What Your Stress Response Says About You

As a psychotherapist, I often hear people talk about how they just get so stressed out over the smallest stuff but they feel like they can’t control it. They know the stress is not good for them and that they should not get so stressed over such small things, but it just keeps happening anyways. “Something happens, blood pressure goes up and there is not much I can do about it. I just get so easily stressed out.” I hear this a lot.

This morning I watched an interesting lecture on depression given at Stanford University by Robert Sapolsky, who is an author and one of the world’s leading nueroendocronologists. In this lecture, which I will link to below if you are interested in watching it, Sapolsky explains how depression is a serious biological disease just like diabetes. In fact, Sapolsky states that depression is one of the most damaging diseases that a person can experience.

What I found really interesting about Sapolsky’s lecture was when he started talking about how depression as a state where someone cannot get out of bed, is not really what depression is. A more accurate biological manifestation of depression is a continual heightened stress response. This means that a defining characteristic of a person with depression is an continual activation of their stress response. Interesting, right? Like a machine gun going off all day, a person with depression is often experiencing an uncontrollable stress response to various things in their life that don’t warrant the kind of stressed out response they get. This gradually wears a person down over time and causes them to feel worn out, low energy, low drive and unable to get out of bed at times.

We often think of depression as a depressed or heavy state. I found it fascinating that depression can manifest as an over-active, hyper-stimulated state. A person who is always getting upset or stressed out over the simplest things (like dishes not be done, being late, closet not organized, someone cutting them off in traffic or saying something they don’t like, etc, etc…) is actually experiencing a major symptom of depression.

I am interested in this because as a mindfulness teacher and practitioner one of my main interests in mindfulness is its ability to help us get much more skilled when it comes to dealing with our stress response. Instead of our stress response to various little things causing our entire day to be ruined because we get so upset or stressed out, mindfulness helps us to respond positively to our stress response by noticing that it has kicked in and then being able to let it go. This is often called self-regulation.

Since an elevated and often uncontrollable stress response is a main characteristic of depression, I find this lecture encouraging since it validates what I already know- that regular mindfulness practice is an effective intervention for depression (and anxiety). Practicing mindfulness also encourages a person to take a more active role in their mental and physical health rather than engaging in learned helplessness, which causes the depressed state to spiral downwards.

 

You can watch the lecture here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOAgplgTxfc

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What The World Really Needs Now

It saddens me deeply to see what is going on in the world today. What happened just today in Barcelona is such a sad tragedy. Las Ramblas district in Barcelona is such an old, gothic, literary, multi-cultural and cool part of the world. I had some of the best times of my life in Las Ramblas district. There is so much life, beauty, art, personality and inspiration there. It makes me so sad to see what has happened today in this part of the world.

Much of the time I just don’t fully understand all this senseless violence that is going on. I understand that it is a manifestation of hate, acts of war. I understand that many radicalized people are at war with people, values and countries whom they find fault with. But what I don’t understand is how people could be so deeply identified with certain thoughts, beliefs and emotions that they are willing to kill, injure and traumatize so many people. This kind of obsessive and profound identification with the ego just escapes my ability to comprehend.

I understand that we all have things that outrage us, upset us. I understand that many of us can feel hateful and resentful. But to hurt other people? To run people over with a van, bus or car? Are you kidding me? This is pure madness as far as I am concerned. The fact that someone can get this caught up in their own thoughts and emotions, is one of the real tragedies as far as I am concerned.

All thoughts and emotions are like clouds drifting across the sky. No matter how important we think our beliefs, grievances and problems are- it will all be dust soon enough. A hundred years ago people were equally as caught up in all of their problems and where are they now? Where are all their problems now? Too get so caught up in what we think, believe and feel is such a mistake in logic that the consequences, as we are seeing, can be so tragic.

Logically we know that we are all here on earth for a limited time. Logically we know that the things we stress out over, when placed in a larger context, are really not that big of a deal. Logically we know that thoughts, emotions and beliefs are not really worth getting so stressed out over. It is only when we are being illogical that we get caught up in the smaller picture. We lose perspective and forget that we are all mortal and these things really do not matter as much as we think that they do. Unfortunately, so many people are stuck in illogical ways of being right now.

When we are able to just become present, to relax that tight grip on our identification with all of our thoughts, emotions and beliefs, what we notice is that some semblance of logic begins to return. We get more clarity. We become aware of the bigger picture and as a result our thoughts and emotions and beliefs and problems don’t feel like as big of a deal. Unfortunately, so much of the harm and tragedy being committed in today’s world is a result of people who are lost in an illogical state. They become so illogical that the illogic feels logical, normal. But it is not normal. The consequences of being lost in illogical states of mind sometimes manifests in the form of a willingness to run innocent people over, hurting others. This is not sane.

What the world needs now is more logic. Please, you may feel like there is nothing to be done about the events unfolding in the world today. You may feel fearful and/or helpless. But one thing you can do is not perpetuate illogical ways of being in your own family, relationships, community. If you are someone who is taking all of your problems and emotions and thoughts very seriously see if you can stop doing it. You are not in a logical state. See if you can just return your attention to the present moment and return to a more logical state. A state with some semblance of peace, non-reactivity, perspective and calm. You may think this is no big deal but I assure you- the last thing the world needs now is more people caught in the grip of their egos running around.

I once had a teacher who told me that it was so important that I remain peaceful and loving even though at the time I was teaching high school in the inner city and living in a city I felt was so full of violence and anger. She told me that if even one person could practice being loving and calm in the middle of what was a city filled with anger, busyness, violence and egotism, that this person could have a powerful opposite effect in various ways. This is often called The Butterfly Effect.

So, if possible, please stop attaching so strongly to everything you think, feel and believe. Loosen the grip a bit. Settle more into a place of calm and ease. Relax. Let some degree of logic return. I could be wrong but I feel that this is what the world needs right now, more than anything else.

Spending Time More Mindfully

I often hear people say, “I just need to do more.” Doing more seems to have become one of the more popular themes in our day and age. People need to meditate more, exercise more, eat healthy more, have fun more, work more, have sex more, socialize more, make more money, behave more, love more, post on social media more, spend more time with loved ones and on and on and on. How much more can we really do before we spontaneously combust? I think we are already doing enough.

When I have this conversation with people I normally say that I do not think it is about doing more as much as it is about learning how to spend time more mindfully. This is often referred to as time management but I am not a big fan of this term since it sounds so rigid and strict. Instead, I prefer to think of it as learning to spend the time that we do have in more mindful ways.

Most people already do way too much and to compensate for the burn out and stress that doing too much creates, we spend much of our time in various states of withdrawal and distraction. Whether we are on our phones, on social media, drinking at the bar, surfing the internet, watching television or YouTube, playing video games, creating unnecessary drama for ourselves and others, over sleeping or just spending too much time doing nothing- these (and many others) are ways that we tend to deal with the stress in our lives. The problem with these distractions is not the distractions themselves but the amount of time we spend immersed in them. These distractions often take up a good chunk of our time and we end up spending the rest of our time just trying to catch up. This is why habitual distractions are often referred to as negative coping strategies.

What I ask other people (and myself) to do is to ask themselves, “What is really important to you? How do you want to spend your time while you are still healthy and alive?” Then I recommend to write it down and post it where you can see it and then try and do more of whatever the answers are. This is the beginning of spending our time more mindfully.

Another important part of spending time more mindfully is to be aware of when we are not doing the things that are important to us because we are caught back up in the habit of distraction and then to stop doing whatever it is that we are distracting ourselves with. To get back on track as soon as we become aware that we are just killing time.

We only have a certain amount of time a day when we have the energy and attention to be able to do the things that are important to us. This is why it is so important to spend our time wisely. Habitual distractions take up larger chucks of time than a person is normally aware of. Just the simple act of checking your phone or the internet for ten minutes here and there can take up hours a day if a person is not mindful. Then what often happens is that we spend the rest of our time just trying to catch up and the cycle of stress and distraction from stress continues.

In spending your time more mindfully you are making a daily effort to really do the things that are important to you and not spend as much time doing the things that are not of much importance to you. Being mindful can help us be aware of when we are getting caught up in things that are just a habitual distraction and then return to doing what really matters most to us. We all only have so much healthy time allotted to us, this is why it is so important to learn to live our lives more mindfully.