Free Yourself from Stress with a Wise Mind
Stress is your enemy.
NOTE: I am not a doctor. When it comes to your mental health, nothing can replace the care of professionals. Please take this Hub for what it is: insights from a fellow traveler, not advice from an expert. My goal is to share some of the experiences I have had in my own struggles with anxiety and depression. My hope is that it can provide some help and comfort to those who have had similar struggles, but it should supplement professional care, not supersede it.
With all of the attention paid to cancer (and deservedly so), stress can get lost in the shuffle. It is easy to forget that chronic stress is one of the leading causes of health problems in the United States today. According to a study done by NPR (and backed up by similar numbers from the American Psychological Association), 26 percent of people in this country report that they are living with a high level of chronic stress. Compare that to 11.3 percent who have been diagnosed with heart disease and 8.5 percent who have been diagnosed with any type of cancer, and you can begin to see why stress is such a problem. This is especially true in light of the fact that stress can contribute to the development of other diseases and disabling conditions, including depression and anxiety.
What is stress? From a biological perspective, stress is nothing more than the body's reaction to an environmental condition or stimulus. It was honed over millennia by evolution for one purpose: to help human beings survive. For example, if you see a tiger, your stress reaction will raise your heart rate, breathing, and adrenaline flow in preparation for fight or flight. Without it, people would be very slow to react, and tiger's would probably rule the world.
But what happens when stress becomes chronic? It is meant to be a temporary reaction, and when the threat has passed the body should return to normal. If it doesn't, a life saving process can be transformed into one that is toxic and debilitating.
Imagine two nations preparing to go to war. The armed forces are mobilized, and the focus of the economies of both countries are shifted to munitions and armaments. Vast amounts of money are spent on defense, and the population is stoked with propaganda.
At the last second, diplomatic talks have break through and war is avoided. One nation begins to transition back to peace time conditions; money flows back into the private sector and the populace is allowed to calm down. Soon, things are back to normal.
In the second country, however, no such shift takes place. Money continues to pour into military spending. The citizens continue to be antagonized, but with no war there is no outlet for their aggression. The economy collapses, anarchy ensues, and a dictator sets up shop.
This is exactly what can happen to you if you suffer from chronic stress. Your body remains mobilized for a threat that no longer exists, and eventually your resources will be exhausted and your internal systems will turn on themselves until a serious health problem results, such as depression or heart disease.
Some Disturbing Statistics
Do you feel that stress has a significant impact on your life?
Perception Versus Reality
"People are disturbed not by a thing, but by their perception of a thing." - Epictetus, Greek Philosopher
Stress can be hard to pin down, since it can differ so much from person to person. The difficulty lies in the fact that perception is often more important than reality in determining stress levels. Thus, a person with no obvious stressors can still suffer enormous stress, while someone with a very hectic life can experience little or no stress.
It is important to differentiate between perception and reality; if a threat is real and a stress reaction is warranted, then dealing with the threat is paramount. If, however, the stress continues once the threat is gone (such as in post traumatic stress disorder) or there is no real threat at all, then techniques such as mindfulness and wise mind can help.
To continue with the tiger example above, you perceived the animal as a threat, that perception was realistic, and a stress response was appropriate. After running away, stress levels should return to normal. If not, then the trauma of the event may have a caused a longer lasting condition.
If you see a groundhog and perceive it as a threat, followed by a stress reaction, then your perception is not realistic, and stress is not appropriate. In this case altering perception is the key to reducing stress.
These are very simple examples. Real stress can be subtle and nuanced, and exacerbated by learned behaviors and genetic predisposition. The fundamentals, nevertheless, are the same.
Physical Effects of Stress
What is wise mind?
Wise mind is a concept drawn from Buddhist tradition and used by cognitive behavioral therapists to help people live one mindfully in the moment. This in turn helps manage perception, which can reduce stress levels.
All people have two major spheres of thought: the emotional and the rational. The rational part of your mind is made up of what you have learned. It is the logical part of your mind, the seat of reason. It analyzes and processes data and presents the best course of action. It is cold and calculating.
The emotional mind is more reactive. It is where you find all the emotions, like happiness, fear, and anger. Whereas the rational mind uses logic, the emotional mind relies on "gut reaction." It is also the seat of compassion and empathy.
The emotional mind can often override the rational, and this can lead to problems in perception. If you freak out as soon as you see a spider, your emotional mind is in control. Your rational mind may be trying to tell you that it is a harmless spider, but the emotional is drowning it out, and the result is a panic attack (or at least a slightly embarrassing scene of screaming and running into the next room).
Wise mind seeks to balance the two. In the spider scenario, there would be an initial emotional reaction to the spider followed by a deep breath and a step back while the rational mind appraised the situation. Once it determines that the spider is not a threat, the emotional side can be brought to heel and a more reasonable response can be enacted, such as using a shoe box to put the spider outside or calmly asking someone else to remove it.
From a more psychological angle, I will use an example from my own life. At one point I worked in a very busy fast food kitchen. I was constantly under stress. Every order that came through made me feel more overwhelmed, and I was certain that the orders would not be filled in sufficient time and the customers would get angry. The constant fear of this perceived threat had me unbearably tense; it felt like swimming in an ocean full of sharks and just waiting for one to bite.
When I tried applying the wise mind principle, I began to see that the threat wasn't real. The customers never complained, no matter how busy we were. In fact, the busier we were, the more they understood that they might have to wait a little longer. As long as the wait was reasonable and we were polite, they left happy. From then on, when I began to get overwhelmed I took a deep breath and remembered that the threat was in my head. It helped me manage the stress and get through my shift (It is worth mentioning that I also realized that this particular job was not for me. Sometimes the best course of action is to remove the stressor).
An important note: the goal should not be to suppress the emotional mind altogether! This might have worked for Mr. Spock, but for everyone else it is a recipe for disaster. First of all, it is impossible, and repressed emotions have a habit of jumping to the surface in uncontrollable ways. Secondly, as stated above the emotional mind is where you find your compassion and empathy. Divorcing those qualities from your decision making is sure to get you in trouble with your fellow human beings.
How to Cultivate a Wise Mind
As is the case with any skill, wise mind requires practice. The now retired Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees was quoted recently in Sports Illustrated as saying, "You do things over and over again, and when you get in a situation you like to think it becomes natural." You cannot expect to keep a wise mind in the heat of the moment if you have never practiced when things are calm.
The best way to practice is to find and join a Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) group. DBT is an offshoot of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) originally developed by psychologist Marsha Linehan for the treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder. It has since been proven to be effective in treating all manner of mood disorders and is also a great aid in battling addiction. It involves developing concrete skills, such as wise-mind, and reinforcing those skills through group practice and role playing.
In my case, DBT was a breakthrough in treating treatment-resistant major depression and anxiety. It has become much more common in recent years; I was able to find a doctor and group in a rural area. A Google search can provide more information on DBT and help you find a local practitioner. Here are a couple of links to get you started:
As far as what you can do on your own, the most effective way to practice wise mind is meditation. Now, before you roll your eyes, this does not necessarily mean sitting in the lotus position while chanting Om (though there's nothing wrong with that). Meditation takes on many forms, and you can experiment to find the method that works best for you. I prefer meditating while walking, preferably somewhere quiet like a park or wooded area - the quieter the better. The important thing is that you enter into yourself and pay attention to your mind. Don't try to force or suppress any particular thoughts or feelings, just observe them. Your goal is to be aware without passing judgment. Over time, you will not only be aware of how you feel, but you will also become aware of why you feel that way. I cannot tell you how many times I thought I was upset out about one thing only to find out after meditation that it was something else altogether.
Just like a baseball player who practices where to throw the ball on a grounder with a runner at third and one out, the more you practice wise mind, the easier it will be to keep that wise mind when the world seems to be falling apart all around you.
Practice makes Perfect
Wise Mind, Wise Life
As I said in my Hub on mindfulness, I do not mean to make any of this seem easier than it is. I have been in DBT therapy for 5 years. There is no magic solution to coping with stress or dealing with depression and anxiety. It requires work. What I can tell you is that if you put in that work, you will see results. When I began DBT, I was suicidal and unable to hold down a job. I saw the doctor and attended group therapy both every week. Now, I see the doctor every three months just to make sure everything is okay. I moved to a new city, got engaged, and I am working on becoming a teacher as well as focusing on my writing. And of course, I still practice.
Whether you suffer from health problems due to stress, have long term issues with depression and anxiety, or just want to reduce stress for a more pleasant life, learning to live with a wise mind can help. Check it out, and if you want to share any of your experiences in the comments please feel free.