Stress & Emotional Health Post 3
The truth is, there isn’t exactly “positive” and “negative” stress; there are just events or circumstances that challenge us. These circumstances can create mental, emotional, or physical responses. Determining if a given stressor is a negative or positive experience is really done by us. We’re the ones who assign a value judgment to particular forms of stress.
However, it’s important to recognize that chronic, daily, recurring stress is a major contributor to disease. In addition, our perception of this stress plays a major role in how stress impacts us. If we perceive that the stress is uncontrolled, and there’s nothing we can do about it, it will have a greater negative impact on us. If we think we have some control, it will reduce the negative impact of the stress. It’s chronic, recurring, perceived, and uncontrolled stress that’s the real problem. And that’s the stress so many people are dealing with.
Our bodies and minds are designed to manage acute stress quite well. We have, in our mammalian brain, a fight or flight system. It’s a threat-detection system. It has strong connectivity to feelings, emotions, and into our hippocampus where we remember things. It’s designed to protect us. If we perceive a threat, we can create the appropriate response. We can flee, we can fight, or we can freeze.
From an ancestral standpoint, the stress would not have lasted long. We either survived or we didn’t. If we survived, then once the stress was passed, our mind and body resumed normal function. If we didn’t survive, then we had no more problems. Our minds are designed to manage acute stress. We’re not designed to carry forward fear and anxiety once the threat has passed, or especially if there is no threat at all.
In the time we live in, many people live under a constant sense of threat. This has nothing to do with their actual survival. The news reports, social media, and many of the environments people find themselves in continually barrage our minds with the sense that we’re unsafe, that something bad is about to happen. This activates our fight or flight system and creates a stress response. We feel a continual sense of unease.
This can go on hour after hour, and day after day, which is an abnormal state for our body and mind. We are not well adapted for this. We have to begin to use the cognitive powers that we have at our disposal to better interpret our feelings and attach meaning to stressful circumstances. Most people are possibly misinterpreting stress signals and over-attributing risk to those signals. Your body only knows one thing to do with this: activate the fight or flight system.
The fight or flight system is very powerful. It’s a survival-based system. Once it’s activated, it’ll send information to your adrenal glands, and they will release adrenal hormones. These hormones have a job to do. They increase your heart rate and blood pressure. They cause you to sweat. They shut down functions such as gastrointestinal function and reproductive function. The goal is to allocate all energy to survive the threat.
In addition, stress responses will inhibit our neocortex, or “higher mind.” I’m oversimplifying this, but it’s basically true. Once our stress system is activated, it’s associated with memory and strong feelings and emotions that will control our responses. We become reactive, instinctive creatures rather than self-determining creatures. Our behavior is basically controlled.
This had a survival benefit. If we were truly experiencing a threat, it was important for us to take action. Our minds are designed so that we turn off the higher level functioning that interferes with taking the next steps. Once this occurs, we’ll do whatever our lower mind is telling us to do. This will often create a reactive state for us. We may not act out in that reactive state, but internally we still feel reactive.
We experience fear and anxiety. We can often feel victimized. We get angry at those who we perceive to be creating the threat we’re experiencing. There’s a whole slew of negative emotions we’ll experience when we’re in this state.
It is true that individuals can train their minds in such a way that they actually maintain a calm, focused, and self-aware perspective while in the midst of a threat. That does come with training. Soldiers are designed to do this. Athletes are designed to do this. And to the extent that they’re able to master their stress responses, even when they truly are in a situation that could feel threatening, they’re able to perform to the level of their training.
We are capable of doing this, and the only way we can is by actually experiencing stress. That’s why stress isn’t negative or positive; it’s just a circumstance that gives us the occasion to direct our response.
However, the only way you have a chance to direct the response is if you have become a master of your own stress. If you haven’t done this, your response will be engineered in a deeper level of your brain based on feelings and memories that you have no control of. You’ll then attach a story to your response to justify yourself.
For some, this could sound offensive, but essentially it’s a regression for human beings. Our higher mind is designed to give us the ability to calm these responses and direct our thoughts, feelings, and emotions, as well as our behavior. This is what has allowed us to thrive as a species. When we become reactive and instinctive on a continual basis, we essentially lose that aspect of our being that differentiates us. It’s very important that we exercise this higher mind. I emphasize this in all of my teachings.
The main point is that it’s how we interpret and perceive stress that determines the effect that it has on us. Your mind is designed well. But it’s not designed to manage a perpetual state of threat. It can do this for a few months during a period of stress, but not day after day, year after year, for decades. It will break your system down.
In our next post, we’ll discuss this a little bit more.