A Few Words on this Pandemic Stress

Here’s a really unhelpful statement:  Everyone is stressed out these days.

What might be helpful is a quick look at what that means and how we’re going to see that in ourselves, in the public, at home…

A predictable effect of stress is that we act and react in ways which make life more miserable for ourselves and for each other. Folks get more irritable, overreactive to little things and even to neutral things, we’ll tend to be less empathetic and compassionate, and more inclined to blame, to us-them categorize, to judge.  Crimes of ‘passion’, stupid-jerk and regrettable outbursts will increase in frequency, perhaps to great cost.  Distress will become more difficult to both tolerate and to work with – coffee mugs will be thrown, fights and f-bombs issuing like confetti. The mind suffers – poorer short term memory, broken concentration, low quality thoughts that run fast and mean.  Restorative sleep may be broken, there’s less energy, more gastro problems, muscle and joint achiness, cardiac and other physical problems can worsen.  On and on… do you see it?

Some quick science/user manual details – skip if you want.  ’Stress’ is what our body and mind do to allocate resources to deal with a real or imagined threat (hold that idea of imagined threat for a moment). The nervous system reacts to a threat within a second or two, shunting blood to the big muscles, increasing heart rate, dilating the pupils and tweaking the senses, on and on. It takes about 30 seconds for the endocrine piece to show up, for adrenaline and cortisol to hit the blood stream, making heaps of enhancements.  

This immediate, acute stress boosts performance – on your game!  Long term, chronic stress causes breakdown at all levels of the body, mind, relationships and society – you lose your edge and more!  Chronic, high levels of cortisol amplify many of our worst tendencies and magnify our private distress and suffering.  Anxiety, depression, bad habits can follow.

The primary source of stress is our human mind/brain.  Stressed minds think and run simulations relentlessly when we’re not busy or distracted by something (like at bedtime), imagining threats in the future, replaying how unfair something is, often dripping with dread, fear, anger, we get worked up and the ‘pause’ function doesn’t seem to work anymore.

So our stress isn’t our fault as such, but it is ours and so it is our responsibility.  More wine or social withdrawal and relief through distress reducing behaviours like yelling at or pushing someone aren’t terrific ways of working with stress.

The research is clear that there are many things we can do to decrease cortisol levels.  First, you have to see it.  Then, cardio-exercise, healthy diet, staying connected with people, opening up, mindfulness meditation, being kind with yourself and each other, just persistent 1% steps bring on compounding gains and form healthier habits that lead to improved resilience, hardiness and clarity.

Lee Smith, Ph.D., C.Psych.

Don’t Trump Your Mind

by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Ladies and Gentlemen, a message from the president of the United States:

“Let’s talk about something that’s very bad.  It’s very, very bad and everyone knows it.  Our minds are a mess.  It’s a complete disaster.   I don’t know who made things this way but I have a committee working on it, very bright people, the brightest, and we’ll have some answers very soon, I promise you that.  We need answers.  We need to make our minds great again.  Past administrations have been allowing all sorts of lies and fake ideas to run things.  It’s all because we’ve been treated badly, we’ve been hurt, and we remember these things.  It’s bad and we’ve got to make it better.

“The things that go through our minds are shameful, it’s a disaster, it has to stop.  The crooked cortex is making things a mess, let’s make our minds great again!

“Let’s each make our own executive order to decree that anything that makes us uncomfortable must be destroyed, totally annihilated, not allowed in, put up a wall, hang up on it.  It’s probably just fake news.  Anything that I don’t like is now put on notice. I tweeted this recently – Any negative thoughts (polls) are fake news, just like the CNN, ABC, NBC polls in the election.

If that crooked cortex says, “You know, that wasn’t very kind of you there,” it’s just another loser idea, or worse, maybe one of those limbic terrorists.  These self-judgments – shameful!  It has to change.  We have to halt these threats.  It’s up to each of us to Make Our Minds Great Again”.


Thank you indeed, Mr. President.

Might we be habitually and mindlessly trumping our mind much of the time?  Look – minds just think, minds pour and gush and secrete thoughts almost continuously, maybe 70,000+ thoughts a day, and many of them looping through conditioned and familiar strains of strain.  You don’t make these thoughts happen any more that you make your pancreas do what it does.  It’s involuntary.  Stress and its associated thinking is involuntary, reactive, and if we look we may see that we also react with aversion to unwanted and unpleasant thoughts and emotions countless times each day.  We suffer a flow of torment and the wear and tear of a mind habitually reacting with fear, judgement and avoidance to it’s own content.  We don’t like the content and then want to stop it. But in the mind’s effort to integrate and heal confusion and painful experience, the mind persistently brings up our discomfort, declaring that, “This happened!  This needs your attention!  This has to be understood!”

Rather than ‘border guards’ keeping anything unwanted out of our mind, we can gently meet new arrivals instead, welcoming them, getting to know them.  This is the healthy way to go, rather than the mind fighting itself endlessly.  This would support the natural process of iteratively allowing things to be seen and allowing them to be felt, to assimilate, to settle… this is how emotional healing happens.

The cause of a lot of our ongoing struggle may be the problem of avoiding – it’s the pushing things away that breaks us.  It might be that depression, anxiety, addictions – much of the panoply of suffering – have a robust and causal underlay of avoidance;  avoidance may be the main marauder of mental health.

We can’t change what is true, what has happened.  We can change, though, our relationship to what is true.  In mindful practice and living with awareness, we try to be easy, to set the bar very low, not trying to make anything different, accepting what is here simply because it is true that it’s here, and in that way honouring our mind and it’s unknown work.  We have to create internal safety not through banishing anything, but through skill – not pushing yourself too hard, not demanding things be a particular way, not micromanaging or being stern and striving.  It’s so important to practice gentle acceptance, on the fly, as often as we can remember to.

Don’t trump yourself.  Just meet your mind as it is…  If you turn toward what you feel, you’ll find that you won’t get stuck, things will move, and something new will follow – a little softening, some relief, some familiarity, some understanding.  Or if you avoid what you feel, then something old will follow, the stuckness and private torment will continue, and the wear and tear will quietly gather.

What is Stress About?

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

This being human, and often a really stressed out human at that, sometimes feels so much more complicated than we ever imagined it would be. Why is that? Over the next while let’s look into this business of being a stressed out human being.

Why should you read further? After all, many of us appreciate the sentiment of Thomas Gray, who wrote, “Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise”, which may have inspired a T-shirt someone gave me that says, “Therapy is expensive, beer is cheap. What to do? What to do?” But dismaying as it is, research tells us that prolonged psychological stress lurks behind a huge array of medical illnesses and psychological problems. Getting to know our stress is truly a wise and effective step towards sparing ourselves all kinds of misery and illness.

Stress is brought to you by a coordination of brain, body and mind that activates us for action. Long, long ago we were all a part of the food chain, stripped of all of the protective comforts and supports that we take for granted today. Our ancestors had to avoid being injured and killed by others and by the environment in order for life to go on. Nature has always been essentially indifferent to whether we make it or not, but it does have ways of selecting for abilities that are better for the job of survival. Because of this selection, brains and bodies slowly evolved protective ways of reacting to threats to survival.

When we see a threat to our well-being a lot happens simultaneously. For one, our sensory systems lock on to the threat, and all of our senses become heightened. We actually see and hear and smell better. Also, the nervous system and circulating hormones get our body ready for action. Heart rate, blood pressure and breathing all increase and blood is diverted to our major muscles and away from our gut (because we don’t need to digest our lunch if some other animal is digesting us!). The immune system moves to high alert, ready for injury. And there’s lots of emotion. We feel fear, we feel we want to get away, we may feel enraged by the threat. The whole system kicks us into hyper drive, to fight or run for our very life or for the life of a loved one. Together these reactions have tremendous survival value, or at least they did have when we were in the food chain.

This ancient fight-flight-freeze system is still ours today. Although we are now quite removed from the food chain, when we feel stressed we’re feeling the expression of ancient systems that cut their teeth on mortal danger. And we can get quite caught up by these systems. Violent crimes of passion, panicked flight, and freezing on an exam are all examples of this survival system in action.

The short term varieties of stress are interesting for sure. In fact, many of our entertainments draw on stress reactions – thrill ride amusement parks and suspenseful movies are a way of making fear fun! But it’s the long standing stress, the stress from unyielding real and perceived threats, numerous it seems in our lives today, that takes a nasty toll on all of us. Prolonged stress physically harms us, and it can shape our lives, automatically selecting courses of action that may be unwise and pulling us into not-so-healthy methods of coping. More about that next time.

Chronic Stress

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

We looked last time at our stress reactions in all their physical and mental glory as prehistoric systems that are on board in all animals, acquired through evolution, because they save lives. I like to remind myself that we are all at the end of a very long family tree of survivors – if any of our remote relatives hadn’t been able to survive, to then conceive and protect their children, we just wouldn’t be here. Stress reactions, in part, got us here.

But just like guests, stress can be tremendous for a while but not without end. Chronic stress is a huge wear and tear problem. Psychological stress can become a 24/7 state of emergency, demanding that our immune, endocrine, cardiovascular, gastric, emotional and thinking systems all work overtime. Without rest and recovery, ongoing psychological stress nibbles away at us from the molecular and cellular levels on up to the levels of our behaviour and our relationships.

For example, research shows that chronic stress influences basic physical systems such as wound healing. One study administered the very same cut to the arms of brave or bribed medical school students at two different times – during the exam period (high stress!!) and during the summer break (ahh, that’s better!), and then watched carefully to see how the cuts healed. They found that greater stress resulted in the simple wounds taking days longer to heal, a result of stress-related changes in immune and inflammatory processes.

Stress-related wear and tear can be seen at the molecular level. Chronic stress can actually shorten our lives because it chemically damages parts of our chromosome structure, the telomeres, which determine, among other things, aging and disease development. There may be some truth to it when Uncle Max said that the strike at work took years off his life. Psychological stress contributes to the majority of visits to family doctors, and some long term studies have shown relations between stress and cancer and between stress and heart disease that are greater than the relation between smoking and those ailments.

And it may be no surprise to know that our levels of stress are increasing. A recent U.S. survey found that 60% of people are more irritable and angry, and more than half said they now lie awake at night because of stress. The economy, future uncertainty, media violence, family strain, illness, addictions – it’s a long list – it all gets to us more deeply than we like to think.

What to practice? All the advice that you may have heard about dealing with your stress is good to heed, but tweak it so that it fits just for you. Maybe ration your diet of the doom and gloom news. Ration the sweets and fats and carbos too. Go for walks. Decrease the drama in your life by watching that voice in your head and how much it complains and grumbles. Even better, watch that voice in your head to see how hard it is being on you. Watch to see when you make critical comparisons. It’s often very helpful to take an inventory of the things that get us worried, angry, impatient, sad or scared. Usually it’s not anything that really matters to the degree that we experienced it to be (“Whoa, I really got bent out of shape because that person was slow in the checkout line!”). It’s a good piece of homework to take on. And maybe take a little time to practice appreciation and gratitude – if we look, we find an awful lot to be delighted by and thankful for.

Thinking and Stress

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Is there any relation between thinking and stress? Can we think ourselves into stress reactions?

It’s an interesting question when you consider that stress is about dealing with threats. Do we threaten ourselves? The evolution of our stress systems was essentially about dealing well with external threats, like severe weather, predators and attacks from our own kind. So how might our own, private thinking get us in to trouble with stress?

Thinking is a way of using what our brain and mind have stored from our experiences in life. If you can imagine what happens in all of the seconds and minutes and hours and days and months and years and decades of experience that our minds register, interpret and store, you can see that we carry a lot in our heads.

Our stream of thought and feeling is very busy. Attempts to estimate how many different thoughts we have each day puts the number at about 65,000. That’s busy!! What are these minds of ours doing?

If you watch your mind for a while you’ll notice that it goes all over the place. Even while you’re reading this you might notice all kinds of things coming up, taking you away for moments here and there. Don’t worry, that’s completely typical of minds. Minds are pretty chaotic. But there are lots of things that our minds do quite predictably. One extremely common mind habit is to go back to the past, to things that we didn’t like, that hurt us, that we felt embarrassed by, that we regret. Our thinking is often trying to set things right (in our own mind), finding who’s to blame, how it would all be different if that thing never happened, how unfair it was, how we could have handled if differently. But here’s the point – can any of us change what has already happened? Truly, what’s done is done and the best we can do is learn and accept.

So if our minds are churning away on distressing things from our pasts that we cannot change, might that not arouse the body and mind into states of stress?

Another place that the mind likes to hang out is in the future. We create all kinds of stories in our heads about how things will be. We don’t mean to, it’s just something that minds do when we’re not minding our mind. We imagine successes, embarrassing failures, and disasters galore. We get pulled into these stories and feel at the same time that they have a truth and certainty in them. Mark Twain wrote,”I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” Might a mind churning out an anxious future and a tomorrow gone rotten cause us stress?

What we think of as thinking can be a commotion of ideas, memory fragments, feelings, and physical reactions – things that can’t really be separated any more clearly than can the ingredients of a well-cooked soup. Minds can act like museums of memories that are animated by mean-spirited fiction writers that time travel with abandon – B-movies without end.

What to practice? ‘Getting real’ with yourself might help a lot. Try watching your mind a little every day. Maybe just check in with what’s going on in your mind, looking in as you would look in a window, being honest and not trying to change what you see but just taking it in. If you’re in the past, or in the future, or running yourself down, notice that, notice how it feels. And try to let that moment teach you a little about how your own thinking may be one of the primary agents for generating some of the very stress that you don’t want in your life.