Beware of Normalizing Stress

There are a myriad of activities that many of us engage in everyday that are considered normal.  

  • Driving in 4000 pound vehicles at 70 miles an hour alongside strangers with 4000 pound vehicles.

  • Waking to alarm clocks.

  • Working stressful jobs without adequate breaks, with nearly impossible artificial deadlines to meet, and doing the work meant for more than one person to efficiently complete.

  • Using substances (think medications, alcohol, caffeine, and pot) to regulate our mood, energy, sleep, and other aspects of our experience.

  • Getting inadequate sleep.

  • Eating processed, sugar laden, salt laden, fat laden foods.

  • Regulating our waking hours through artificial light.

  • Mass consuming all types of media.

  • Being inundated with smells, sounds, and images that our modern world produces at such high volume that we are barely consciously aware.

  • Being exposed to wars, hate, viciousness, anger, etc, either directly or via our media.

  • And so many more.

We live in a world where the individual who refuses to board a 200 ton piece of metal and fly 30,000 feet in the air is considered to be the odd one and in need of therapy.  

We have so overly normalized our stress filled world, that we are missing a key awareness to our experience - that we are being traumatized by modern life.  Forget the major traumas for a moment; such as being a victim of abuse, having a serious accident, a serious health problem, or a significant loss, etc. Just being alive and negotiating our modern world is stressful and traumatizing.  

Yes we are adaptive creatures.  But trust me when I say, "We are only in the infant stages of adaptation to modern life."  The acceleration of stress is happening so quickly, that we cannot possibly evolve quick enough to be at peace with our new environment.  Future generations may be better equipped to handle the modern world as their brains adapt, however current brains are overwhelmed.  It is why we all have symptoms of trauma - some more serious than others.  In many ways, many of us are living with what can be described as 'sub-clinical Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.'  

Please understand, that in no way am I making a comparison between modern life stress and the severe and unimaginable conditions that victims of abuse, war, etc go through.  However, the symptoms of trauma, albeit less than severe diagnosable PTSD symptoms, are present in the majority of the world population.  Consider these symptoms taken from WEBMD:

  • Suddenly become angry or irritable.

  • A hard time sleeping.

  • Trouble concentrating.

  • Fear for your safety and always feel on guard.

  • Being very startled when someone surprises you.

  • Physical symptoms for no reason you can think of (called somatic complaints).

  • Feelings of shame, despair, or hopelessness.

  • Difficulty controlling your emotions.

  • Problems with family or friends.

  • Impulsive or self-destructive behavior.

  • Changed beliefs or changed personality traits.

We all know that experiencing abuse, war, a life threatening accident, are not considered “normal” daily stresses.  And although our “normal” daily stresses may not compare in intensity, they are none the less impactful on our experience.  And the very fact that something becomes a normalized activity, makes that experience more likely to affect us unconsciously and hence, build up unconsciously driven symptoms.  

Whatever becomes our “normal” routine soon becomes routinized in the brain as a sub-conscious or unconscious pattern.  The brain loves patterns.  The patterns enable us to wake up each morning and not have to remember how to walk, talk, or breathe.  These patterns also enable us to drive a car virtually unconscious at 70 miles per hour, take on a multitude of stressful tasks, deal with intrusive sounds, smells, and images without awareness of how stressful these activities are.  

We are unaware of how unconscious activities take their toll on us until they manifest as discomfort in our experience.  The brain is making frequent adjustments to deal with the stresses, and these adjustments create imbalances that alter our experience, eventually causing us ongoing discomfort.  We’re not aware that the anxiety, edginess, depression, exhaustion that we feel is a result of these brain based imbalances.  

We create stories about these discomforts.  Psychologically based stories about ourselves rule the day.  Soon, we are sitting in front of a therapist talking about our problems.  We begin to view ourselves as incapable of handling normal life stuff.  We make up tales about how our childhood relationship to our mother or father, sister or brother, is causing us symptoms and making us dysfunctional neurotic souls.  We assess the rationality of our thoughts and work to change our negative thoughts to positive ones.  When in fact the majority of our symptoms, including those irrational thoughts, may be more so related to imbalances in the brain caused by a lifetime of repetitive stress.  Past stress may include unhealthy childhood relationships, an unhealthy way of thinking may be present and unproductive, however, the pinning of our current symptoms on those relationships or simply our thought,s I believe, is short-sighted.  

Brain imbalances are typically why we look to sedate ourselves.  Our thoughts tend to support our need for sedation.  When our thoughts are turned towards stopping sedation those thoughts rarely work. Just ask an alcoholic or drug addict who professes a strong desire to quit.  

Sure there are psychological reasons for our thoughts, feelings and behaviors, however, our psychological experience is, to a large degree, based in our brain energy and how that energy moves.  Our psychology resides at a different level of our experience and, though we can affect it through talk therapy, we cannot get to the deeper energy where our discomfort originates.  We may be able to clean up a stopped up sink to make it look pretty for guests, however, if we don’t get to the clog (stuck energy) in the pipes, the sink will fill back up again with debris. In my view, therapy can be useful to clean up some of the mess, however something else is needed to get to the underlying problematic energy.

The danger in normalizing modern stresses is to minimize the impact of those stresses.  The accumulation of stressful responses in our brain may lead to physical or mental illness that can become chronic and debilitating.  Normalizing stress is tantamount to normalizing climate change.  There is a tipping point where it is much more likely that devastation occurs and it becomes more difficult to return to a healthy balanced state.

We can compensate for many brain imbalances through healthy living. Proper nutrition, exercise, meditation, are just some of the ways we can alter the effects of stress on our lives.  However, changing lifestyle after symptoms have entrenched may provide remedies that, much of the time, are too little too late.  If we were more proactive about dealing with stress, our children would be eating healthier, getting more sleep, learning how to meditate, and getting appropriate daily exercise.  Then, arguably, the stress of modern life, unhealthy relationships, etc, would be less likely to become psychological or physical illness later in life.

Changing lifestyle after the onset of symptoms can also be extremely difficult.  If you have ever been through a major depression, you know how hard it is to motivate yourself to simply get out of bed, let alone go exercise for 30 minutes.  Similarly, it may be difficult for some highly anxious individuals to meditate without experiencing an increase in anxiety.  For some, getting to a place where symptoms reduce sufficiently to allow a healthy lifestyle to take hold seems daunting.  All of these lifestyle changes require consistent repetition in order for the underlying energy be transformed.  Finding the persistence, when you are depressed and struggling with hopelessness, is unimaginable for most people.

So, the key is to understand that modern life produces significant stress on our primitive brains that, eventually, result in imbalances that produce experience in the form of mental, emotional, and physical discomfort.  Additionally, our individual genetics and basic human biology play a role in providing a vulnerable landscape for stress to attack the system and wreak havoc.   

Most interventions occur at the symptom level. A kind of top down approach that may affect the underlying energy indirectly and with a certain lack of specificity and direction.  What we need is a bottom up approach for prevention and healing, with the brain’s energy as our target.  We’ll discuss top down versus bottom up approaches in our next post.