Over 25 years ago I worked on a dive boat in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Before one particular dive, my friend Steve dropped the anchor overboard and to all our amazement, the line and chain paid-out completely and disappeared beneath the waves. Unfortunately, Steve had forgotten to secure the line to the bow cleat before he let go the anchor. Our captain watched the entire escapade and uttered words that I found both wise and apropos. “Steve”, he said, “if you’re gonna to be dumb, you gotta be tough.” Steve spent the rest of the day fishing the anchor, chain, and 150 feet of line off the bottom. Absentmindedness and inexperience caused Steve a bit of trouble that day. Similarly, and without intending to do so, many of us make trouble for ourselves.
So what does Steve’s story have to do with stress related illnesses? A new idea in the field is that many people unwittingly, through their own thoughts, emotions and actions, play a big part in prolonging and intensifying their own condition. The sad irony is that the harder a person tries to get better, often the worse the condition gets. By no means am I implying the condition is the fault of the person. Rather, what I’m saying is that illnesses related to stress are complicated, and therefore, it takes knowledge, attention and skill to heal it. Getting better starts by first not making the condition worse, and that’s hard to do! Let me explain.
Every event (positive, negative or neutral) in a person’s life generates corresponding reactions in the form of emotions, thoughts and behavior. Such reactions reflect that person’s reading of the event. Psychologists call these interpretations, “appraisals.” Appraisals are gut level, pre-verbal judgments. Evidence suggests that when a person experiences overwhelming distress, he or she is likely to appraise the situation in one or a combination of the following three ways:
- The situation represents a loss
- The situation represents a threat
- The situation represents an injustice
Appraisals then set the thematic tone of a person’s internal dialogue. A loss appraisal makes a person think that he or she has been damaged. The story of loss then leads to the emotion of sadness. If the story of loss persists, it will lead to depression. A threat appraisal causes a person to think that he of she will not be able to cope. Stories of threat cause the emotion of fear to arise, and can eventually lead to anxiety or panic. An injustice appraisal raises issues of fairness, which spurs anger and resentment. When an event is highly positive or negative, an emotional story gets going in a person’s head. These stories then draw the person’s full attention, which results in the emotion lasting long after the event has passed. Appraisals and their subsequent stories therefore prolong the above-mentioned negative emotions. With these negative emotions come “fight or flight” stress responses. Long-lasting stress is blamed for many chronic diseases; but is it the stress or the story?
The Stress-Appraisal connection sheds light on how a person’s thoughts lead to strong negative emotions that then affect the body. Let me say a few words about the concurrent bodily processes that in turn affect a person’s thoughts. Nerve impulses produce every thought we have, emotion we experience, or sensation we feel. Neurons that interact with each other form networks. In 1949, Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb first observed this self-reinforcing feedback loop: the more nerves in a network fire together, the more they wire together. This implies that a person, by repeating certain thoughts, emotions and behaviors will rewire him or herself to experience similar thoughts, emotions and behaviors in the future. Such rewiring, also known as Hebbian learning is the basis for memory, and is the defining feature of what we now call “neuroplasticity.” In this case, a brain that feels stressed will react strongly and emotionally to it and therefore keeps its attention on it. This feedback will rewire the brain (and therefore the person) to experience more stress.
A sensitized brain can then register stress without any precipitating stressful event. How scary is that? In such cases, the stress “lives” in the brain as a network effect. Unfortunately, there is no surgery, medication, therapy, or modality yet invented that will heal such sensitivity. But happily, people suffering from chronic stress related illnesses can and do get better. When a person learns to skillfully direct his or her attention in a soothing way, change and healing can happen.
Studies show that the more patients know about their condition, the better their management and outcomes. Conversely, ignorance of one’s condition increases fear, which leads to story making and more fear. Lacking understand of this mind-body connection often causes a person to get stuck in a cycle of hating thoughts and sensations, which only makes it worse. That’s why for sufferers of chronic stress-related illnesses, appraisals have more impact on their prognosis than does their diagnosis!
Over the past 30 years, neuroscientists studying mindfulness meditation have generated a lot of data. These researchers found that there is something about sitting quietly, picking a meditation object, and mindfully watching it that stimulates healing in the practitioner. One of my meditation teachers, Shinzen Young, says mindfulness has three qualities: clarity, concentration and equanimity. These qualities increase a person’s tolerance for distress, thus cutting the emotional power behind the Stress-Appraisal loop. In other words, a person who watches his or her suffering state with clarity, steadiness, and composure can heal it. Why? Mindfulness practice may be a means of self-directing neuroplasticity. Experiencing discomfort mindfully is simply a far less stressful way of being. In fact, it is healthy and calming.
I heard a statistic recently that in any one moment, there are 1000 quadrillion bits of information flowing into and circulating around a person’s body. There’s no way to validate this sum, but accurate or not, it makes an important point: there’s a lot happening inside each of us! Freud talked about the unconscious, and you can see why: we can’t pay attention to everything. But those who learn to meditate gain insight into otherwise unconscious processes that enable them to make healthy changes. Meditators learn to become ever more aware of their internal experience. Meditation is therefore a way to enter the mind-body’s internal conversation and consciously change the story. There may be no other reasonably reliable means to steer neuroplastic changes. For that reason, healing any stress-related condition is an inside job.
The research coming out of the fields of both pain science and meditation agrees: absentmindedness and inexperience in mindfulness can lead to suffering states. My job as a therapist and meditation teacher therefore is clear: to teach my clients how to be mindful of distressing states as they arise, and, to give them tools that then enable them to skillfully manage those same states. In the immortal words of Captain William Bligh: “the beatings will continue until moral improves.” What this means for us is that healing requires a shift in perspective. Instead of resisting what one does not like, accept and work with it so it may pass away by itself. The better you are at that, the less trouble you will get into and therefore the less tough you will need to be. Let me teach you a mindfulness practice. It’s easier than you think and it will positively change your life.
Wishing you the best health and happiness,