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.