Definition of Stress
People talk about stress all the time, but rarely try to define it. Understanding what stress truly means, then examining and challenging our responses to stress, are fundamental to both MBSR and MBCT practice.
“In its popular usage, (stress has) become an umbrella word connoting all the various pressures we feel in life,” MBSR founder Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote, adding that stress acts on us at the physiological, psychological and social level. (Kabat-Zinn, 2004, pp. 235-236).
Dr. Hans Selyne coined the word “stressor” in the 1950s to describe the stimulus or event that produces the stress response.
A core tenet of MBSR and MBCT is that “it is not the potential stressor itself but how you perceive it and how you handle it that will determine whether or not it will lead to stress” (op. cit. p. 237).
Everyone knows stress is an unavoidable part of life. Stress is often unpleasant and can be even debilitating in the long-term. “A lifetime of unconscious reactivity is likely to increase our risk of eventual breakdown and illness significantly” (op. cit. p. 237).
Fight or flight response
But it is our perception of the stressor that can trigger a stressful episode. Can you think of someone or something in your life that fits the following description? “The stressor has a high emotional content and a fight or flight reaction occurs almost instantly… (The reaction) … involves a rapid cascade of nervous system firings and stress hormones” (op. cit. p. 251).
Chances are you can think of several such triggers, such as a cranky boss or being late or looking at your to-do list. It turns out “much of our stress comes from threats, real or imagined, to social status, not our lives. But the fight or flight reaction kicks in even when there is no life-threatening situation facing us. It is sufficient for us just to feel threatened” (op. cit. p. 253).
So those automatic stressor-related fight-or-flight physical responses you feel – increased muscle tension, accelerated heart rate, increase in respiration, agitation, a surge of adrenaline – are the same whether you’re late for an appointment or being chased by a lion.
Worse for us and those around us, stress-related “hyper arousal can become a permanent way of life” and “… sooner or later, the accumulated effects of stress reactivity, compounded by inadequate ways of dealing with it, lead to a breakdown of one kind or another” (op. cit. pp. 254-261).
This is a recipe for disaster.
Reactions to Stress
“We evolved to pay a great deal of attention to unpleasant experiences. Negativity bias overlooks good news, highlights bad news and creates anxiety and pessimism,” wrote Dr. Rick Hanson in Buddha’s Brain (Hanson, 2009, p. 48).
This bias towards paying more attention to danger more than anything else has survival value from an evolutionary perspective, but it makes it tough to stay positive! Without patience and awareness, two things mindfulness teaches, we can all too easily tip into fight or flight response, and perhaps transform “what might otherwise be a brief passing sadness into persistent dissatisfaction and unhappiness,” wrote Mark Williams and three other uniquely qualified experts in “The Mindful Way Through Depression.” (Williams et al, 2007, p. 34).
By ruminating on unpleasant experiences, we create a gap between where or who we wish to be, and where and who we are:
“When we react to our own negative thoughts…with aversion, the brain circuitry involved in physical avoidance, submission or defensive activity is activated” and “… when we return to that mood… thoughts and memories related to whatever was going on to make us unhappy… come back quite automatically… including the thinking patterns that created that mood” (Williams et al, 2007, pp. 35-36).
In other words, we can accidentally train ourselves to be regularly unhappy and anxious. This is spectacularly unhelpful in dealing with low mood.
Transforming our responses to our stress is the crux of MBSR training.
Hanson, R. (2009), The practical neuroscience of Buddha’s Brain: Happiness, love and wisdom, Oakland CA: New Harbinger Publications
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2004 edition), Full catastrophe living: How to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation, London: Piatkus
Williams, M., Teasdale J., Segal, Z., Kabat-Zinn, J. (2007), The mindful way through depression: Freeing yourself from chronic unhappiness, New York: The Guildford Press