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Stress and Relaxation: An Introduction

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We can no more eliminate stress from our lives than we can eliminate tension from our muscles. If muscle tension dropped to zero, we would fall to the ground in a shapeless heap. If all stress disappeared, we would not be alive. Stress is inherent in our interactions with the world around us and, unless it is overwhelming, it keeps us growing and developing.

The word stress comes from the same Latin word that gives us strict, which originally meant "narrow" or "tight." Stress is the discomfort or distress caused by forces that limit our freedom and movement. The suggestion is that sources of discomfort are external. It is outside forces acting on us that keep us from ease: a demanding boss, an unhappy spouse, difficult children, the commute to work, mounting bills, the threat of crime, political unrest, pollution, the risk of cancer, and on and on.

Most people describe themselves as being under stress. Some say that they are outwardly calm but carry a lot of internal tension. Ask yourself this: Do you consider yourself a nervous person? Are you tense? Do you worry? What do you do to relax? Have you ever had any kind of relaxation training?

Stress really has two aspects: one external and one internal. The internal aspect of stress is our reaction to the obstacles and reverses of living. If we become anxious, fearful, angry or depressed about them, those states can certainly do us harm. Internalized stress keeps the mind agitated, throws the nervous system out of balance, interferes with the functioning of the immune system, and produces the many stress-related disorders so common in our society. The external aspect is what we see as causing the tension. While it is always worth trying to change external situations that are destructive, keep in mind that you have a choice as to how situations affect you. In time, you can learn to change your reactions to them - simply making changes to what you see as the external aspect of stress (such as getting a new job, moving, ending a relationship) does not give people tools for managing future problems any better. Therefore it is also important to learn how to relax and protect yourself from the harmful effects of stress.

To learn how to relax - and benefit from relaxation, ask yourself two broad questions: What am I now doing that prevents me from relaxing? And, What am I not doing that could help me relax?

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