TIFT #73: The Other Side of Stress

tift Mar 28, 2023

Many of us, myself included, have tended to think of stress and relaxation as opposing forces. This post is about a different way to look at them, as two stages in a natural cycle. What makes recognition of the cycle important is that, in humans, it can be held in semi-permanent suspension.

We owe to Peter Levine the gripping image of a herd of African antelope grazing peacefully, then suddenly running at full speed to escape a lion. When the pursuit ends the antelope shake off their tension and return to grazing as if nothing had happened. They can repeat this cycle because they don’t carry stress from one time to the next.

We humans experience the same cycle. Think of the evocative power of phrases like “going back home” and “the war is over.” Those words travel right down into our limbic system with the message that we can finally relax. At last, we can let go and release the tension we have carried through a long journey, a period of struggle, or simply a day at work. The cycle is built into human life. Movie plots and even symphonies carry us through the same cycle of tension and final release, as we come to “The End.”

When people are stressed, too often we tell them to “relax,” which, of course, doesn’t work. Relaxing is not a force to counteract stress, it is another point in a process. During the phase of stress, our inner mind, our “nonconscious problem solver” is busy dealing with what it deems to be a potential danger. We need first to address the perception of danger, not demand that it be ignored. Only when the mind experiences the danger as passed can it focus on the next phase, shaking off the tension, and then enjoying the transition to peace.

How Humans are Different

Why do we suffer so much from stress? Why is it so hard for us to relax? Yes, the number and complexity of stresses in modern human life may exceed those of life in the African savannas, but beyond that, we can also experience a crescendo as one cycle fails to complete before another is encountered. Stress builds upon stress and we become exhausted as our mind tries to cope with layers of potential danger. 

But why are we different? Animals live in the present. The key to our being different is that we have the ability to hold stress in suspension while we wait for something to change. In a sense, other animals do predict the future, but only to the extent that present signs become associated with an imminent threat. The sound of a cracking twig becomes an indicator of danger. One thing different about us is that we have the capacity to process complex symbols and to utilize if-then logic. If conditions A and B exist, then we can predict X and Y to happen at some point.

Symbolic logic, even where the symbols are nonverbal, brings with it a much greater ability to predict future events. With more extensive and complex predictions we gain the ability to imagine future dangers along with the felt need to prepare ourselves for their arrival.

The role of time

The discussion so far raises an interesting question. Is our excess of stress due to our ability to imagine a greater number of possible dangers or is it due to our ability to see peril in the future? Let’s use some examples to think about how the element of time enters into the human mind’s processing of stress.

The ability to self-inhibit

Once again, Peter Levine gives rich examples of how people in traumatic situations are able to improve their survival by NOT reacting in the natural way. Where other mammals fight or run, humans are able to hold back. Animals may decide not to attack if overpowered, but our cognitive sophistication seems to allows us to inhibit the natural fight or flight response when it will lead to greater harm. This is especially true with human perpetrators who are likely to become even more violent if we try to get away or fight back. 

Apparently, the way our minds are built, self-inhibition creates a new problem. When we hold back in a critical situation, “the body keeps the score.” The inhibited movement becomes frozen (presumably in the mind but closely associated with sensations of the body), even when the peril is ended. In fact, such a state of inaction can be maintained without change for an indeterminate time, even decades or a lifetime. This steady state of tension against a natural response can continue until the moment of trauma is re-activated and finally released. In trauma therapy, resolution of the tension happens when the original frozen moment is re-activated and exposed to the message that the natural bodily movement need no longer be held back and can proceed. Whether in imagination or in fact, allowing the natural response seems to carry the signal required for the mind to restart a stress-release cycle that has been held static. In this way, physical action or its mental equivalent may be the information needed to permit ending a prolonged state of tension.

But what about the freeze response?

I’m not sure where the freeze response seen in some animals fits into the human repertoire, (dear reader, please feel free to comment) but there are certainly instances where involuntary passivity is as toxic as the choice not to respond. Helplessness, that is, the inability to respond, can have the same effect as self-inhibition. Bruce Ecker (2018) gives the example of a young girl a passenger in her intoxicated father’s car. As the car careens towards the railing of a bridge, she is helpless and sure she will die. In her therapy, Ecker shows her that now, as an adult, she can re-imagine herself with power and a voice she did not have before. In imagination she is able to relive the scene using her power and voice to bring her father to his senses and make him stop the car. Replaying the scene, but this time without her former helplessness, finally breaks the spell of her trauma.

Suspended animation

How, then, can we make sense of the phenomenon of non-action causing the individual to remain in a state of suspended animation and stress for decades? One important aspect is our human grasp of the dimension of time. Where other animals live in the moment, we experience life on a timeline. It is profoundly human to have plans, intentions, goals, and wishes, each of which exists in the dimension of time. Without the notion of time, an action can be thought of as happening, existing, but what about an action not taken? It is no different from the background noise of all possible actions not taken, of non-events. On the other hand, when seen in the context of time, a non-action can be experienced as something incomplete, a “could be,” a potential action.

In traumatic events it appears that the potential but unfulfilled response is retained in a state of suspension, generating stress and even symptoms of PTSD. This should not be surprising. Unfinished events plays many roles in our lives. A typical human phenomenon is pursuing a goal until it is accomplished, even if it takes a lifetime. Our motivational systems are profoundly embedded in the dimension of time, giving a sense of incompleteness until the goal is reached. As Csikszentmihalyi describes it, the pleasure of flow arises not from achieving the goal but from its pursuit. To say it another way, the dimension of time is as natural to us humans as the three dimensions of space.

Thus, for humans, inhibition of a natural response, whether chosen or involuntary, places the human mind in a state of incompleteness and tension, held continuously until circumstances, such as those that arise in therapy, allow completion of the cycle from high stress, to shaking off the tension, and finally to a permanent release.

Stress beyond trauma

Unfulfilled goals and needs can also prevent the stress-relaxation cycle from completing. A boy’s mother told him he would need to fend for himself when he turned 18. Having no ability to gauge how long that would be, his nonconscious problem solver focused immediately on becoming self-sufficient. That unfulfilled goal created a continuous state of tension. Could he let go of the tension and relax? No. The place of tension was inaccessible, perhaps embedded in the limbic areas of his mind. As an adult, he was highly successful in business but failed at relationship because he could not allow himself to need anyone. In humans, unfulfilled wishes and plans often extend into an indeterminate future. The resulting tension may not be noticeable among the ups and downs of daily life, but when it is finally let go, the  feeling of relief makes clear its effect over time.

Restarting the cycle

In each of these situations, the inability to complete the cycle of stress and release is what creates ongoing problems for our clients. Today’s platitude that mindfulness will fix any stress too often misses the mark. The focus tends to be on conscious awareness that the danger has passed. That is indeed the antidote, but what is missing is a path by which to deliver it. The first requirement for healing by memory reconsolidation is the full activation, with affect, of the original stress. The presence of affect tells us not only that the place of the original suspended action has been re-activated, but also that the channel for a new narrative to arrive where it is needed is now open. When new information overwrites the old, the incomplete cycle of stress and de-stress can, at last, proceed toward its natural ending.

Jeffery Smith MD


Ecker, B. (2018) Clinical translation of memory reconsolidation research: Therapeutic methodology for transformational change by erasing implicit emotional learnings driving symptom production. International Journal of Neuropsychotherapy 6 (1), 1-92

Photo credit,  Michael Sum, Unsplash

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