Why Stress Is a Mind Killer
“Stress is the mind killer.” A transformation from the original Dune novel by Frank Herbert, where the main character recited to himself what Herbert poetically defined as the litany of fear:
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind killer. Fear is the little-death that bring total obliteration. I will face my fear, I will permit it pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain”.
Exchanging the word fear for stress above can prove an interesting exercise. One can easily elaborate that fear is in fact, very stressful. Stress in its very basic form is a response to fear. Fear being reframed as a form of chronic arousal in the nervous system produces pathologies like PTSD and other anxiety related disorders. Not to mention other, less acute or salient consequences like, fatigue, irritability, gastrointestinal problems, etc.
This point can be amplified easily by thinking (remembering really) about happens to us when we don’t sleep well. Lack of, or bad sleep is a recipe for stubbing our small pinky toe in the corner of the bed when we get up. Un remedied lack of sleep produces psychosis followed by death in only a few days’ time. Not forgetting that the list of physical ailments produced here is also dramatic. One need only briefly mention the effect of stress on the immune system. From lowering of resistance to full blown auto-immune disorders. Stress is a problem. Stressful isn’t it?
Our brains do not distinguish from 25.000 years ago to the iphone era. It responds to threats the same way as it did back then. This point is particularly important, because what matters actually is not the reality of the threat, but rather just the perception of one. Meaning if you think it might be threatening, no matter if your assessment is correct of incorrect, our brains are already triggered to respond. Ideally, and in the case of an incorrect assessment (think of being frightened by surprise from a friend), after the arousal a discharge follows, which in turn is followed by humor and laughter ideally in this case.
However, what if the sense of threat is chronic? You see, all it takes is for there to be too much arousal; between hours looking at the computer screen, the constant updating streams of virtual media, the hook to update the status, the urgency towards performance. All these might not seem particularly threatening conditions, however compiled together you have a confluence of events that triggers the nervous system to react in less than a balanced way. In fact, one can say that these conditions have created a situation that is so entirely out of balance, there’s confusion, about what options are even available. The notion that there might be a reality that could be (and should be in my opinion) less stressful can in itself be a threatening one. The habituation to the “grind” can be an issue here, a point of resistance.
Simply put, our relationship with our minds, and its relationship with society’s economic demands are in general, dysfunctional. Whether this has always been the case or not, might be an interesting historic discussion. But even without a deep analysis, we know that the speed of information travel has gone up exponentially in the past 50 years. We are currently reaping the whole impact of this advent. And it’s only the beginning.
Stress is the mind killer; psychologically speaking one has a situation where stress, informs a belief that the experience of distress and its associated feelings must go away in order for meaningful action to take place. The anxiety produced in the attempt to avoid feeling this way becomes a spectrum of freeze responses. It’s paralyzing in all sorts of funky ways. The further discomfort and fear that this anxiety (or stress) might never go away, sets up a condition where living life the way one genuinely and authentically wants might feel out of reach (as if forever).
This discomfort and fear become added factors, i.e., compounding stress (read more nervous system arousal), that in turn serve to increase an experience of isolation. Social media does little to remedy this — in fact I believe it negatively impacts it. The compounded stress functions as a block from expressing care towards what is true and important in individual’s lives. Such expression of emotion would entail sifting thru our own areas of dread, together with re-imagining our current paradigm. The size of the task is at once too oppressive.
Since one cannot have a thing without its opposite in life, the avoidance of the negative feelings that stress can trigger is equal in terms to the avoidance of joy. Avoidance is directed toward any sort of emotion and its corresponding expression because of the tension it can trigger. A paradoxical double bind gets created; instead of psychic energy moving towards creativity, connection and insight, it becomes hampered and instead shifts into managing anxiety.
We’ve created a world where it’s too overwhelming to feel human. Therefore, shut down, avoidance and too much social media becomes our collective attempt at a chill pill. It doesn’t work.
The solution? Well, a collective time out would be good. But short of that we must invest in cultivating a culture of insight and psychic regulation. There is a certain discipline of mind required to not get too caught in all the fireworks the world is currently presenting to us. This takes practice and there is no pill or short cut. One must invest in the habit of calming oneself down. Without a less aroused nervous system, the possibility of joy and satisfaction become elusive and depressing.
There are ways to find balance, despite how seemingly difficult this may first appear. Some combination of the awareness that this is needed (without this nothing can even begin to happen), a contemplative discipline (meditation, tai-chi, flower arranging, etc…) coupled with the right social support and we might just be able to be more Zen about the whole thing.
Herbert, Frank (1965). Dune.