Heed the Message, Don’t Shoot the Messenger

VirginIslandsNP_EN-US154535774The messages provided by the stress reaction that something is wrong, or dangerous, or simply requires our attention are often very powerful, even debilitating. Just think of the feeling we get in our gut (seat of the enteric nervous system) when something is not quite right. Even though we might not identify the threat right away, the stress signal activates our body’s defense almost instantaneously and we become fully alert. In the absence of a clearly identifiable threat, or upon identification of a threat that we cannot immediately escape, we may choose to treat stress itself as if it were the enemy. The common phrase, “I have too much stress” should in fact be restated as, “I have people, situations or circumstances that are an emotional, physical or mental threat to my well-being.”

Turning off the stress alert system is possible, especially with the use of powerful drugs or alcohol, at least for time. In fact, this amounts to unscrewing the warning lights on a dashboard so as not to be bothered by what they signal. The stress messenger conveys valuable information in the form of neural signals (mediated by the limbic system), sensations, and subjective feelings. The messenger does its job, the way it should, to ensure our survival. Nevertheless, the repeated stress signals may rise to a high and uncomfortable level of intensity, depending on the perceived dangerousness of the situation. That noxious feeling of being stressed is trying to give us a priority notification, to make sure that certain signals (which represent an important message) grab our full attention. Refusing to heed the signals of stress, or simply shutting them off or ignoring them, is not an appropriate response.

The best use we can make of stress messages is twofold:

  1. Use its intensity and the timing of its occurrence to become aware and acknowledge that a psychological or physical threat exists, and gauge its significance. For example, an immediate physical danger will elicit a more immediate and dramatic body reaction than a psychological threat that may occur in the future.
  2. Identify and address the cause of the stress reaction (which is usually accompanied by more or less severe anxiety) and focus our attention on it, with the aim of confronting, reducing or eliminating the stressor. For example, in a relationship that isn’t quite working the way it should the stress signal is the anxiety and worry over it, the stressor is that painful aspect of the relationship that needs to be confronted, reduced or eliminated.

In short, stress is the message, the stressor is its cause. It is much more productive to focus our efforts on the stressor, rather than just unscrew and throw out the red light bulb.

Mindfulness for Absolute Beginners

aaCarignano_SolferinoMindfulness meditation is the wonderfully effective relaxation technique that along with yoga, tantric meditation, mantra or transcendental meditation, has become an increasingly popular forms of stress management. The therapeutic value of meditation in producing positive effects on psychological well-being and ameliorating symptoms of a number of disorders has become widely studied and accepted. But, what is it and how does it work? Here is a primer for the absolute beginner, to start mindfulness relaxation today!

What Is It? The Way of Breath Awareness

Vipassanā (Pāli) or vipaśyanā (विपश्यना in the original Sanskrit) in the Buddhist tradition means insight into the true nature of reality. Vipassana practice, or insight meditation, makes use of breath to focus attention and to let go of quasi-obsessive analytical thinking, which can be very stressful. Breath is simply used to increase concentration. The focus on breath is a powerful way to redirect attention, because it is always readily available, is directly connected to the stress reaction, and is naturally rhythmic and repetitive. Mindfully redirecting attention to the breath when we feel particularly stressed reduces reactivity and provides a positive physiological feedback system that balances the responses of the nervous system.

How Does It Work? The Benefits of Open Awareness

Open awareness is the core objective of mindfulness meditation. The follo0wing are simple instructions to focus awareness on the breath and is the essence of the mindfulness technique (from Stress Management: A Comprehensive Guide to Wellness by E. A. Charlesworth—read the book review).

  1. Find a quiet place and time. If you prefer, set a timer for 20 to 40 minutes. Become comfortable in your chair, sitting with a relaxed but straight, erect posture that is balanced but not straining. Allow your hands to rest comfortably in your lap. Loosen any tight clothing that will restrict your stomach. Gently close your eyes.
  2. Simply allow your body to become still. Allow your shoulders, chest, and stomach to relax. Focus your attention on the feeling of your breathing. Begin by taking two or three deeper breaths from your diaphragm, letting the air flow all the way into your stomach, without any push or strain, and then flow gently back out again. Repeat these two or three deep breaths, noticing an increased sense of calm and relaxation as you breath in the clean, fresh air and breath out any sense of tension or stress.
  3. Now let your breathing find its own natural, comfortable rhythm and depth. Focus your attention on the feeling of your breath as it comes in at the tip of your nose, moves through the back of your throat, into your lower diaphragm, and back out again, letting your stomach rise and fall naturally with each breath.
  4. Allow your attention to stay focused on your breath and away from the noise, the thoughts, the feelings, the concerns that may usually fill your mind.
  5. As you continue, you will notice that the mind will become caught up in thoughts and feelings. It may become attached to noises or bodily sensations. You may find yourself remembering something from your past or thinking about the future. This is to be expected. This is the nature of the mind. If the thought or experience is particularly powerful, without self-judgment, simply observe the process of the mind. You might note to yourself the nature of the thought or experience: “worry,” “planning,” “pain,” “sound.” Then gently return your attention to the breath.
  6. And again, as you notice your mind wandering off, do not be critical of yourself. Understand that this is the nature of the mind—to become attached to daily concerns, to become attached to feelings, memories. If you find your mind becoming preoccupied with a thought, simply notice it, rather than pursuing it at this moment. Understand, without judging, that it is the habit of your mind to pursue the thought. When you notice this happening, simply return your attention to your breathing. See the thought as simply a thought, an activity that your mind is engaging in.
  7. When you are ready, gently bring your attention back just to the breath. Now bring your attention back into the space of your body and into the space of the room. Move around gently in the space of the chair. When you are ready, open your eyes and gently stretch out.

How Long and How Often? Practice Makes Perfect

Mindfulness meditation, like all things worth doing, requires a certain amount of effort and the setting aside of a certain amount of time. Ideally, 20 to 40 minutes once or twice per day, for at least two months. Daily practice produces the best results in training the mind to shift into a mindful state. Shorter periods of time of 5–10 minutes are very helpful in specific situations, when a quick relaxation is needed. Only practicing mindfulness meditation situationally, however, will work when you have learned the technique well. It may not be as effective in the beginning, when it may take more than 5-10 minutes to relax, particularly in moments of high anxiety or stress.

September 11

FlagRigger_EN-US1903695983Memory is learning. The persistence of memory helps us make sense of what has already happened, to hold on to the felt experience of happiness, accomplishment, mistake and pain, so that we can learn what to pursue more eagerly and what to avoid at all cost. Memory is the accumulation of life.

There are many ways of looking at September 11, 2001. We can replay the images of that day in our mind as we would watch a documentary. Many of us can do that, and examine the events as they unfolded from many different points of view. Or, we can re-experience the memories of those events as we would watch a horror movie. Many of us are still beset by the images and the sounds of that day, and are far from being able to just remember what happened. They remember and indeed also relive vividly all the emotions of that day.

911memorialDocumentary memories are transferred to another part of the brain, where they become archival items of experience. Unless they are intentionally recalled, they cause no special emotion. Indeed, the emotions associated with the original events are also memories, much like the sound track attached to a recording.

Traumatic memories never quite make it to the other side of the brain. No intentional recall is necessary, as they are ready to resurface at any moment, given the right trigger. These memories are intrusive, pervasive, they are the stuff of nightmares. The picture of a jetliner flying into one building, the second aircraft flying into its twin… Emotions are far from just a memory: we are back there, at that very moment, heart racing, sweat beads and all.

Freedom_Tower_NewAfter a traumatic event, persistent emotion-laden memories can help foster a syndrome, post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. The experience never quite goes into the archive. Bits and chunks of it just lie around, waiting to be re-experienced again and again. And so it is for many of our generation with 9/11, as it was for the prior one with the assassination of John or Robert Kennedy or Martin Luther King. Earlier than that it was Pearl Harbor, or the long horrors of the Great Depression.

Remembering what we lost that day of September, 10 years ago today—people, buildings, and peace. Will we, who lived through that day, ever truly be able to watch the Towers come down—as a documentary?