Stress is a necessary part of life that helps mobilize us into action when we need it most. However, left unchecked, prolonged exposure and traumatic events can lead to a host of debilitating symptoms–including burnout, compassion fatigue, PTSD, chronic pain and medically unexplained symptoms, as well as anxiety and depression
While society is generally aware of the dangers that can come about when we are unable to properly manage our stress-levels, many people have struggles in not only recognizing the symptoms, but in adequately responding to them. It seems only fitting that we try to understand why this is the case, and what we can do about it.
The last article sought to unpack this quandary by covering the first of three values (#1 ‘Why We Struggle With Self Care’) that North Americans subscribe to which ostensibly contribute to our growing stress-epidemic. This entry adds to the discussion by focusing on our culture’s preferred outlook on life and way of dealing with adversity, along with its subsequent behavioral adaptations.
Good Health Comes From a Positive Attitude -> Challenges with Authenticity
The Science Behind Positive Thinking
Something that has caught on like wildfire in the past few decades is the notion of the power of our mind in shaping our experience. “Change your thoughts, change your life” is the general gist of a lot of self-help literature, with the notion that many of our mental and physical health concerns are related to poor habits of thinking.
In a lot of ways, this makes sense. If I have a thought after being berated by my boss that “I am a failure”, and I believe that thought to be true about myself as part of my identity, then I will have a subsequent feeling of sadness. I also might have a corresponding physiological response of collapse in my body.
If I then go off afterward and start ruminating over that interaction, so that it keeps me occupied for the rest of the day, I will effectively be training my mind to emit the same chemicals that stem from the activated neural network around the event. This process could be described as “what fires together, wires together”, which is attributed to Hebb’s rule of associated learning by strengthening the synaptic strength between the cells–also known as neuroplasticity.
Therefore, on paper, it would seem quite practical then to want to encourage the ‘right’ neurons to come together by intentionally promoting positive thinking in one’s life, so that we can feel ‘up’. It also would be understandable to want to try to prune away all the ‘negative thoughts’ and associated down-feelings…because why stand in the rain when the sun is just around the corner?!
The Rise of Putting On Appearances
This last point concerning the notion of choice, or decision-making when it comes to our mental state is a big one with regards to how we respond to our emotions and stress. No matter how hard a day we might have had, or if we simply just woke up in a bad mood, the standardized response we are conditioned to give to those who ask us how our day tends to be: “Good!”, “Great”, “Well”, etc. If we are having an exceptionally challenging day, we might even say “Fine” or “Ok”.
These cordial lines we offer can all be geared towards a hard reset, or manual override of our internal processing systems in order to display an agreeable appearance to others. The rationale behind this is that, even though I may not be feeling at this moment like a “Happy 10”, if I can ‘Fake it till I make it’, I can eventually get there.
The Threat of Non-Compliance
The motivations for doing this aren’t just personal. The underlying fear with conveying anything outside the realm of hunky-dory, or life-as-usual, is that you will be marked as a threat and cast out of the herd of normalcy. By taking off your mask and exposing your true feelings, you are effectively betraying the unspoken civic agreement implicitly held by people which is maintained by a “Keep calm, Carry on” attitude.
Given that we are a society that is based on productivity and performance, where everyone plays their role in maintaining the status-quo, hearing that someone is displeased with their job or considering taking some time off for their mental health can be construed as a disruptive force to the system; a cog in the wheel.
On top of this, people who have learned to dampen their own difficult feelings will be highly uncomfortable around those who express theirs, as the act of vulnerable disclosure can evoke that which they have denied in themselves. A good example of this would be on the occasions when you’ve been on a bus, train, or plane with a crying baby. The way you respond to their wails can be representative of how you were relating to your internal distress around that period.
The Loss of Connection to Self
* Affecting Relationships
The result of our internalized value of ensuring that we ‘keep it together’ and put on a ‘happy front’ is that we forfeit our internal experience with our emotions and bodies. In essence, we reject ourselves in order to be accepted by the masses, as well as to keep the peace among our closer relations. The consequences of this primal disconnection are vast, with many that go under the radar due to the challenges of pin-pointing causation.
To offer some of the more clear examples, if I am not in connection with my emotions, then I will have a hard time evaluating when someone is either treating me appropriately or not. The core emotions of anger, sadness, disgust, or fear may rise, but they will quickly be thwarted—because at some time I learned that expressing these basic feelings was not acceptable. The subconscious inhibition then leads to anxiety and built-up stress in the body. The positive intention behind this emotional subterfuge is to try and defuse potential conflict. But the end result is that the affected person thereby embodies the conflict via internal tension—maintained through the impulse to express and address the emotional injury in juxtaposition with the desire to maintain the relational attachment at all costs.
This leads to abusive or non-affirming, one-sided relationships, where the disempowered individual is caught in a losing battle to have his or her rights and needs recognized. This dynamic can be found in a number of relationships, including work, intimate partners, friends and family.
Conversely, after a certain amount of time, when the pent-up feelings reach a breaking point on the mind’s psychic defenses, the long-denied core emotions of hurt and frustration can erupt in damaging behaviors to self and others that may seem uncharacteristic to the individual. This is what we might call those ‘losing-it’ moments where the person has an outburst of rage to what appears on the surface as unwarranted reactions to minor altercations. People may be shocked to see these highly volatile states coming from ordinarily docile or collected individuals. A mixture of confusion, fear, panic, and shame will accompany these breakdown incidents for the affected person, as they may have a hard time recollecting or integrating the experience.
A common report on the event would be describing it as “I was not myself” or “I felt outside of my body…as if watching it happen from a distance”. These unfortunate moments of loss of inhibition become the person’s worst nightmare, which can entail being physically and emotionally abusive—typically towards the people that they care about most.
* Affecting Physical Health
The other big consequence of ignoring our signs and symptoms of distress is that the bottled-up energy brought about by our repressed emotions has been shown to not only influence our overall moods but affect our physical health–including our immune, musculoskeletal, and cardiovascular systems. As Gabor Mate’s preeminent book on the costs of hidden stress has indicated, when one’s emotional boundaries are being constantly invaded, and the person is unable to acknowledge their needs and have them adequately met, eventually the body will speak for what the mouth was unable to say: “No!”.
What You Can Do About It
1) Reality Check – Emotional Inventory
For many of us, our personal emotional repertoire is quite limited. It generally goes as follows… “I feel good…bad…not good…weird…etc”. When encouraged to get more articulate and detailed, especially towards our more vulnerable emotions, you may be quite hesitant, or event resistant to the notion. Perhaps you learned at one time that it wasn’t acceptable to even feel, let alone express these things.
The thing is, losing touch with these core emotions translates to a disconnect from our internal experience, with resulting tension being stored in the body. When this happens, we are no longer being present to our reality, and consequently will suffer in a myriad number of ways. While we may try to redirect our perception of the problem as being ‘out there’ in the world—ie. “From living in a digitized world” or “our uber reliance on technology”–the only way through this is by first reconnecting with ourselves.
Duration: 2-5 minutes
When: Either periodically throughout the day (ie. heading off to work; after lunch; going home from work), or after feeling rising anxiety levels as a result of an interaction with a colleague, partner, friend, or family member.
1) Find yourself an area of relative safety, where you typically won’t be interrupted. This is possible to do in public, such a transit, but perhaps after having some practice.
2) Either standing or sitting down, take some deep breaths while noticing the connection between your feet and the ground. You can even imagine breathing energy from your lungs downward, through your legs, and into the ground.
3) Do a quick body scan, noticing any areas of tension. If you are experiencing anxiety, ask yourself how your anxiety is showing up in your body—physiologically. Perhaps there is a tightness in your chest, or a dropping sensation in your belly. The key thing here is to address these sensations from a place of curiosity
4) As your attention goes to these activated areas, stay with these sensations as you reflect back on the day. Perhaps there is a recent interaction that comes readily to mind. Allow whatever comes up in your mind’s eye to appear—an older memory may also materialize.
5) When being present to the mental image or memory, pay attention to what core feelings arise in your body. Is it: fear, sadness, anger, disgust, excitement, or joy? And when you are able to recognize the presence of one of these, how is that experienced in the body? It is not uncommon to have more than one feeling being activated. However, it is helpful to separate them to notice their unique felt-sense experience.
* At any time, if the feelings and sensations that arise become too much, or overwhelming, you are to desist from continuing. This exercise is meant to promote more of a capacity to ‘be with’ your emotions. Similar to developing your physical flexibility, too much too soon only complicated matters and is unsafe.
2) Connect With Your ‘Real’ People
While I have been maintaining that many of us could benefit from getting ‘more real’ with people in relation to disclosing our internal state of affairs, I want to add that I am not encouraging us to suddenly become open books with our emotions. There is a decided difference in the amount of my personal life I will disclose between a close friend or a work colleague. Not all relationships are the same. But for those individuals in your life who you feel ‘get’ you and can act as a supportive, empathetic ear to your struggles, sharing what’s been going on for you can be immensely therapeutic. Opening up about our hard times not only takes us away from our felt-sense of isolation, but it also helps us create some order around chaos by putting our experience into words. When we are able to label something we thereby create some distance to it, making it more manageable.
* But what if you feel like you don’t have many (or any!) of these kind of people in your life? Well, you can develop these relationships slowly through mindful disclosure around smaller-case issues. Maybe you don’t dump your deepest, darkest secret on them, but you can test out the waters by talking about a tough-day you had. If they seem responsive, then great! But if their response comes off as quirt or dismissive, try not to take it on so personally.
If we were to recognize the systemic use of emotional suppression, many people’s emotional containers will undoubtedly be full—leaving little to no room to be available for others showing signs of distress. This doesn’t mean you need to cut these people out of your life. No doubt they can still be there for you in many ways…just as you can be for them. Your understanding can be one such example of this. You can still continue your search. This can include finding support groups, or hey, even a registered therapist :).
* Mate, G. (2003). When the body says no: The hidden costs of stress. TorontoL AA. Knopf Canada
Previously Published on connectin-counselling.com
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