Understanding Stress and Distress
Stress can be defined as the distortion of the internal structure of an object by the imposition of an external pressure.Yet, human beings experience stress, often without apparent distortion. This is because any distortion can be so hidden that it is not easily recognized. In the human being, we are blessed with sensitive receptors that alert us to injuries in any part of the body to allow us to protect it. So, we are often made aware of distortions of even modest levels long before they are represented externally. Thus, we can experience a stress when an organ system is only slightly affected by the pressures imposed from outside. It is also partly because the human being is also a sophisticated mind. This entity can also be stressed. When stressed, it is a distortion that can no more be measured than thought itself. So the stressed mind can experience the stress but cannot manifest it externally to even the most astute observer. An observer is relegated to visualizing his/her own perceptions of a described stress and assuming these to be the experiences of the other.
It is not difficult to see that, since the body is composed of various organ systems, a stress can be induced by one organ system acting as the external factor to another organ system. A distorted liver, for example, can create such pressure on the circulatory system that heart disease can ensue. In the same way, a stressed mind can act as the external force on any part of the body creating a stress response even when a recognized external pressure does not exist. For example, the driving force on the body when scared can so distort all organ systems that there is total collapse known as a panic attack.
Obviously, a stress can be prevented either by reducing the external pressure if it can be defined, or strengthening the internal structure. In the body, structure can be strengthened with the use of a balanced diet and rest. Sometimes, the specific weakness can be discovered and treated. Then, the diet can be supplemented with recognized nutrients or medications. Then too, the rest can be augmented with a temporary separation from the stressors or the short-term use of tranquillizers. In the mind, ‘structure` can be strengthened only with education or the use of psychotherapy. Since, however, stress in the human being can be highly subjective, assistance in preventing it is not always appropriately directed. The sufferer must, therefore, learn to be the healer. This treatise is intended to provide the sufferer with some tools to become the healer of his/her own stresses.
In a mechanical model, an object, say a box, maintains its wholeness (integrity) because internal forces are balanced against external pressures. In the case of a box, the internal forces are the tensile strengths of the fibres (wood or paper). The external pressures are the weights, humidity, temperature etc. that are imposed on the structure of the box. The box is designed with sufficient tensile strengths to withstand the pressures consistent with its use. If, for example, a weight greater than the box is designed to bear is placed on the box, the internal fibres become stretched, distorted, or even broken. In other words, the box is stressed`. (Do not laugh – this term, originally coined as an engineering term, was imported into the psychological model only recently.) Such stress can occur whether the external pressure is an increase of weight, humidity, or temperature. Sometimes the distorted tensile fibres manifest externally as a distortion of the box. Sometimes, the box appears undisturbed, only to fall apart with the least added pressure.
This process is not very different for the human being. We too have the equivalent of a tensile strength. In our bodies they are the biochemical and physiological activities that maintain the integrity of the body. In our psyche, they are the emotional strengths of courage and wisdom that define our integrity as a person. Thus, the human being can have two levels of stress, that of the body and that of the mind. Unlike the mechanical object, however, these ‘structures` are highly complex. In addition to the mechanical structure of each organ system, there is a dynamic balance between the biochemical and physiological activities of the various organ systems of the body. This balance is necessary for the performance of the body as a whole. Distortion can be more readily introduced into a dynamic system than in a fixed one. Similarly, there is a dynamic balance between the strengths of courage and wisdom that gives rise to the performance of the mind. Wisdom gives courage and courage nurtures wisdom. When they are not in balance, a distortion, that is a stress on the integrity of the mind, can arise.
Let us first consider the body. Stress in the body can be initiated when external pressures distort the balance that is held between the separate organ systems by the biochemical or physiological interaction. Thus, the distortion produces illness or pain, sometimes manifested as an identifiable disease, sometimes not manifested externally, for example, feelings of malaise, headaches etc. This is the state of distress.
In a similar way, the mind can be ‘stressed` by external events that challenge the internal strengths of wisdom and courage. So an event that arises from activities that are beyond present experience can stress the psychological strength of wisdom. On the other hand, events like rejection, criticism, or uncertainty can erode the strength of courage and cause similar psychological stress. Then, the mind manifests its stress internally with emotional pain, and externally as behavioural maladaptations. This is the state of mental distress.
Of course, just as with the box or the body, the mind can be internally stressed without this stress being externally manifested. Then a simple pressure may be all that is needed to have a total breakdown. In a world of such immensity that is so easily reached with modern technology, it is hardly surprising, therefore, that anyone`s wisdom can be exceeded by events that could not possibly be experienced earlier by that person. Similarly, in these time of change, the pressures of uncertainty, and with that rejection and criticism, can so easily arise that even the most resilient person can be weakened.
Thus, our first observation is that the internal disturbance that is a stress on the integrity of the psyche can affect anyone anytime. Even a visionary leader is not immune to these stresses. The wise can, at times, be as easily wounded as the ignorant. Our second observation is that the internal disturbance can be prevented through strengthening the internal forces of courage and wisdom. Then, just as healing the body aims at restoring biochemical and physiological balance, not simply removing the pain, so must we be able to direct our management of mental/emotional stress at the restoration of the internal strengths of wisdom and courage, not just pacifying the emotions or redirecting the behaviour.
Managing The Stress Experience
We are able to manage the stress effects on the body to a limited degree through proper diet, rest and exercise. We cannot prevent a disease from occurring but, to a limited degree, we can treat many diseases and restore the integrity of the body. When we refer to stress, therefore, we usually refer to psychological stress or stress of the mind. This is not easily reached, diagnosed, or treated. This is the most disturbing stress for, regardless of whether it manifests a measurable stress on the body, it is so close to our awareness that it demands immediate attention. This paper will focus on mental stress and the only effective way it can be addressed – through strengthening personal resolve and personal confidence. It will recognize that such stress is not a measure of a person`s weakness, but is a reminder of our general ignorance in a world of vast uncertainty and instability. As Albert Einstein said when complimented by a reporter for his great wisdom, “My son, the difference between what I know and what you know is infinitesimal compared to the difference between what I know and what I still do not know.” Stress of the mind, therefore, is an inevitable experience for anyone with a desire to reach beyond existing limits or for those who live in a reality of enormous change and undeserved impositions.
The stressed mind cannot be healed by treating the behavioural maladaptations it manifests through the body. The traditional approach to ‘fixing` the wounded psyche through suppressing the emotional pain with drugs and measuring success through observation of behaviour changes can thus be self-limiting, misleading or ineffective. Remember, Freud once thought cocaine to be the wonder drug. Heroin was once included in some over the counter remedies. Diazepams and now serotonin enhancers are claiming this position. Yet, we can see from past experience that the psychological distortion ‘apparently` returns after seeming to respond to our manipulation of the secondary biochemical distortion or our suppression of the emotional pain. We must consider, however, that the human psyche is closely associated with the human body. A distressed psyche will attempt to compensate for its distortion by straining the resources of the body. Anyone can attest to the biochemical or physiological distortions that can arise from worry, anger, or fear. In fact, it is not altogether different from the back pain that can arise as the body compensates for an injured leg. As a result, a psychological distortion can evoke a biochemical distortion. Therefore, we must not be fooled into believing that, by treating a concomitant biochemical disorder, we have also healed the distressed psyche.
Let us learn, therefore, to treat the psychological distortion for what it is – a natural stress of the psychological integrity caused by external events that are larger than the internal strengths of the individual at that time. Of course, every measure is relative. The event may be unfairly large relative to a highly developed wisdom. Similarly, wisdom may be extraordinarily small relative to a naturally evolved event. We cannot provide wisdom to another. People must be directed and encouraged to procure it themselves. We cannot provide courage. The person must be taught how to develop it within the conditions in which they function. It is these challenges that make the process of psychotherapy, not only difficult for the well intentioned therapist, but fair game for those with delusions of being able to provide the better answer. In fact, no one can create the ideal solution for another. There are no ten easy answers to being a better manager of any of the pressures, whether from life, business, or relationships. The person must create his/ her own answers. The only help we can give is to guide the person, assuming that they are not chronically disturbed, but simply made unwell by the pressures from an external event they do not have the internal strengths to manage. As a result, let us see how we can both reverse a psychological distortion that is established and control the evolution of a new one before it begins.
In a world of imposing immensity and persistent change, we cannot contain the external pressures. We can only attempt to expand the internal strengths of the person facing those pressures. As human beings, we will always be bombarded by the immensity of work and the uncertainty of life to a degree greater than our developed strengths can resist. Rejection and criticism will always reach us. Therefore, we must have the internal strengths to resist greater pressures than we can do automatically and easily. To expand our internal strengths we must first realize that no one is so experienced that their wisdom will embrace all events that can arise. Wisdom, a quality we do not possess at birth, can be created progressively if only we can harness the courage to analyze events as changing paradigms, look for the patterns within those paradigms, and understand them as they appear. Courage, therefore, is the variable we must protect or immunize. This cannot be achieved if courage is derived from external sources either of success, acceptance, or prescribed motivation since these external sources are secured within changing paradigms. Courage must be self-initiated, nurtured from a measure of self that cannot be eroded by the uncertainties of life. But how do we measure self?
As a measure of self, wisdom is always insufficient relative to the vastness of new events or the new twists that will consistently arise in old events. As a measure of self, the performance of our body or its appearance are qualities that cannot endure. A tiny virus or a simple injury can negate our best prepared presentation. As a measure, our acceptability is unpredictable. Our friends cannot always be there, and when they are, they cannot always be focused on our needs, or they will measure us against standards that are inappropriate to our efforts.
Instead, we must learn to measure ourselves by the product of our efforts. And our efforts only produce one thing. That is wisdom. It is the application of wisdom that apears to produce an effect in this world. Yet the effect is never lasting. Wisdom is the only product that endures. It is only the vastness of our world and the variability of its presentation that make wisdom appear to be depleted. Consider having to fix a broken chair, for example. Your initial impulse is to fix it. This is your apparent product. Yet, the first thing you really do is assess the damage. Stop there. Only one thing has been produced at this point. It is the insight you have derived from assessing the event and developing a way to fix the damage. The broken chair has stimulated you to produce insight, a product that is so intangible that we dismiss its importance. Now let us go on. You apply that expanded wisdom to the chair and fix it. Two products have been created. Yet, only one endures. This is the wisdom, not necessarily as a readily identifiable unit, but as an important ingredient to future events. You do not remember the importance of the first time you read the alphabet. Yet it has stayed as an important ingredient in many of your future uses of language. On the other hand, the chair stays fixed for only a limited time. It will fall apart again, perhaps to challenge another person. We, the human beings, are minds. We produce wisdom.
We must learn to see ourselves, therefore, as intelligent beings with sophisticated bodies, not as sophisticated bodies with intelligent minds. Then we can learn to measure ourselves by how we use our intelligence. If we have the wisdom to manage an event, we must recognize that our intelligence created it. If we do not have the wisdom to manage a particular event, we must conclude that our intelligence can create it. Courage then, is based on our use of our intelligence, a facet no one else can measure. Once we can learn to recognize this we can free ourselves from the fragile external measures that can so easily reject us. It is these fragile measures we once determined to be greater than us that makes us fragile. It is our self-directed measure of growth that determines the security of our internal strengths. This is true self-esteem, not to be confused with esteem derived from external recognition of success, smugness with one`s level of wisdom, or conceit regarding one`s inherited qualities. True self-esteem can allow one to create a solution and rise above an oppression even when one is stressed by an external pressure or when other support systems are in short supply.
Thus, education aimed at teaching a person to strengthen their true self-esteem does not have as its prerequisite an unwounded teacher with a multitude of applicable solutions. In fact it really does not require a teacher, just a person with true insight into the relentless instability of this world and their competence in gaining personal independence from this instability. The aim is to empower yourself to find your own answers, not seek an external source of inspiration or enlightenment. This does not require long sessions with a therapist or great brilliance on your part. It requires, however, the belief that our real objective in life is not to form and shape the world but to be formed and shaped by its challenges as growing minds, not fragile bodies. Such an objective can then truly reach your ultimate goal of modifying behaviour through healing the stressed mind, the generator of all behaviour. It can thus also go the extra step of minimizing future stress by strengthening the internal forces of wisdom and courage through the practice of self accountability and self determination. It is only through a proper understanding of the inevitability and unpredictability of change that we can address ourselves at using our greatest asset, our creativity, to explore new challenges and to keep doing so by truly UNDERSTANDING CHANGE.
UNDERSTANDING CHANGE is a technique which does not aim at relieving emotional pain or simplifying a complex society. Rather, it is directed by the UNDERSTANDING that the world will always change of its own accord. That change is the energy we use to stimulate and develop ourselves.
Whatever its format, however, education has an advantage over other chemical or mechanical alternatives. These alternatives address or stifle the symptoms leaving the problem (to recur). Education addresses the problem leaving the symptoms (to subside).