- by joeylott
What do the following all have in common? chronic Lyme disease, anorexia nervosa, multiple chemical sensitivity, obsessive compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, body dysmorphic disorder, and chronic dieting. There’s probably more than one correct answer to this question. But my answer is: stress. All of these conditions and many more that plague people for years or even for lifetimes contain stress as a common factor.
The trouble that I notice is that most people seem to make the mistake of believing that the stress is caused by the conditions and therefore can only be resolved by first resolving the conditions. I believe that sort of thinking only perpetuates the conditions. Although stress may result from the conditions, my own observation is that it is possible to resolve stress first, and by doing this it is possible to turn the tide and begin improving the conditions. Stress may not be the only thing that one needs to address, but by addressing stress it becomes much easier to address the other things that need to be addressed.
Here’s an example: years of restrictive eating as in anorexia nervosa requires re-feeding and nourishing the body. Eating a lot more food is absolutely essential for healing from anorexia. And the truth is that there is a turning point, a threshold, at which after eating enough for long enough the stress hormone production naturally decreases, which leads to a reduction in stress. And yet, to get to that point requires confronting patterns of stress that have held the eating disorder in place. So here is a the catch-22: you must heal the body to reduce the stress and you must reduce the stress to heal the body. So both are important. The truth is that without addressing the stress component early on the likelihood of successful re-feeding and nourishing the body is greatly diminished. Those of us who have lived with the stress and anxiety of an eating disorder know that when a person is stuck in the mode of restrictive eating the very thought of eating enough and eating foods that have previously been “forbidden” is stressful. Weight gain is often an essential part of healing from anorexia, and this too can be stressful for someone who has a distorted view of what a “healthy” weight is. So in healing eating disorders we absolutely must address stress concurrent with re-feeding.
The truth is that no matter what the condition, stress only serves to make things worse. Stress is an integral part of many unpleasant conditions, and the delusion that it creates is the belief that the stress is somehow part of a successful strategy to cope or heal from the condition. The beginning of healing is the recognition that this belief is false. Stress cannot and never will improve things. Stress is a major part of the problem, particularly when we hold it as a strategy that we believe can be successful in making positive changes. For me there is a very simple way to analyze such a belief. All that is necessary is to ask the question: “Am I feeling stressed?” If the answer is yes then I can be assured that my current strategy is not one that will work to my advantage.
Stress changes the entire metabolism. The way in which the body functions under stress is completely different from how it functions when relaxed. The autonomic nervous system is conceptually divided into the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems. Only one of those two systems can be dominant at a time. Under stress the sympathetic system is dominant. The result is that the body becomes poised for “fight or flight.” Digestion slows, immunity is reduced, blood flow to the brain is reduced, and all sorts of stress hormones are produced and flood the body in preparation for survival. We are meant to enter sympathetic dominance only under extreme and relatively rare circumstances. Otherwise, we are designed to primarily exist in parasympathetic dominance. In this mode we are relaxed, blood flow goes to the extremities and to the brain, digestion is optimal,etc.
One key thing to note about sympathetic dominance is that blood flow to the brain is reduced. In particuar, blood flow to the frontal lobes is vastly reduced. In such a state the parts of the brain associated with the stress response such as the amygdala are the only parts that continue to get proper nourishment. So it is important to understand that during states of stress cognitive functions can be impaired. In fact, it can seem as though you are making good decisions in such a state, but later on, from a more rational perspective it can be obvious how completely distorted the thinking was. Anorexia nervosa is, again, a perfect example of this. Anorexia is characterized by chronic stress, and people with this condition notoriously have very distorted perspectives – making decisions to restrict eating when already in a starving state, for example. While the addictive qualities of some of the stress hormones may play a strong role in this sort of behavior, what is also true is that stress itself produces distorted thinking because the rational thinking parts of the brain are essentially “off line.”
So once again it should start to become obvious that addressing stress is an important part of the healing process. Stress should be addressed directly along with other important factors.
So then the question is: how to address stress? My answer is this: first and foremost, understand that stress is a physiological response, and therefore you can only successfully address it by addressing it physiologically. This is significant because many people make the mistake of trying to address stress mentally, and I believe this is a mistake. Although we may experience some of the effects of stress mentally or emotionally, the truth is that these are secondary effects, not primary. Stress occurs at a purely physiological level well before it is possible to have any awareness of the mental or emotional effects.
Once you understand that stress is a physiological issue then it makes sense that the only effective way to deal with stress is to physically relax. There are plenty of techniques that use psychological devices to effectively reduce stress, but I believe that the primary way in which any of these techniques achieve success is through indirectly producing a different (non-stressed) physical response in the face of a stressful trigger. The effect is to reprogram the body so that it learns to respond to the same trigger with a relaxed (non-stress) response.
Therefore, I believe that the most effective way to address stress is to use a direct approach. Rather than indirectly provoking a relaxed response, I suggest that it is more effective to directly relax. I have written about some of the mechanisms by which I believe that stress gets programmed into the body in How Memory Affects Your Health. In that post I made some suggestions for how to reprogram memory to reduce stress and improve health. My views since then have evolved slightly, and I now believe that it is possible to reprogram to reduce stress more directly by the following process:
- Hold the stressful thought, situation, or idea in mind. Make it as mentally disturbing as is feasible and practical. (Obviously don’t go beyond your ability to do this process successfully. So use good sense here.)
- Simply observe your habitual response without trying to change anything. Do not attempt to reduce stress or change your habitual response in any way during this step. You must simply observe what you do habitually, including physical tension and (this is important) your usual strategies for trying to change the situation. You must notice that your usual strategies have not been successful, and therefore they will not be successful. Seeing this, choose to abandon your usual strategies. Commit not to engage in your usual strategies no matter what.
- Now, while still holding the stressful thought, situation, or idea in mind, relax your muscles. Notice where you are holding tension, and relax the tense muscle. Do this one muscle at a time. Notice feet, hands, forehead, jaw, shoulders, back, and belly – all of which are chronically tense for many people. Relax the muscles over and over for as long as you need to.
Doing this process you will begin to reprogram your body. You are telling your body that your thoughts and your experiences are safe – that you can meet them with calm and with a relaxed and healthy body. This process may work very quickly or it may take some time. Everyone is different. But if you commit to this, I truly believe that you will notice improvements in your life. By doing this you will begin to feel better. And you will begin to be more able to think clearly and make better decisions that are in alignment with your values and goals such as health and happiness.
I welcome your comments and questions.