Mindful Life

Skills to effectively manage stress and help you lead a more fulfilling life

Stress Reaction, Stress Response

Background

An understanding of stress, understanding our own responses and challenging them, are fundamental to both MBSR and MBCT practice. “Stress can be thought of as acting on different levels, on the physiological, the psychological and the social level” and “in its popular usage (has) become an umbrella word connoting all the various pressures we feel in life” (Kabat-Zinn, 2004, pp. 235-236). Dr Hans Selyne first popularised the term in the 1950s, where he “opted to define stress as a response”, and he coined the word “stressor” to describe the stimulus or event that produced the stress response. A core tenet of MBSR and MBCT courses 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).

There is tacit recognition that stress in an unavoidable part of life, and this is also the approach taken on both MBSR and MBCT courses. The experience of stress is often unpleasant and can be extremely 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

We can tend to create unnecessary stress through perception of the stressor. “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).

These flight or fight responses have enabled us to survive as a species and have a definite place. However, our reactions to stress are often disproportionate to what’s required, as “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).

It is not only our reaction to the stressor itself – our reactive response can be disproportionate and unhelpful. We can create unhelpful reactive responses where “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).

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”  (Hanson, 2009, p. 48). Whereas this bias has made our evolution possible, it makes staying positive difficult. Lacking patience and awareness, we can all too easily tip into flight or flight responses where “… our reactions to unhappiness can transform what might otherwise be a brief passing sadness into persistent dissatisfaction and unhappiness” (Williams et al, 2007, p. 34).

We ruminate upon unwarranted, unpleasant experiences, usually through critical reasoning and analysis. We can also create a discrepancy between where, or who we wish to be, and where we actually are:

“When we react to our own negative thoughts and feeling 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).

This stratagem, which serves us so well many life situations, can be spectacularly unhelpful in dealing with low mood. Transforming our responses to our stress is the crux of MBSR training.

References

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