The Joy of Stress
In his book, ‘The Body Says No’, Gabor Maté writes in great detail of the indisputable link between stress and a wide variety of diseases.
He demonstrates how stresses, often imposed on the developing psyche in childhood, continue to play out in patterns of behaviour in our adult life that create physically debilitating and even fatal illness.
This field of medicine is called psycho-neuro-endocrine-immunology. It investigates the link between stress within the system and the emergence of disease and is leading to a far more holistic approach to understanding causation, origin and treatment of illness.
Which leads to the ultimate question of course, what to do about this? How do we stop stress playing this causal role?
And an obvious answer would be ‘Well - we have to avoid stress’.
And that is where we are going tragically wrong. We try to avoid stress. We all do. But the more we try to avoid it, the more it follows us into our ever-narrowing life. It looms all the larger as the mind-numbing wears off. Problems increase. Capacity shrinks. Mental health declines. Stress-related diseases rocket.
Because stress is not, as it so easily appears to be, an independent objective and external pressure acting on the self.
It is an infinitely more dynamic, creative, personal interaction than that.
Even the stressors during child hood are not objectively separate occurrences.
The sponge brain of the child - wired to learn about its environment and particularly to bond with its primary carers and to survive within its social group - is soaking up information and forming rules and concepts of harm and safety, right and wrong, self and other.
And even at this young stage, the interaction between the tendencies of the developing mind and its environment means that there is no fixed objective play out. Even though there are some obvious causes of instability, the encoding, the cognitive and behavioural rules derived are dynamically unique to the individual brain, mind and body.
So the process of how stress is encountered, interpreted and then embedded as an unconscious foundation for life is already dynamic and individual. A unique interaction between brain and environment.
Then as the child grows, this personalised perception of and response to external stressors continues. Except all the more so because that unique foundation of insecurity and risk becomes the lens through which the world is experienced.
This lens of vulnerability, need, lack, shame and fear (in other words, stress) doesn’t react to the world, it creates it.
When the learned danger of the childhood world is internalised, made personal, turned into a conditioned ‘rule’ of self and reality, it is carried around with us in every cell. It becomes the foundation of all experience, the benchmark against which we judge ourselves and others, the basis of all decisions and navigation.
We are living in a world of stress - cognitively, behaviourally, emotionally and physically - and have no refuge other than the fight or flight instinct that depends on a separation that doesn’t actually exist.
The stress of living and then resisting this projection can continue unabated, in fact worsening, as the world—because it is a world created from stress—continually confirms our worst vulnerabilities.
This is why it makes no sense to ‘manage stress’ as a pressure external and independent from the needs and fears of the personal. There is no separation. Vulnerable mind/self, stress and dangerous world are made of the same thing.
And this is not to say that there is not actual danger in the world. To say that would be ludicrous denial and spiritual bypass.
And someone who has not learned helpless or stuckness or sense of limitation or incapacity or inability or worthlessness will have the mental, social and emotional resources to do everything possible to respond to, move on from that danger and to prevent it happening to others.
But when the whole foundation of living is based on an internalised hopelessness or insecurity, the dynamic of self and other continues to create situations of stuckness from which it is impossible for us to escape.
We are stuck because the mind is stuck. It is held in the blinding headlights of belief and unquestioned thought. The mind’s birth-right of access to infinite resources, ideas, possibilities is shut down. The vast intelligence of life is limited to responding to a believed and closed interpretation of the world.
So this is stress. A creation of the system that, in the manner of the auto-immune diseases in which it plays its role, attacks the system.
And to understand that, in stress, the entire system is at play has to be the first step in finding freedom.
Stress originated in the very development of our self-concept, in our foundation of security, of beliefs dictating how we had to be and how the world is. And that self-concept was handed down to us by care givers who themselves were likely functioning on severely limiting beliefs. Generations of conditioning stretching who knows how far back.
And here, right now, can be where it ends.
We know too much now for stress to continue unquestioned and un-investigated.
We know that the whole system must be taken into account, be allowed to settle, work through that foundation of instability.
We know that conditioned insecurity will not find peace in control, withdrawal, pleasing, conflict, repression… or in any other behaviours that we resorted to as children.
Stress is information of the purest kind. The physical, emotional, cognitive, social system making itself heard.
Stress is a vital prompt to move into a whole new understanding of what we are, of how the mind was formed and of how that mind creates reality and experience.
An invitation to a compassion for the past, an honouring of the body, an enquiry into long-held beliefs, a spiritual maturing of the self that can transform our lives, health and longevity in every way.