03/11/2015 06:49 GMT | Updated 02/11/2016 05:12 GMT

What is Stress?

Co-authored with Alun Thomas, Professional Violinist and Senior Alexander Technique teacher at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance

Stress - the virtuous verb, don't give it a bad noun!

I've recently had an interesting exchange (ok, near fall-out, with my friend Adrian Farrell) about the meaning and use of the word 'stress'. As usual, he'd written a great blog about how we use ourselves at computers and sometimes hurt ourselves in the process. I questioned his casual use of the word 'stress' as if it were a noun (guilty as charged, even though I do know better, Adrian) - an (unwanted) thing in itself, to which we react, rather than a physiological response that can be side-stepped, attenuated or controlled.

Computers are sources of irritation and strife for some, provoking symptoms we all might recognize as stressful; but I also know people for whom using them is a joy, an endorphin hit, and escape from the negative effects of 'stress', if I'm permitted the colloquialism. Stress, it seems, is a slippery concept, meaning (as in Alice's Wonderland adventures) anything you'd like....

On the other hand, if we afford 'stress' reflexive verb status, implying some 'self' control, then we'll all have a better time, even if occasionally our hearts beat a little faster and hands sweat a little more: the narrative song lines of the trysting lover's heart not quite the cardiac chaos of an angry boss - context being everything.

There is no unitary thing called 'stress' - no-thing in particular, or even constellation of things; stress is our response, a well-known lexicon sometimes, at others, shades of grey, intimate and difficult to track.

Alexander Technique shows that it's our smart, conscious capacity that allows us to prevent and re-route tricky responses before they manifest and it's this that clinches the deal for me, in redefining stress.

Summoning up challenging ideas (think: job, money, boss, tricky colleague, meeting, commute......) you may notice, encourages mild to moderate bodily responses. An increased heart rate maybe, or slight tensing of your neck or legs, a shortening of the breath and tightening of the diaphragm; perhaps your attention is drawn downwards - introspection stopping your 'out-ness' into the world?

These feelings are reflexive, consensual, we do them to ourselves as we join up the dots of fear. We are not a mind on legs, but, truly, 'a body that's in the mind and a mind that's in the body', to quote Spinoza.

We all know what it's like to feel the downside of our physiology on a low-tide day: jangled, pained, rushed, fazed out, rattled or even numb, to describe just some of these states, but stress, after all, and like all communication, is the result YOU get.

If I stop thinking in a way that tightens my body into an ever smaller space, but open my body out, considering new options or viewpoints, then I'm more likely to engineer positive, energizing, and helpful physiology, enhancing my performances, productivity!

I might, then, become the captain of my own ship. Or, if that sounds way too grand, look at it like this: if you've ever worn a wetsuit, you'll know what a relief it is to take it off.........

Can you make a fresh decision today, to cue some smart 'Alexander thinking'? Unclench your neck, find your full free height, allow the ground to support you and open your awareness to the world around you, and stop unwanted reactions before they have had any time to wipe their feet on your conscious attention.

You'll find that you really can change your mind about stress, and turn that naughty noun, into a reflexive, virtuous verb......

This blog was originally posted here.

The Alexander Technique has been clinically proven for back pain via an NHS funded, gold standard randomised trial. It was performed by Southampton University and their results were published in the British Medical Journal.

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