, but in our world. And once you see it, you can’t un-see it.

While it’s not your fault to be stricken by the curse of stress, it is your responsibility to do something about it. The solutions are there if you seek them out. They may not be the most obvious or in-plain-sight, like the self-help books at the shopping mall bookstore, but they’re out there. Seek and ye shall find.

We all start in pretty much the same place with all this, and there are crossroads where we get to choose between the safe and the scary—the warm, gooey sleep of unconsciousness, and the dizzying exhilaration of true freedom. And if our man does decide to break his addiction to stress? He’ll find he’s inherited far more than he could have imagined. The next time I see him at the mall, he’ll be smiling a natural, authentic smile, standing tall, firm, and relaxed, not because he temporarily outran whatever hellhound of worry happened to be chasing him that hour, but because he won the battle once and for all. And now, maybe for the first time he can remember, the curse is broken.

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