Thoughts, Stress and Reality

With all the stress attendant upon the COVID-19 epidemic, I thought it might be a good idea to re-post this article from the WMS sister site, Digital Dharma.

Thoughts, Stress, and Reality

Thoughts are not real. They obviously exist – although no one is sure precisely where, or in what form – but they have no physical presence as far as anyone has been able to show. Despite what the mystics and spiritualists would like us to believe, there are no scientifically* documented instances of anyone or thing being directly moved, discomfited, stimulated, killed, or otherwise physically affected by a thought of another being. Nonetheless, thoughts can do all of those things to us who think them, and to others through our physical efforts.

Without training, our bodies and minds are not able, by and large, to discern the accuracy of our thinking. That makes sense. Belief in our immediate perception of reality keeps us alive. If we stopped to analyze the nature of the rustling in the bushes, the trajectory of the falling brick, or the intentions of the youths in the alley it could have serious effects on our potential for surviving, thriving and making babies. Over generations, folks with that sort of analytical inclination would become greatly outnumbered by those prepared to make immediate decisions, and their genes would almost certainly sink to the bottom of the pool.

Of necessity, we are programmed to take uncritical action when we perceive threats or see an opportunity to satisfy a need or desire. In the days of crocodiles, spear-dodging, and assessing the mood of the tribal chieftain or a potential mate, we were well-served by our instincts. To a considerable extent, we still are. However, when applied to situations less amenable to instinctive resolution, those same split-second decisions can cause us no end of discomfort, stress, and wrong action or inaction – even kill us, or cause us to do unnecessary harm to others.

The problem is that our bodies, controlled by the more primitive “survival” portions of our brains, do not distinguish among threats. In greater or lesser measure, we react the same physically to a harsh word from our boss, an unpleasant news item on the tube, or a child running in front of a car. Sensing a threat in all those cases, our bodies produce the well known “flight-or-fight” reaction. Our adrenal glands release hormones that allow us to burn sugar faster. Our bladders want to empty, to prepare for battle. Other chemical changes cause the metallic sensation that we call the taste of fear. Our livers release glycogen, which can rapidly be converted to sugar for energy, and so on.

We become angry, which helps overcome our fear. We get tunnel vision to concentrate our attention, and our field of vision narrows. Our reaction time decreases. Our blood circulation prioritizes the large muscles, carrying oxygen to help increase our muscular strength. We are ready and able to rush into the street and snatch the child out of the way of the approaching vehicle, even at the cost of our own lives if necessary. Having made use of this power surge, our bodies sense that the threat is over and we slowly come down from our state of alert and back to normal.

If there is actually a threat that we can respond to physically, all those changes will to help us meet it. The fight-or-flight reaction is one of the most powerful changes of which our bodies are capable. When appropriate and allowed to run its course naturally, it empowers us in ways that would not normally be available to us. However – and here is the key point – when frustrated, unresolved, or triggered inappropriately under conditions where it cannot be resolved by physical and emotional release, we are in a different kind of trouble. In bodies primed to rush into the night and throw burning sticks at encircling wolves, all that anger and unused energy wreaks havoc physically, and especially emotionally.

The times after these periods of perceived threat can be perilous indeed. They are times when we have to watch our driving, our relationships, and our thinking carefully because all can be badly skewed. If we are subject to frequent – perhaps even constant – periods of high stress, it can create major mental and physical problems.

Stress reduction is a terrifically important facet of recovery – of life in general. We can’t avoid the stress itself, but we can learn to discharge it in healthy ways so that it doesn’t create the unhealthy conditions that damage us. Stress reduction techniques are beyond the scope of this post but they include things like enough sleep, good nutrition, sufficient exercise, time to unwind from the daily grind, meditation, developing a spiritual (not religious) practice, social interaction, and talking to people who will listen to us and not frustrate our desire to let our stress out verbally.

Sound to you sort of like the basics of a good recovery program?

Me too.
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*By scientifically documented, I mean thoroughly investigated and recorded by someone whose primary interest is the collection and impartial interpretation of empirical data. This automatically excludes all religious and mystical writings and testament. Sorry about that.

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