Changing the interpretation of stress and the stress response to one that preserves health, allows for authentic personal expression and creates space for personal transformation
By Hugo Allen-Stevens
An event, whether it prompts a physiological stress response or not, is determined by the interpretation of that event. And that response can have damaging effects that include the diversion of biological resources for use in the stress response that leads to immune suppression. Mediating factors in this response include emotional behavior and personality types which trigger, enhance and prolong the stress response. In addition to this, prolonged or chronic stress is linked to many diseases. The central issue then becomes how it may be possible to intervene in the stress response to prevent the damaging health effects it can cause.
This paper will focus on conscious awareness, or mindfulness, that allows an individual to become aware and observe his or her behavior with regard to his or her authentic interests. Those interests include ensuring health is not damaged by the stress response. The key to this is ensuring the locus of control in response to a perceived stressor is held within the individual. And this will be explained by mindfulness training, so that automated physiological and psychological mechanisms that are beyond the individuals control in response to a stressor are trained to afford the best possible freedom and behavioral response.
Health problems and stress
Numerous writers have attested to the damaging behavioral responses to perceived stressors such as those involving aggression, emotional repression, self-pity, guilt and denial. These responses Siegel (1988)notes as having damaging effects on the health of cancer patients through the stimulating effects these emotional responses have on stress response. The danger here is that a stress response has biological superiority to the immune response, such that biological resources are diverted from the immune system during a stress response. And such a diversion promotes illness and prevents healing due to immune suppression.
The mediating factor in these behavioral responses are the emotions involved. Pert (. And from this, illness can result from immune suppression involved in the continued stress response.
Overall therefore, the diversion of biological resources and the individual’s intentions to behavior that does not serve an individual’s best interests promotes stress, causes immune suppression and can lead to illness. An example of this is the stress related illness fibromyalgia.
Rakel (2007) notes that patients with fibromyalgia often lack sufficient self-care and externalize this care by caring for others excessively. Rakel also notes how patients are highly sensitive to external stressors such as environmental toxins, a factor that indicates a weakened immune system. This indicates how biological resources are primarily used by these patients for dealing with stressors, or are weakened by the effects of stress hormones. However it is the lack of self-care that is of paramount importance, and the successful orientation of biological resources to serve a patient’s own best interests that would provide the means for healing. This is noted by Siegel (1988) who in treating patients observed that those patients who take a more proactive role in healing themselves had better recovery as well as abilities to deal with illness.
A key aspect to this healing is identifying, disabling and removing stressors that disable the immune system and the potential for healing. A further aspect is identifying and enabling behavior that orientates biological resources for use in the most effective fashion, such as healing. Meanwhile, whilst Siegel refers to the patient doctor relationship that is most healing, what is most important for a fibromyalgia patient in their healing is that they form a proactive healing relationship both with themselves and within themselves. And this has a bearing on their behavioral traits in relationships with others.
Rakel (2007) notes that caring or excessive attending to the needs of others is prevalent in fibromyalgia patients. The effect of this behavior is that it overwhelms the patient with responsibility, overwhelm that is symptomatic of stress. In this case, the stress and the symptoms of fibromyalgia can be seen as indicators that excess responsibility is being given to the caring role for others being played. It furthermore indicates a need for more self-care. Above all, symptoms and disease can be viewed as a need and opportunity for behavioral change.
Trivieri (2002) meanwhile notes that patients exhibit problems with the thalamus, such that sensory information from the body is misinterpreted. It could also mean that sensory information from outside the body is misinterpreted so that the hypothalamus is activated to trigger a stress response unnecessarily. Under these circumstances, transmission from the thalamus to the cerebral cortex could be strengthened so that sensory information is processed cognitively. Using these means, a relearning or new appraisal of sensory information (from both inside and outside the body) could occur with cognitive mediation. This will be described in more detail below by reference to mindfulness training. Beforehand, we will turn to address where habits and behavior in response to stress are automated and how they may be balanced in a manner that affords the best possible results.
Freedom and Meaning
Siegel observed miraculous healing that occurred with his cancer patients which leads him to advocate “finding your authentic self and following what you feel is your true course in life” (Siegel, p.5). Finding this authentic self and following what has most meaning is also key to successfully orientating the stress response. And finding this authentic self must first begin with a coming to awareness of who that self is.
However this awareness poses a threat to continued survival of the pre-existing and inauthentic self. Seaward (2008) notes that Freud had proposed the self censors itself from threat through the ego. The effect of this is that much of what an individual could be conscious of is filtered out by this ego and made unconscious. This corresponds to a fight or flight response seen in the stress response – an automated and largely unconscious response that serves to promote survival of the existing ego and self.
Sartre (1956) meanwhile disagreed with Freud, noting that for the ego to censor effectively, it must be aware of what it is censoring. Following this line of logic, there can be means for censorship and no unconsciousness. From this we can conclude that there are varying degrees of awareness within consciousness and that full awareness is within an individual’s capabilities. This would correspond to Buddhist theories concerning the pure state of conscious awareness, or enlightenment, that every living being possesses. Thus training in this awareness, or mindfulness training, is key to monitoring the ego that senses threat and triggers the stress response with automated and behaviorally scripted patterns that further enhance stress.
Sartre (1956) meanwhile, proposes that the individual always has an unlimited freedom to choose. This freedom relates to mediating the stress response in terms of the ability to choose perception and interpretation of sensory data. Chiefly this refers to reframing events and memories that are drawn upon with limiting and automating behavioral results in a stress response. It also refers to the ability to bring to conscious awareness, through personal choice, all factors relating to automated behavior in the stress response. Above all this freedom relates to the ability to orientate action and behavioral response towards those that serve the interests of the individual. And this mirrors Sartre’s model for authentic behavior whereby an individual embraces freedom and acts “for-itself”. Such an embodiment of freedom corresponds to placing the locus of control in a situation or event within an individual and furthermore is empowering.
In addition to this, Sartre proposes that the individual take responsibility for his or her perception of the world as if he or she were the creator of it. Such a responsibility could be empowering during a stressful event, for an individual could choose how to perceive the event. However, there is the risk that responsibility leads to feelings of overwhelm which could prompt a freezing and inability to choose, or a fleeing in panic. This fleeing and freezing can be seen in behavioral descriptions of the stress response. However, what is important to note is that the individual always has the power to choose what that response is, which could include a reframing of perception to reduce overwhelm and to an empowering point of view. And this freedom to choose perception could be used as a point of leverage by which an individual takes charge of and controls a situation so that it fully serves his or her own best interests.
Meanwhile, the responsibility that comes with freedom enables a freedom to choose the meaning. This meaning was observed by Frankl (2004) to be critical to the quality of life of an individual. And the ability to define meaning places the locus of control within an individual as they define the meaning of the event to themselves. Moreover they are able to reframe their perspective to choose a meaning that in a stressful situation allows for a response as opposed to a reaction. In other words, the meaning chosen serves the individuals best interests.
The freedom to choose the meaning of any event bears with it the responsibility for the resulting behaviors. And the effects of those behaviors are something for which the individual equally bears responsibility. This responsibility could be used so an individual realizes the part they played leading up to themselves being involved in a situation, as opposed to fighting or denying that responsibility and blaming others. Such a denial not only is disempowering due to placing the locus of control outside an individual, it also causes stress, conflict and the stagnation of a movement towards resolution of that situation.
In addition responsibility of effects of behaviors can be used by an individual so that the behaviors chosen in a situation suit his or her own best interests. For example, Siegel proposes an individual questions the meaning of an illness to them in order for a patient to find a challenge in it that “the patient has a basis for dealing with” (Siegel, p. 107). Again, the locus of control of a situation is once more brought back to an individual when they find a suitable challenge and a meaning that motivates them. And this can be used to unwind feelings of overwhelm or despair that may otherwise disable an individual during a stress response as well as in healing illness.
However, Siegel (1988) also notes how patients may be disempowered by a lack of control and a lack of ability to see where they have a choice. He also notes where patients externalize the meaning in their life, such that they become dependent upon actions they perform for others. Seaward (2008) determines that this form of co-dependent behavior has cultural roots in the way many Americans today are brought up and accustomed to living. Mate (2010) sees a similar behavioral trait of externalization prevalent in addictive personality traits, whereby the yearning for relief from suffering is seen to be possible in something outside of the individual – such as in a drug high or work achievement. In all these examples, the common element is that the locus of control is placed outside an individual. And when that point of leverage is lost, so too is the ability to orientate behavior. And what is left is a feeling of suffering and loss, feelings that not only control behavior but also cause and prolong stress.
What really is missing in these cases is the bringing to conscious awareness and control behaviors that do not serve their interests. And an individual who embraces their freedom and responsibility has more power to mediate in behaviors that trigger, promote and enhance the stress response as well as behaviors that promote illness. Key to this is placing the locus of control inside an individual, whereby freedom is associated with something internal. Through this and the ability to find a personal meaning or see where that meaning may have been misplaced, space can be created for change to occur. And that change could embrace a responsibility to act in one’s own best possible interests.
Despite this however, there still remain theories that like Freud’s theory of the ego and unconscious, the full possibility of freedom available to the individual in relation to stress is limited. And these theories hinge on the interpretation of the stress response as an automated fight or fight response.
The stress response may occur at a level that is automated and does not lie in conscious control. These automated responses to an event, and the interpretation of it, occur with no or little conscious control and in a matter of milliseconds. According to Sapolsky (2004) such an occurrence is due to inherited biological survival mechanisms whereby the individual is physiologically programmed to respond in pre-existing patterns. Under this interpretation, the stress response is interpreted as a response to a threat which is automated and functions to promote survival. The question at this point is whether such a function serves all the individual’s interests, and not merely survival. The central issue however is whether those interests can be served using the interpretation of the stress response as a survival mechanism that is automated.
Automated survival responses may occur due to learned responses whereby the hippocampus and amygdala interpret sensory data through a lens of past occurrences to determine whether an event mirrors something from the past and thus warrants the same response. And the function of the stress response in this interpretation is to survive a perceived threat by either fighting or fleeing it. However the use of the stress response as a survival mechanism in limits the use of body resources to the defense of psychological and physiological self. The question that arises at this point is whether preserving the past and the behavior associated with this self and derived from it necessarily serves the individual’s best interests in either the present or the future.
From a biological point of view, the stress response triggers the release of key hormones to enhance energy metabolism in mental and physical function. The purpose of this enhanced energy availability in stress is that it serves to make fast decisions and actions. The fact that this is fast, beyond conscious control and automated in many circumstances allows theorists such as Sapolsky to limit the understanding of this mechanism to be a fight or flight function and based on perceived threats to survival. However the enhanced energy made available can have other functions, namely to guarantee decision and action. And whilst that action may be stalled in use by a freeze response, this stalling may be viewed as resulting from conflicting interests in the individual and the inability to decide clearly and orientate action effectively. The opposite to this meanwhile is a flow response, whereby actions and decisions flow and neither fight nor flee from using both the enhanced energy and the event as an opportunity for change.
Overall, limiting an event to necessitating survival has dysfunctional qualities, as Seaward (2002) points out, as an event may be an indicator of opportunity for change. The key point here is that limiting the use of resources to preserve the biological self in itself promotes stress and enhances it due to the lack of change it enforces. In effect, stress occurs as a result of resistance to change. From this, Seaward proposes techniques for flowing and adapting to change whereby automatic responses, which include defenses of psychological self, are interrupted to allow for this adaption. Furthermore the stress response has an added function: to flow, as well as to fight or flee.
An explanation of this flow response is that alternatives to survival and defense mechanisms could be found through searching for a different interpretation or meaning attached to an event. Moreover, that meaning can be seen as part of a flow, with the psychological and physiological aspects of an individual functioning to enable and orientate that flow. The function of this flow response can be seen as using the event as an opportunity for transforming the self or transforming the event into an opportunity that serves the individuals best interests. In addition it could ensure biological resources are used in a manner that neither suppress the immune system with excess stress response nor inhibit expression of authenticity. In effect, the flow response is an opportunity to harmonize with events in a holistic manner and not merely serve interests based purely on survival but also serve those interests higher up the hierarchy of human needs such as self-actualization.
The key to this flow response is an expansion of interpretation of the stress response and what biological resources released can be engaged in. And the key to this expansion is mindful awareness and mindfulness training. Meanwhile a flow response uses the present circumstances as a lever to allow for change through upon opening up and orientating the individual toward the future. However, through the mediatory effects of ego, neuroplasticity, emotional state and molecular bonding, the decision making abilities of an individual primarily reinforce pre-existing patterns of psychological and physiological behavior. In effect they serve to narrow of conscious function to interpreting the present events through the prism of the past. This interpretation of sensory information is, as noted above, automated and with little to no conscious control. And given the automating effects of biological resources that primarily orientate the individual toward preserving the past, the expansion of both interpretation and orientation of biological resources for a flow response therefore occurs due to prior training before the event – namely in mindfulness.
At a psychological and physiological level, this mindfulness training can be seen to be developing patterns and traits that are embedded in the body and mind. For example, neural pathways could be strengthened through repetition as could neuropeptide bonding through stimulation of specific vibrational frequencies of emotional states. In this manner, they become unconscious and automated and balance both the triggering of the stress response as well as mediating its effects. An example of this training is meanwhile given by Benson (1996) for use in connecting the individual to healing resources during illness as well as the means to mediate the stress response. And the effect of this training is that the individual has the addition of an effective “Relaxation Response” in addition to a stress response in a situation (1996). A further example is found in mindfulness training of Japanese Samurai warriors so they maintained the locus of control within themselves during life threatening situations. The overall effect is one of balance – whereby an event does not overwhelm an individual’s capabilities by through excessive involvement in a stress response. And the result of this is the potentiation of authentic expression that neither stagnates, represses nor reacts. Instead that expression can be seen as a flowing authentic response. The question then becomes how such a response, as opposed to a biological survival reaction, becomes possible.
As mentioned above, the thalamus in the brain is the primary receptor of sensory information from both inside and outside of the body. Its role is then to transmit information to both the cerebral cortex and other areas of the brain, including the limbic system and the hypothalamus. Conscious awareness arises at this point of the sensory information, and interpretation of it is made at both an emotional level and a cognitive level, mediated by the limbic system and the cortex respectively. It is at this point that the stress responses are triggered and the hypothalamus is orientated to Central Nervous System (CNS) activation of stress related fight or flight response. Cognitive decisions, made by the cortex area, are then speeded up by the hormones and energy released, and the limbic system acts to promote emotional states that enhance the drive towards the use of energy released by stress hormones in the stress response, namely action and behavioral responses such as fighting or fleeing.
At this point it is worth noting that the hypothalamus may also be stimulated by the cortex and limbic systems to Peripheral Nervous System (PNS) activation which has a calming and steadying effect on both the body and mind. The key issue then becomes how the CNS and PNS become activated automatically and the degree of freedom and control the individual has over activation of either system. Breathing and mental techniques, such as mindfulness training, can be used to mediate the triggering of the CNS system as well as mediate the level to which it is triggered and grips the individual in a stress response. However there remains an issue of the point at which those techniques may be employed with any mediatory effect and where the stress response is automated and over-rides any freedom the individual has to mediate its effects.
Sapolsky (2004) points out the role of the amygdala in automating responses beyond conscious control. He further points out how neuroplasticity occurs in both the amygdala and hippocampus whereby an event is selectively interpreted according to its correlation to a previous event (or memory) and thus eliciting the same physiological response used in that previous event. Furthermore, with each repetition, further neuroplasticity occurs and traits become embedded. The key point here is that whilst repetition of stressful interpretation and response may result from these pathways, neuroplastification may be created by selective and repeated framing of events in a perspective chosen by the individual. In other words, an individual may choose the memories, or reframe and relearn existing memories, memories that are used in determining whether an event warrants a stress response. The reframing could be performed to specifically reduce the possibility of a stress response in future events using techniques such as visualization and Neuro Linguistic Programming. And this may be reinforced via the use of emotion and drive.
Amen (1998)meanwhile points out how the limbic system acts as a filter through which events are interpreted, interpretation that both governs and is set by the emotional states in generates. An explanation for this is that the limbic system includes the memory systems of the amygdala and hippocampus. The effect of this is that the limbic system selects from memories and interprets events in the light of those memories, and those memories determine emotion. Thus whilst memories of stressful events generate a stress response and emotions, relearning or reframing memories could disable this process.
Furthermore, Amen points out the functional role of emotions in causing drive or avoidance. Emotion thus provides a structure for repeated interpretation and behavior through selective reinforcement of similar, or desirable, emotional states. These, as pointed out above, may be generated at a cognitive level, through memory reframing. And they may be reinforced through encouraging emotional states that are then attached to those memories. Furthermore those emotions would provide motivation or drive.
Pert (1997) meanwhile established that neuropeptides mediate emotional life through a mind-body network of receptors that respond to peptide ligand bonding. Pert’s work established that this bonding, and the biochemical arousal it generates includes states of feeling and emotion in both the mind and body. This she likened to a bioelectrical vibration and frequency with arousal states of feeling and emotion being generated by bioelectrical frequency. What is important to note is that this vibrational frequency is held with an individual at a cellular level. And her work also established that the bonding was influenced and determined by previous arousal states. In other words, the reactions that cause emotional and feeling states occur due a previous arousal state. The key point is that the memory and selective inducer of that state is held in cells throughout the body and mind as bioelectrical frequency.
The central issue of importance here is that an arousal state will also determine frequency and cellular function. And this arousal state may be auto-generated or induced by an individual. It may also be monitored, at a sensory level, to determine which arousal states are present in the body. From there, a training could occur to identify arousal states that are stressful and those that mediate and modulate stressful states as they occur. Such training could take the form of rituals designed to release vibrational frequencies held in cells that are holding the individual in negative, namely stress related patterns. These rituals could then allow for full release of emotions and thoughts related to these frequencies. Other techniques to change cellular frequency could include ritual chanting, dance, movement and music. What is important to note is that with each repetition of this training and mediation, at a cellular level, a memory is created that promotes future repetition of emotional and feeling states in the individual. And this training may be used by the individual to diminish the receptivity of the body to stressful arousal states.
The function of mindfulness training and mediation is one of reframing memories and forming emotional attachments to feeling states. And this is to enable an individual a choice in how to frame perception of an event that may otherwise generate a defensive stress response. In doing so neuroplasticity, emotional states, and vibrational frequency may be formed that allow for alternatives to be found to being governed by emotion or automated behavior that arises during a stress response.
Meanwhile, what is paramount in the stress response is the degree of freedom an individual possesses when stress is perceived and then manifests on a psychological and physiological level. And this freedom is paramount in determining a successful response to stress such that it serves the individual’s best interests. The question becomes what degree of choice or conscious freedom does an individual possess when a stress response becomes manifest in the body?
The answer to this question lies in the degree of sensory and conscious awareness the individual has of that response as it becoming manifest. Meanwhile the degree of conscious and sensory awareness will determine the degree of freedom the individual has to mediate in the response. The training in this conscious and sensory awareness essentially takes on the same physiological pathways in their formation that classic stress responses do – namely through memory formation. And the point of this training is that it can be activated automatically during a stress response, thus providing an alternative to a fight or flight orientated stress response. This could be done to ensure the response to the stressor, whilst being an automated physiological reaction, retains some degree of conscious freedom and existential choice.
The sensory and conscious training outlined above meanwhile depends upon the sensitivity of the thalamus to sensory information from both inside and outside of the body. As outlined in the case of fibromyalgia, this sensitivity may be damaged or impaired such that sensory information is misinterpreted. And this could occur for many other individuals. There is thus a key need to enhance the sensitivity of the thalamus and suspend awareness of sensory information there before interpretation. And this is could be the function of mindfulness training. Above all though, this training is to allow for awareness to be enhanced and authentic flowing behavioral response to be made possible.
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