Ever since the introduction of the modern stress diagnosis in the 1970s, people suffering from stress have year after year taken up more space in psychologist clinics in the western world. What characterizes people who seek out psychologists because of stress? And what is a modern approach towards stress treatment? This article gives an outline of these questions.
Stress is a psychological imbalance caused by a life situation that is overly demanding. This can be a single stress event (a stress trauma) or a prolonged period of difficult demands (causing burn outs etc.). Everyone experiences stress to some degree, but for an increasing number of people, symptoms of stress create need to reach out for professional help.
One of the main characteristics for people entering psychologist clinics with “stress problems” is that the physical body and the thinking mind seem less able to cooperate in a constructive way. When a human being is truly in balance there is a well organized cooperation between the "body" and the "head". The body recognizes the physical and emotional needs that occur; it knows whether the person is angry, hungry, lonely etc. And the “head” attempts to find ways to meet these physiological or psychological needs. One can say that even though the "body" and the "head" work together - the body somehow sets the direction for this cooperation, as only the body recognizes what the person really needs. The mind can only make guesses! It is a bit like when someone hires an architect to design a building. Even the best architects will not be able to do a meaningful job without communicating with the client about which kind of building the person needs, why he needs it and so forth. In the same way the thinking mind can't do a meaningful job without constantly communicating with the body.
For people affected by stress, this natural cooperation between “the body” and “the mind” is partly impaired. When dealing with people suffering from stress one can get the impression that the thinking mind and the body have lost connection and are now moving in different directions. The stressed mind wants everything to be done immediately (or faster than possible). It is very occupied with all the things that “should be done” or “should have been done”. It values the mode of “doing” over all other life aspects. And of course this leaves the stressed person always feeling a step behind. And the person suffering from stress may keep telling herself that there are things to be done - and no time to relax! However, what she actually needs most is to breathe slowly and deeply, to connect to the body and to relax. She doesn’t need to do more. She needs to feel more, to be more and connect more to herself and other people. To keep on doing is just to keep on digging the hole one is already caught in.
A basic problem is that a stressful way of thinking easily gets the person even more stressed, thereby creating a cognitive stress loop: what captures the eye of a stressed person are things that should have been done, never allowing herself to relax here and now. However, as soon as the tasks have been completed, the stressed mind immediately identifies new tasks that must be tackled before the person can be allowed to relax. In this way, the stressed person keeps running around like a headless chicken – moving in arbitrary directions, unable to get a clear overview of the situation and unable to consider what is actually important.
In a prolonged state of stress, the body is easily forgotten. It seems counterintuitive to stop and feel how the body is doing when there are so many things to be done! However, without bodily sensations the stressed mind keeps spinning around itself, day by day getting even more lost in all the ideas about all the things that need to be done.
When a stressed person enters a psychologist clinic, a therapist will often invite the stressed person to just sit for a few minutes. Just to sit and feel how the body is actually doing. In many cases the body is doing quite badly and the stressed person often feels very uncomfortable just sitting there, feeling it. Often the body is very unbalanced, as some of its needs have been systematically ignored for a long period.
Looking at the human brain the relationship between needs/feelings and the “thinking mind" is seen clearly in the brain structure. Actually all the brain areas dealing with conceptual problem-solving (the "neocortical" areas) are evolutionarily shaped as an extension of brain areas that connect to emotional needs (the "limbic system"). Due to this design the problem-solving brain structures are in general directed and corrected by emotional needs. This makes good sense when one considers the example of a person hiring an architect to make a building. Specialized expertise in problem solving must include a consideration of needs, feelings and values to be successful.
However, stress research has shown that the neural connections between the problem solving brain structures and other brain areas are significantly affected by prolonged stress. Generally the problem-solving brain areas begin to work more independently, while cooperation with the emotional brain parts are significantly deprioritized. In other words: When the brain experiences prolonged stress, the processing of feelingsand thinking starts to disintegrate in the brain structure.
Due to this disintegration the body's signals are easily ignored, and after a longer period of increased stress-arousal, the stressed person usually starts to notice unusual body symptoms. Often the stomach, chest or head area starts to tense up. One may say that the body starts calling for attention.
In this state many people suffering from stress are unable to identify whether they are stressed or are having more somatic issues. As they have reduced ability to feel their physical body, many stressed people report that they don't feel “more stressed than usual”. They just feel they have a lot to do and they may suffer from some unexplainable body pains, reduced ability to concentrate, sleeping issues and so forth. However, in this state the person often does not feel very stressed!
During stress treatment the person will often be told to direct the attention away from the “thinking mind” and towards the body. For people suffering from chronic stress this kind of exercise may be perceived as quite counter-intuitive and a waste of time. For them it would make more sense to go home and do what needs to be done! For that reason the stressed person often needs to learn to observe the stressed thoughts and question their validity: Is it really true that all these things first need to be done before I can relax etc.?
However, as the stressed person starts to feel herself again, she starts realizing that her life has been out of balance - and that she needs to connect to the body to get more centered in her own being and values. Often this kind of insight will help the stressed out mind to relax so it gradually regains its ability to think clearly and to concentrate. It is as if both body and mind are gradually starting to trust that cooperation is the solution, and that only the body knows the way ‘home’. In this process the thinking mind needs to accept that it will never get back a sense of control by continuing to suggest a lot of things to do.
During competent stress treatment, the thinking mind gradually falls back into its natural role as a “problem fixer”, which knows how to solve practical challenges - but also knows when to step out when it is not needed. A healthy mind needs a degree of confidence that life can take care of itself – without constantly overthinking!
In general stress treatment tries to regain the basic trust that facilitates a natural balance between the "body" and "mind". Maybe this balance is somehow out of order in the western world. And this could be one of the reasons why the number of people diagnosed with stress symptoms keeps rising. One could argue that the modern education system pays very little attention to physical and emotional needs. In modern times education could almost be termed ‘headucation’! Also many new technologies such as mobile phones, news channels, computer games etc. seem designed to connect to the mind, while feelings and needs are deprioritized. In general too much information in western societies seems only to address the thinking mind!
Maybe the stress epidemic of the last decades can best be understood as a kind of wake up call that the mind-body balance of modern society has fallen out of tune. The thinking mind is well suited for thinking. It is an instrument for problem solving. However, it, by itself, can never lead the way to a well balanced and meaningful life.
From the perspective of the head, life is nothing but a problem that needs to be solved! However, it is by also including the perspectives of the body and the heart that life becomes a truly meaningful experience.
The article was written by:
Lasse Ansgaard Thomsen
Psychologist and ND therapist
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Acknowledgement: Thanks to Margrete Slettebø for translating!