It’s Not the Stress Itself But the Stress Belief That Kills

Headache migraine people - Doctor woman stressed. Woman Nurse / doctor with migraine headache overworked and stressed. Health care professional in lab coat wearing stethoscope at hospital.

In a 2006 study, people who experienced a lot of stress in the previous year were 43 percent more likely to die, only if they believed that stress was harmful.

For people who experienced a lot of stress in the previous year and didn’t believe stress was harmful were no more likely to die than those people who did not experience stress!

The Power of a Belief

It is not the stress itself, but it is the belief about stress that kills. This study demonstrates the power of belief.

In a sense, you already knew that stress is not always bad. Some people perform the best when they are under stress.

But this research study is not about performance. It is about the effects of stress on your overall health.

You might be performing better under stress, compared to not being under stress, but it might still be impacting your health in the long run.

It is when you believe that stress is not harmful. And it is the interpretation of a stressful experience as a challenge, which comes about from the underlying belief, which prevents the detrimental health effects of stress.

Placebo Effect Taken to the Extreme

This is somewhat like the placebo effect.

In itself, the placebo is inert and has no effect. But it is the belief it can be helpful or beneficial, will actually make it beneficial.

Stress in itself is harmful, is a common knowledge. But if you believe that stress is not harmful, rather a challenge, it stops being harmful.

This research points out that it is worthwhile changing your beliefs about stress.

Stress Is Harmful Right?

By default, you tend to think that stress is harmful.

Why is that the case?

Because by default chronic stress does affect your health in a negative way.

Chronic stress is known to be a factor in obesity, heart diseases, insomnia, depression and digestive disorders. By default, chronic stress is bad for you.

The key is ‘by default’. By default, your belief about stress is going to be that it is harmful.

There are two reasons you come believe that stress is harmful.

  1. The first reason is a widespread observation through scientific studies that chronic stress leads to deterioration in physical health.
  2. The second reason is that the actual personal experience of stress is unpleasant. You feel it and you know it doesn’t feel good. You don’t want it.

That first-hand unpleasant experience of stress is what you don’t want and is what help shape our beliefs and ideas about stress.

Fight Or Flight Or Freeze Response

The experience of stress is essential.

This experience of stress is none other than what is popularly known as the fight or flight response. (It is more like reaction rather than response.)

Stress is also known as fight or flight or freezes response.

This response is triggered by a perception of a threat. It could be a physical threat or a psychological threat.

A physical threat is easy to understand. You perceive that your physical health or well-being is in danger.

The psychological threat means the threat to your pride, social status, ego or sense of respect.

The threat doesn’t have to be real. You just have to perceive it.

This perception automatically triggers the fight or flight reaction. Why does it do so?

Because it can very well save your life. Imagine you being presented with a real threat. What if you didn’t do anything about that threat?

You might die if you didn’t do anything about a threat. That is why evolution has equipped has with an automatic response system.

Even with the slightest hint of any form of threat, be it physical or psychological, the fight or flight reaction is triggered.

The reaction in itself is unpleasant and it makes you suffer. But more importantly, it is designed to make you take action.

It either makes you fight, or it makes fly or freeze. And by doing so you increase the chances of your survival.

In that sense, the fight or flight response, which is none other stress, is good for you as it can save your life.

A fight or flight (stress) response has 3 stages.

  1. Perception of the threat
  2. Arousal or preparation
  3. Unwinding or extinguishing of the arousal

Perception of the Threat

This is when you perceive or detect the physical or psychological threat.

Arousal or Preparation

The perception of threat triggers the sympathetic nervous system. It prepares you for fight or flight.

Not only it prepares you for action. It makes you more sensitive to external information. It makes you take in more information from your surrounding.

It makes your pupils dilate so that it can take in more light. It makes your body hair bristle.

The idea is that for the preparation of fight, it is best to collect as much information about your surrounding as you can.  That way you are better prepared for the actual fight or the dash.

The heart rate increases. The blood pressure increases. The blood flow is shunted away from nonessential activities like digestion and diverted to the limbs in preparation for action.

The arousal eventually peaks. The threat starts receding.

Unwinding or Extinguishing of the Arousal

As soon as it is perceived that threat is either gone or is going away, the unwinding starts. Because as we will see later the arousal state, although necessary for a short amount of time, is not good for the body if it lasts any longer than necessary.

The parasympathetic nerves system kicks in. It starts withdrawing all the hormones that were called upon during arousal.

The heart rate, the blood pressure and the metabolic rate starts going back to normal. The body starts relaxing back to the equilibrium.

How Much Stress Can You Tolerate?

But, the real question is, how much of stress can you tolerate?

If you ever watched those National Geographic or Discovery channel documentaries about African Savannah, you are familiar with a typical scene.

A lion sneaks up on an unsuspecting zebra. The zebra develops fight or flight reaction. For zebra, it is mostly just the flight (although it definitely does land a few kicks every once in a while).

A chase ensues. There are two possible outcomes. Either the zebra gets killed and eaten by lions. Or the zebra tires lion off and survives.

After a while, you find zebra happily grazing. That is if the zebra survives.

Very soon, the zebra is able to forget about the encounter. It doesn’t seem like the zebra broods about the encounter.

It doesn’t seem like the zebra is especially pissed at lion because it attacked him. Zebra gets back to the norm of happily grazing again.

This makes for the title of a book by Harvard psychologist Robert Sapolsky: Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcer!

In the natural world, animals do get stressed, but they don’t seem to suffer from the ill effects of chronic stress that we humans suffer.

Why is that the case?

In order to answer that question, we have to consider following aspects of a stressful event.

  1. The duration that stressful events last.
  2. The frequency of the stressful events.

You already saw that stress is the fight or flight reaction. In the natural world, actual fight or flight does take place more often. At the same time in the natural world, the fight or flight reaction seem to resolve or unwind completely.

What I mean is, the zebra is able to go back to grazing happily very soon after the escape. That is unlike a fight or flight reaction experienced by a human being.

The Real Problem with Stress

In your case, when you perceive a threat, the sympathetic nervous system kicks in. It pumps a set of hormones to prepare the body for action. Your heart rate, blood pressure and metabolic rate increase among a plethora of other things.

All of that is needed for the action to take place. But it is in your best interest for this reaction to unwind at the earliest. Because if the blood pressure continues to be elevated it could damage kidneys and other vital organs.

If cortisol and another stress hormones continue to be flowing at the elevated level, after a while it starts irreversibly damaging the hippocampus, an area of the brain responsible for memory and learning.

The fight or flight reaction has to stop in due time.

And there has to be ample time between such occurrences for the body to heal or recover. 

Actual Fights and Flights Not Allowed

For a stressful event to resolve to end soon, the actual action has to take place. It means, actual fighting or running away has to happen to help stop the stress reaction.

After all, that was the prelude under wich the body was making preparations. It was expecting action to take place.

But in our society, neither fighting or flying is socially acceptable. When you get angry at someone, even though you may strongly feel like slapping that person, the expectation is not to do that. That is just not civil.

So you try to deal with the stress reaction by not actually fighting or lying but trying to gulp up the reaction.

This makes it difficult for the reaction to resolve fully. When you feel stressed and if you don’t take physical action, the stress response lingers and takes a while to die down.

What you can do is take physical action that is acceptable. Can you get on a treadmill, or go for a jog?

This is the reason people use stress balls. Depending upon your physical condition and health, relatively vigorous activities help more.

Setup for Feeling Perpetually Stressed

In today’s world, you don’t have that many physical threat. As a society, we don’t have to worry so much about the lions, tigers and bears so much as we had to one in the past.

But in today’s world, there are many more psychological threats that we experienced compared to the past.

Our lives are much more complex than before. This complexity presents many more opportunities for psychological threats.

Our work environment is very different compared to the past. In the past, we used to be more of independents craftsman.

No, we tend to work more in big groups. This change in work environment also presents more opportunities for feeling stressed.

We make it more difficult for actual stressful events to stop because of non-acceptance of physical action and on top of that you are exposed to many more opportunities where you are likely going to feel stressed.

This makes for a double whammy where before your last stressful events have fully resolved, a new one starts and you find yourself in a state of perpetual semi-fight or semi-flight response.

You suffer the damaging effects of the turbo mode where your body is being constantly kept ready to fight or run.

Your body is not made for such constant stand-by mode and ends up physically suffering the consequences.

How to Cut Short a Stressful Event

Your primary aim is to learn to stop chronic stress, or, at least, prevent the damaging effects of chronic stress.

There are many possible tools and coping skills that you can use to deal with stress. As we saw earlier, the shift in belief about stress seems to be a powerful tool.

When you start believing that the stress is not bad for your health, but is a challenge that you should try to overcome, the fight or flight reaction still develops.

Your heart rate and blood pressure still increase. But apparently some of the characteristics of physiological response change.

For example in a normal stress reaction, the blood vessels constrict. Along with higher heart rate and increased blood pressure, constricted vessels means more likely hood of undesirable events like strokes and atherosclerosis.

But apparently with the change in belief, the vessels don’t constrict. Which seems to be one of the factors why chronic stress doesn’t experience cardiovascular problems.

Mindfulness can also be an effective way of dealing with chronic stress. But the mechanism is very different compared to the change in stress belief.

How Mindfulness Can Help Reduce Stress

As you saw earlier, stress is the fight or flight reaction. The reaction has phases. Initially with the perception of the threat, the reaction starts.

Sympathetic nervous systems kick in and prepare the body. The reaction strengthens and culminates. After a while, the perceived threat eases or disappears.

The parasympathetic nervous system kicks in. It unwinds the reaction and withdraws all the preparatory signals and hormones that were dispatched to prepare the body for action.

You go back to the balance or the homeostasis.

With mindfulness, the whole fight or flight reaction can be aborted. The reaction starts with the perception of threat. But in its nascent stage, the reaction is abandoned.

With highly refined mindfulness, as soon as the reaction starts, you catch yourself reacting. And as soon as you become aware of the start of the fight or flight reaction, you catch yourself and in catching yourself the reaction diffuses.

The body isn’t automatically prepared for action. No signals or hormones are dispatched for preparation.

Because the body isn’t prepared for action there is no possibility of body staying in the arousal state for an extended period of time and hence no damage.

You may argue, what about the threat. Yes, as we said earlier, there is a reason why the stress reaction takes place as the action might have to be taken.

To answer that you have to understand that mindfulness in itself doesn’t change anything. Mindfulness is just awareness.

What awareness does is, it makes you realize choices that you have available.

Without awareness, the whole stress reaction goes through its completely cycle automatically. With awareness, you now have the choice of letting the stress response run its course, which is what may really be needed in case of a physical threat.

Or with awareness you see that there is not point in your getting angry at someone because getting angry will not help resolve the situation.

Mindfulness allows you to exercise your analytical ability and your intelligence to clearly comprehend the situation and take the correct course of action depending upon the need of the circumstances.

You are not merely acting out automatically and subconsciously.

Summary

Stress is same a fight or flight response.

Stress is a life-saving mechanism. If you never felt stress, you won’t survive too long.

Stress belief seems to be more powerful than actual stress for you well being.

Modern life presents with many opportunities for you to get stressed.

When feeling stressed, taking actual action helps but is socially unacceptable.

Mindfulness can help in gatekeeping the stress reaction.

 

 

 

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I Became Aware of My Anxiety. But Now What?

Beautiful casual bored or sleeping student woman by a desk.

One of the benefits of mindfulness is it helps deal with anxiety.

We have said earlier that: Mindfulness = Awareness.

It is a convenient way to understand mindfulness to think of it as awareness.

The question then becomes how does the awareness actually help in dealing with anxiety. This was highlighted by a question that one of student who suffered through anxiety, posed.

I became aware of my anxiety. But now what? I still feel anxious.

In this post I will try to explore the mechanism, how mindfulness or awareness can help you deal with your anxiety.

The claim is:

“Work on strengthening the awareness and work on bringing awareness to teh feeling of anxiety and your anxiety will gradually stop or at least it will stop being a problem for you.”

Following is a possible series of events and a possible mechanism how awareness can help with anxiety.

Building the muscle of awareness

You practice strengthening awareness by doing formal meditation practices and by informally practicing being aware from time to time.

You practicing bringing awareness to the feeling of anxiety as soon as you realize that you start feeling it.

Initially, you may not succeed. You will find that you may become aware of your anxiety just for a moment and next moment the awareness is gone.

Over a period of time, you may start noticing that you are able to bring awareness to the feeling of anxiety for a few moments.

Recognizing the composite nature of anxiety

If you continue to bring awareness to the feeling of anxiety, after a while you may notice that what you call the experience of ‘anxiety’ is not just an unpleasant feeling but there is thinking that also goes on along with the feeling of anxiety.

At times, there is a specific circumstance or a specific person that is the source of your anxiety. In that case, you may notice thoughts like.

  • “What if something bad happens.”
  • “What if you cross paths with the person that you dislike.”
  • “Why is this happening to me?”

At other times your anxiety may not have any evident source and it may just come about like that. In that scenario, you may notice thoughts like.

  • “When will this stop?” Or
  • “What if this doesn’t stop?”

There is a very clear unpleasant feeling of anxiety but there are thoughts as well.

Continuing to observe anxiety with awareness, you will notice that besides the unpleasant feeling of anxiety and thoughts there are physical sensations that are also present. You may feel specific sensations in your stomach or your chest or in your head. You may feel it somewhere else.

You may feel specific sensations in your stomach or your chest or in your head. You may feel it somewhere else.

With awareness you may realize that what felt like a monolithic experience of unpleasantness is really a composite.

  1. There is the distinct unpleasant feeling of anxiety.
  2. There are thoughts.
  3. There are physical sensations.

At this stage, the unpleasantness is till there. It still makes you suffer. It is still a problem. But you are investigating the phenomenon of anxiety and this investigation will soon start to bear fruits.

It is still a problem. But you are investigating the phenomenon of anxiety and this investigation will soon start to bear fruits.

Breaking the loop of feeling and thinking

Continuing further along and building the strength of awareness you can notice following.

The feeling of anxiety is actually fueling the thoughts that are present along with the anxiety. You feel anxious about an upcoming event and that is likely to give rise to a thought “What if something goes wrong at that even.”

But you also notice that when you get those thoughts, they, in turn, intensify the feeling of anxiety. More thoughts you get like “Oh my god, I am in trouble.” or “How will I manage.” Your anxiety gets worse.

You notice you are locked up in a vicious loop. Feeling fueling thoughts and thoughts feeding the feeling.

Having noticed that you can investigate what are the possibilities of getting yourself knocked out of this loop?

You may realize, perhaps a distraction can work. You can focus on something else that is going in the moment that is not likely to fuel the feelings or thoughts. Something neutral.

What could that be?

Your breath? Yes, you can focus on the breath when you feel anxious and that could help.

Remember there are physical sensations also present. Most of the time, such sensations are neutral in nature.

That means you can try to divert your attention to the physical sensations. You can try to feel physical sensations that are present.

Is there anything else that is happening in the present moment that is not likely to bring you back to this cycle of feeling and thinking?

You see, there is a possibility of some relief thanks to awareness.

With the help of awareness you can make one more very critical observation about the thoughts that are present along with anxiety.

Typically you will think that:

  • I am anxious.”
  • “What if I get into trouble.”
  • I don’t want this happen to me.”

By default you automatically fully identify with the feeling of anxiety. It is all about you.

But isn’t that common sense? After all, it is your anxiety that you feel. It is not someone else’s anxiety, correct?

You may come to realize that it is possible to not identify with the feelings of anxiety as well. It doesn’t mean you deny the presence of those feelings.

The unpleasantness is definitely present. But how can you prove that it is YOURS?

What you are sure about is the presence of the feelings. You are not sure about the presence of you.

Of course, you need to develop stronger awareness to experience this. This will not make sense to you if you approach it purely intellectually.

In more concrete terms, how can you try to not identify? You can do by trying to rephrase your thoughts.

Rather than saying

“I am anxious.”

Try.

“Anxiety is present.”

Rather than saying.

“This anxiety is killing me.”

Try

“The feeling of anxiety that it might kill is present.”

Rather than saying

“Why is this happening to me?”

Try

“Why is the feeling of anxiety present?”

Do you get the idea? If not, let me know in the comment section.

The feeling of anxiety and the resistance

As you continue to bring awareness to the feeling of anxiety what you will start noticing is that what feels like an unpleasant feeling actually has two parts.

There is an experience of a distinct feeling that we describe as anxiety.

But there is also resistance to that feeling of anxiety. This resistance is captured in your characterization of that experience as unpleasant.

The term ‘unpleasant’ describes the desire for that specific feeling or sensation to go away or stop.

But the moment you realize through awareness that the experience of anxiety is not just a singular experience, but there are disjoint parts to it.

There is an emotional feeling to it. And there is a mental attitude that is completely separate from the experience of the feeling itself.

Anxiety = An emotional feeling + Resistance to this feeling

This insight is opening up a whole new possibility of relating very differently to that experience of the emotional feeling.

On top of the underlying unpleasantness of anxiety, you have resistance, which is also unpleasant.

At this stage with awareness, you can notice that by resisting to the feeling of anxiety which is already present now, you are adding to your suffering.

Given you overall goal is to relieve the pain of anxiety, you can try to work towards reducing your resistance. You can attempt to not resist the feeling of anxiety.

In other words, you can try to open up to anxiety. You can try to make some room for anxiety. You can give yourself the permission to feel the anxiety.

This is usually a gradual process, where you might not succeed right away. Also, this gradual work is best practiced with milder forms of anxiety. It may not work with severe anxiety right off the bat.

It can also be helpful to affirm this intention to open up to anxiety and to allow the feeling of anxiety from time to time even when you are not feeling anxiety.

Although at this stage it is not just awareness anymore. It is a volitional act in relating differently to the feeling that is present.

But without awareness, it is extremely difficult to realize the possibility of at least not resisting the initial feeling of anxiety.

With practice, you will get better at not resisting the feeling of anxiety. And lesser the resistance easier it is to bear the anxiety.

Summary

The very first moment you bring awareness to your anxiety it won’t magically melt away.

There is a path where you can work with anxiety using awareness.

Awareness can help you notice the composite nature of anxiety.

It can help you realize the vicious loop of feeling and thinking.

It can help you distract (mindfully) away from the loop of feeling and thinking.

It can help you notice the default identification with the feelings of anxiety.

It can help you dis-identify and reduce the weight of anxiety.

It can help you notice the presence of resistance to anxiety once it has already unfolded.

It can help you work towards reducing and eliminating resistance to the anxiety.

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Is Mindful Thinking Positive Thinking?

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Mindfulness can be used to relieve suffering. It can help get relief from stress, anxiety, depression or other various mental health problems.

But how does it relieve us from suffering? Is it some sort of positive visualization technique?

The Age of Positivity

It can be said that we live in the age of positivity. There is a lot of awareness about positivity.

Finally, there is a realization in psychology that in the past it over emphasized negative psychology. It focused more on a disease model rather than a health model.

Positive Psychology

The approach psychology took was that one has to first go from the negative to the zero before one can start talking about positive. In other words, there was no place for positive until the disease was present.

A depressive person has to first cure the depression before he can experience positive emotions like joy, happiness, and gratitude.

But that is not true. Even while experiencing negative emotions, one can try to practice positive emotions like gratitude and happiness that can actually help you get rid of negative emotions.

It is widely acknowledged that happiness is a learnable skill. It is not something relegated to a privileged few.

There is so much literature out there concerning happiness. You can learn how to become happier and how to be more grateful.

In fact, that is one of the side effects of practicing mindfulness that it can increase your happiness levels.

Duh! It is Obvious

But more importantly, being positive is common sense. You look for positivity in life by your innate nature.

You look for positive changes in your professional life. You look for positive changes in your personal life and relationships.

To look for more positivity is what you do by default. You desire for more positivity in your life and that is just what you do.

If you were to look up the definition of ‘positive’ it comes from the Latin root ‘posit’. Which carries a sense of something explicitly laid down and admitting no questions. A sense of being convinced and being obvious.

It is common sense to seek out what is positive. We seek out positive changes to safeguard out lives. Isn’t that obvious?

Who in the right mind would not do that? Of course, it is.

But Mindfulness Is Awareness.

Let us go back to our original question. Is mindful thinking positive thinking?

Mindful thinking is neither positive thinking nor negative thinking. It is not neutral thinking either.

It is aware thinking.

Awareness is something that transcends good, bad, positive, negative, neutral and so forth.

Awareness transcends all conceptual mental activity. It is beyond all of that.

You can think positively and become aware of that.

You can think negatively and become aware of that.

You can have neutral thoughts and you can become aware of that.

You can have no thoughts and you can be aware of that.

You can have happy thoughts and you can become aware of that.

You can have sad thoughts and you can become aware of that.

You can be euphoric and you can be aware of that, you can be utterly miserable and you can be aware of that.

Awareness is something completely orthogonal to your normal daily thinking. Because it is not thinking.

Actually, there is no mindful thinking. There is mindfulness or awareness. Which is very different compared to thoughts, memories, intentions, and attitudes.

But awareness can become aware of all of that. Awareness can become aware of thoughts, it can become aware of memories.

It can become aware of your intentions and it can also become aware of your attitudes.

It is not anything esoteric. It is something very simple.

It is just that it doesn’t come easy. You experience fleeting moments of awareness, but that is it.

You don’t rest in awareness. You immediate leave and you get involved in conceptual activities or thinking.

There is an alternate lens that you can bring to this question.

Mindful thinking is not positive thinking. But mindfulness invite you to investigate what it is that you call ‘positive’? And by positive, we also mean, what is ‘good’, what is ‘pleasant’ and what is ‘desirable’.

And by positive, we also mean, what is ‘good’, what is ‘pleasant’ and what is ‘desirable’.

What does it really mean by positivity. Although as we talked earlier, positivity is something that is obvious to us and we take it for granted.

Mindfulness invite you to inquire into your relationship with something that you call positive. Let me elaborate a bit more.

There are two possible questions that you can ask.

  1. Is the positive quality of phenomena, fixed in nature?
  2. What does it really mean when you characterize something as positive, good or desirable?

Is ‘Positivity’ Always Fixed?

Is something that you feel positive about always remains position? Is the positive quality of phenomena rigid?

Is the positive quality of phenomena rigid or fixed in nature? A thing that is desirable today, is it always going to be desirable? That is not the case.

As a famous Zen master once said.

“In winter a bonfire spells delight. But when summertime arrives what a nuisance it becomes.”

You know it well that what is good, what is positive, what is delightful may not necessarily always remain delightful. Things change.

What Does It Really Mean to be Positive?

The real question is the characterization of a quality as being positive. We said earlier that you take positive, good and desirable for granted.

It is obvious that you want more positive, good and desirable things in life. Mindfulness invites you to notice this.

Rather than taking it for granted, you can notice that there is a set of things that your mind automatically desires.

Like safeguarding the physical well-being. Again you may say that it is such an obvious thing, why wouldn’t anyone in their right mind not try to safeguard their well-being.

Again, the premise of such an argument is taken for granted. To safeguard and to try to live as long as you can is something your brain is designed by evolution to just do.

Things don’t have inherent qualities or meanings but you give them labels or meanings which satisfy your own innate desires or urges. And ‘positivity’ is just one such labeling scheme, which is no different compared to ‘negativity’.

You get this in a completely opposite way. You think that it is completely obvious, justified, natural and given to behaving in ways where you are continuously trying to maximize your physical well-being and safeguarding yourself and trying to prevent you from the harms way.

But in reality, it is the natural selection that has implanted such a drive in your brains that continuously propels you to behave in such a manner. And you can use your mindfulness to take note of that, rather than just being completely identified with it.

It is because of the natural selection that you behave the way you do and that is why you are still here on planet earth and perhaps many other species which didn’t behave in the ways you did, have not survived.

But again, us being still here on planet earth is really a non-event. An event that has no intrinsic quality.

There is nothing special about it. Although your mind would like to think of that as some sort of ‘positive’, ‘proud’ or ‘grandiose’ achievement.

You get it completely wrong. You think you are too good, which is why you are still here.

But in reality, you are here because how you behave and that behavior that helps you to be still here, you call it ‘good’ or ‘positive’ or ‘desirable’.

You being still around could be the most joyous thing for you as a species, but it doesn’t take much difficulty to realize that you being still here has spelled a rather serious disaster for many other species which you may have already wiped out or are about to.

This is something we cannot settle easily. Perhaps I will discuss this more in a separate post to further elaborate the point.

But in the meantime, I welcome your critique, rebukes or comments.

 

 

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