Mindfulness in Stress I –
In recent years, the concept and practical utilization of mindfulness in managing stress has enjoyed a lot of favorable attention in professional and popular media. Programs such as John Kabat -Zin’s Mindfulness Based stress-management program in Massachusetts has been demonstrated to be very effective for individuals suffering from a variety of chronic stress and chronic pain and other medical conditions.
Despite the obvious success and importance of such programs, I am concerned about the indiscriminate use of the term “Stress” and “Stress Management”. I will endeavor to propose an alternative view of these approaches that may have implications for its utilization. First, stress is not an emotion, though in a number of emotions can cause stress. The term stress as initially used by its progenitor, Hans Selye, an Austrian born endocronologist, was actually a term borrowed from engineering, to describe a generalized response system in humans in response to any adaptational challenge whether it be an infection, emotional stress, toxicological exposure etc. He referred to this as the “general adaptation syndrome” or GAS. In more modern usage, stress has been associated more closely associated with the “flight or fight” response mediated by the sympathetic and pituitary/adrenal medullary pathway. So the bottom line here is that the term stress refers to a physiological response which can be precipitated by any number of factors. So it can be caused by any one of a number of situations in which the brain perceives a threat combined with some perceived lack of resources for coping with that threat. It can range from deciding which laundry detergent select from the hundreds of brands arrayed on the grocery shelf to feeling overwhelmed by one’s workload at one’s job.
Provided that the brain perceives a threat, signals from the hypothalamus travel next door to the pituitary gland and the sympathetic nervous system where a cascade of physiological events take place to prepare one for fighting or fleeing. heart rate speeds up, the digestive system shuts down, sugars become mobilized, muscle tension increases, pupils dilate, peripheral blood flow decreases etc, etc. All these and much more occurs to enhance survival in the face of an actual biological threat, such as say an attack by a wolf or grizzly bear. So principally, the stress response is designed to mobilize and deliver energy (glucose and oxygen) to the parts of the body (mostly the muscles) that will be needed in fleeing or fighting. The problem is, typically, no such threat actually exists and yet the body responds the only way it knows how…through this flight or fight mechanism. This stress response can be called into action quite frequently, depending on ones situation, perceived coping mechanisms, biogenetic predisposition and so on. The effects of frequent and chronic stress exposure can become cumulative and ultimately result in a number of emotional and physiological difficulties over time. These effects can range from immunological suppression, fatigue, headaches, sleep disruption, hypertension and so on.
The central question I want to pose here is why does our brain perceive threat in situations where objectively, no threat exists? If one were a soldier in combat, the threat is real and present and thus the stress response is clearly warranted. However for most of us, there is in fact no “clear and present danger” to warrant a response system which has evolutionarily evolved to enhance survival in the face of true biological peril.
The term stress has often been confused with anxiety. However, while it is true that anxiety can precipitate a stress response, stress can be provoked by any one of a number of emotional states. Regardless of the emotion elicited, it can be argued that much of our suffering, and stress is built into the very fabric of the human condition. The fact is, we were born helpless and hairless and so as neonates, remained in this exceedingly vulnerable and dependent position for a long time. That my friends, is the mother of all our fears and the incubator of much of our stress. I will elaborate on this in the next post. Stay tuned……:)
All are welcome to post comments or questions!