Living with Stress

The work week, for many, has extended beyond 40 hours and the addiction to screen time has resulted in isolating many from the vital social interactions that once gave cultural life its nourishment.

 

This is the phenomenon that Rudolf Steiner referred to as the etheric world, the vital invisible world innately bound up with all that appears to our senses.

 

Daily stressors can be dealt with by setting priorities, by having reasonable expectations, by following schedules, by delegating tasks whenever possible, and lastly, by pausing and reflecting on what is of most value in the moment.

 

The brain is really only a bodily instrument for the soul to utilize and navigate through the world of senses.

 

Living with Stress as the New Norm of the

Post Modern World: Its Consequences and Challenges

William Bento

 

An extraordinary generation has passed since the events of 1981: the Iran hostage crisis, the election and shooting of President Ronald Reagan, the shooting of Pope John Paul, the assassination of Anwar el-Sadat by Islamic extremists, Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, the launching of the first IBM personal computer, and the startling identification of AIDS as an epidemic. From this time period to the present, a new global situation has arisen. The world is no less violent. Political tensions in the Mideast have only increased, while the global economy has risen and fallen with frightening uncertainty. What swept into our culture as the promise of magical wonders and as liberator of the 40-hour work week in the advent of computer technology is now dominating every aspect of human life. The work week, for many, has extended beyond 40 hours and the addiction to screen time has resulted in isolating many from the vital social interactions that once gave cultural life its nourishment. And, where AIDS once sent an alarm of health concerns in many regions throughout the globe, multi-resistant organisms pose an even greater danger, commanding the attention of the global health care community. The world has irrevocably changed.

 

World Changes Impact Brain Development

Given the magnitude of crises in the world since the defining event of 9/11, an increased number of human beings are living in a constant state of hyper-vigilance. Fears are constantly being activated by a media mindset that perceives the world as a threatening, hostile and unpredictable arena for human existence. All of humanity is subject to levels of provocations that incite threat responses within the very complex of our biology. The immediate changes in the way we think, feel, and act can now be found in the very changes of our brain chemistry, and may eventually be responsible for fundamental structural changes and functions in the post-modern brain!

    My understanding of the emerging paradigm of the quantum brain (Satinover, J., 2001) is that it is more of a hologram than a computer or a machine (Talbot, M., 1991). Acceptance of this view would cause the whole house of cards built on Cartesian/Newtonian thought to crumble into fragments of nonsense. The holographic brain model opens the door to the possibility that objective reality—the world of trees, coffee cups, and lamps—might not even exist, or at least not in the way we believe it exists. We would need to embrace the validity of what our mystic ancestors called the illusion (maya) of reality. In that embrace we may come to behold and understand that what is appearing outside our encapsulated skin is a vast, resonating symphony of wave forms, a frequency domain that was transformed into the world as we know it only after it entered our senses. This is the phenomenon that Rudolf Steiner referred to as the etheric world, the vital invisible world innately bound up with all that appears to our senses.

   As disorienting as this thought may be, it also offers us a remarkable compass for navigating the post-modern world. This compass arises out of a restoration of spiritual wisdom traditions. The need for creating such a compass is precisely the reason Rudolf Steiner developed anthroposophy as a spiritual science for the age. Such statements as “the human being is a microcosm of the macrocosm; as above, so it is below; as within, so as without,” may well become working hypotheses for the pioneers of the quantum brain paradigm.

 

“The amygdala is at the center of all our fear and threat

responses (LeDoux, 1996). It focuses our attention and

receives immediate direct inputs from the thalamus,

sensory cortex, hippocampus, and frontal lobes. Neural

projections (bundles of fibers) from the amygdala then

activate the entire sympathetic system. Normally, it

triggers release of adrenaline, vasopressin, and cortisol.

These immediately change the way we think, feel, and act.”

(Jensen, Eric, 1998)

 

Insert Image of Brain

Under the current state of prolonged stress and hyper-excitation, the modern human being is subject to a continual release of cortisol, which over-activates the instinctual emotionality. As this continues, the frontal lobe, wherein a prioritization of information is weighted for decision-making, will be slow to switch off the alarm signals coming from the amygdala. The hippocampus, which facilitates the process of learning and forming new memories, will not have the neural capacity to help the person remember and avoid circumstances that trigger depressive and/or traumatic episodes. Obviously, antidepressants and new generations of serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SRI) are not going to be able to solve the basic malfunction that is set into motion by the onslaught of fear-based messages to the amygdala. Although there is good reason to identify and treat the increasing numbers of people with depression, it is not the core issue for mental health today. The depressive mood state is the outcome of significant exposure to stressors. Such stress has culminated in an archetypal pathology. Out of the dynamic of a global war of and on terrorism the archetypal pathology has emerged and has been identified as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is being diagnosed in 20 percent of the war veterans returning home.

 

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: A Sign of our Time

With each major war campaign throughout the last century, this deep psychological trauma has been recognized as a consequence of war. In World War I it was termed “shell shock.” In World War II it was referred to as “combat fatigue.” In the Korean War it became an official diagnostic disorder called “Stress Response Syndrome.”  This disorder was further defined during and after the Vietnam War. Today the designation of PTSD has become a clinical disorder as well as an unfortunate social stigma. Those who characterize it as “being crazy” miss the reality of what PTSD actually is. It does not mean you are crazy, but it does mean you have seen a lot of crazy things. Most impactive of all is witnessing brutal re-enactments of “Cain killing Abel,” and realizing that such acts are regarded as acceptable and justified in the name of war. PTSD means you have good reason to be traumatized and scarred from what you have been subjected to in combat. So severe are some of these situations that many with PTSD are also being diagnosed with TBI, Traumatic Brain Injury. This diagnosis points to the seriousness of the trauma, and that it is not merely a soul injury, but can affect and alter the neurophysiological functions of the brain.   

    Although PTSD in our veterans is an alarming mental health issue facing us, it is only the tip of the iceberg. The entire culture is being subjected to a more insidious and pervasive form of PTSD, i.e. Prolonged Traumatic Stress Disorder. I describe this disorder as a maladaptive disposition to stress accompanied by Dissociation Disorders; particularly of our higher self from the personality/ego. This is one tragic outcome of the “amygdala hijack” in the post-modern brain.

    The threefold danger that lies before us, given the prevailing conditions for the post-modern human being, as I see it, are as follows:

 

              I.     The creation of a resonance field of psychic thoughts based on fear will only force a regression to the reptilian brain complex of self-preservation at any cost, resulting in a loss of higher cortical functions of thought united with moral virtues. Giving way to this compulsion will allow evil to enter the world stage unrecognized. And, if allowed to play a central role, humanity as we know it may cease to exist.

              II.    The pathology of self-splitting may soon be taken for granted as a normative factor. Self-splitting is a common coping behavior, wherein we compartmentalize what we think from what we feel from what we actually do. This splitting of our soul capacities seeds, beneath the surface of consciousness, a self-hate. If it is allowed to persist as a way of being, it wreaks havoc on the routes that give us access to our transpersonal self, our higher self.

              III.   In this chaos of our changing paradigm the forces of corporate greed will attempt to capitalize on the dis-ease (Prolonged Traumatic Stress Disorder) and offer a ticket to relief and paradise. We see this in the globalization of the uniform policies and marketing surrounding psychopharmacology. Individual capacity to decide on a course of healing will be challenged by constant seeds of doubt planted in the minds of an uninformed and uneducated society under the grip of fearfulness. Faith in the healing power of time and the natural developmental process that strengthens the immune system will soon be dismissed as archaic thought in the face of modern medicine.

 

“Human brains and the culture they generate are

intertwined. As culture acts to modify our brains,

they, in turn, act to modify the culture.”

(Healy, Jane, 1990)

It is time to ask ourselves what kind of brain is being modified by our post modern culture, which is permeated by constant stress stimuli. How are we to find healing practices in the face of a culture consumed by Prolonged Traumatic Stress Disorder? As we tap into the infinite mysteries of the brain, we have options to create the future in a remarkably extraordinary way. Yet, we must instill courage to think outside the materialistic reductionistic box if we are to co-create a more sane future.

    Neuropsychology is not confined to the physical locale of the brain alone. It extends to all that flows into and through the brain. What I am referring to here is that the plasticity of the brain may be only a small facet of its non-sensible or supersensible (etheric and astral) composition, which permeates the world, and is, by this definition, non-localized. The brain is really only a bodily instrument for the soul to utilize and navigate through the world of senses.

 

Forms and Sources of Stress

In today’s world, stress has become the new norm. For the generation that is now facing the much-publicized year of 2012 and all the apocalyptic fervor that accompanies it, there is an anticipated higher degree of stress to be encountered. The induction of stress may have taken a generation to take hold, but it is now firmly entrenched into our modern lifestyles. Its pervasiveness, and the fact that it often goes unnoticed, make studies of stress all the more important for understanding the conditions of our time. Discernment of the many types of stressors and levels of stress factors must become our first step in taking care of our mental health.

     The mental health field experts have identified four different forms of stress. Acute stress and episodic acute stress are considered most common. Chronic stress and traumatic stress are the most serious of all and often require professional help. Stress can contribute to problems such as migraines, anxiety, depression, heart attack, gastrointestinal distress, stroke, and chronic aches and pains. According to a survey recently published by the American Psychological Association, 54 percent of Americans say they are concerned about the level of stress in their everyday lives. This figure does not include the many who are experiencing stress without identifying it as such.

 

         Four main sources of stress are worth noting. The first is perceived threats of any kind, whether physical, social or financial. Stress due to threats is always related to needs either being denied or jeopardized. Whether rational or irrational, the feelings generated from such stress translate into existential angst. The level of existential angst is higher the more it is perceived that there is no way to control or reduce the threat.

    As threats increase, the second source of stress becomes evident. Threats lead to fear. Fear unleashes negative imagined outcomes. Fear sets flight, fight and freeze responses into motion. Fear dominates the instinctual animal forces in all of us at the expense of maintaining our humanness. Response levels of fear obscures our ability to act out of motives anchored in a hope for the future.

    These two sources of stress–threats and fear–trigger the amygdala alarm and set off the mindless compulsive activities that are so often destructive. It is at the core of what we have identified as the consequence of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

    A third source of stress is the experience of cognitive dissonance. This phenomenon occurs when there is a gap between what we do and what we think. What arises in the feeling life is stress, an internal disorientation. For instance, if I think I am wise and I find myself saying something completely foolish, I will experience dissonance and stress. Another aspect of cognitive dissonance can occur when we cannot meet our commitments. Many of us believe we are faithful and committed, but circumstances beyond our control can prevent us from fulfilling our promises. The end result of this failed commitment is that we are prone to be perceived as dishonest or incapable. These imagined or real perceptions can instigate emotional waves of anger, engender a sense of unworthiness and result in a lack of self-esteem.

    Cognitive dissonance has at the heart of it a deep-seated separation of the true self from the many postures of the personality. It alerts us to an internal fragmentation. And, as such, it leaves us with a feeling of mental instability.

    Uncertainty is the fourth source of stress. Not being able to predict or control the future fosters an anxiety that can easily become a preoccupation. There is an increase of anxiety disorders in our culture that can be attributed to the state of the world we live in. Our inability to surrender this pervasive unknowingness only opens up the gates of threat and fear mentioned earlier, thereby igniting a vicious cycle of stressors.

    These four main sources of stress are interrelated, and in fact, are so prevalent that it has become the new norm of the twenty-first century. These stressors, which can be regarded as aspects of a vicious cycle of subtle terror, appear in countless forms and varying levels of intensity. They often play havoc within our souls without our conscious awareness of what may be causing our unease. Left unchecked they feed the experience I have identified as Prolonged Traumatic Stress Disorder.

 

Dealing with Stress

There are many ways to manage stress. One way is to have a good regime of vitamin B-complex, whether in tablet form or natural food sources such as eggs, liver, tuna, salmon, turkey, avocados, bananas, potatoes, chili peppers, spinach, turnip greens and whole grain cereals. Another is to institute a physical exercise routine into your day. Listening to music, walking in nature, talking to a friend, taking deep breaths, availing your self of humor, and being sure to get a good night’s sleep, are all ways to stem the tide of rising stress.

Yet, there is no better safeguard than being mindful of the fact that stressful situations may not be avoided nor should they be dismissed. By identifying stressors we put ourselves in an important witness position rather than fall into the victimized state of anxiety, fear or despair. Daily stressors can be dealt with by setting priorities, by having reasonable expectations, by following schedules, by delegating tasks whenever possible, and lastly, by pausing and reflecting on what is of most value in the moment. Developmental stressors, such as aging, loss of relationships, change of career, etc., are also unavoidable episodes in life, and need to be acknowledged. The more one knows about developmental themes in various different stages of life the more reasonable one can be with hopes and expectations. Oftentimes, much of the stress brought on by developmental changes can be relieved by consciously changing habits or resolving to learn something new. Talking to counselors or taking up journaling can also aid in getting the witness perspective that is so essential in liberating one from attachment to stressful situations.

One of the most innovative and spiritually congruent approaches to transforming stress has arisen through the research of the Institute of HeartMath located in Santa Cruz, California. Doc Childre and Deborah Rozman’s book Transforming Stress: The HearthMath Solution for Relieving Worry, Fatigue, and Tension (2005) offers an empirical and successful approach to not only managing but transforming stress. The HearthMath solution rests on the fundamental understanding that the heart is an intelligent intuitive organ of perception. It not only perceives the inflow of stressors, but it has the possibility to repattern one’s stress circuitry that is so bound up with the brain. As the title of the first chapter in the book suggests, “A Change of Heart Changes Everything!” In this book a technology for achieving coherency between mind and heart is explicated.

Rudolf Steiner gave many meditative exercises that were aimed at strengthening and balancing the heart, as well as fostering a state of equanimity. His basic six exercises found in Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and its Attainment (1904, 1947) is an excellent example of this. Along with the indications of how to nurture the forces of the heart and clear the obstacles to effective functioning of soul capacities, Steiner also advocated the need to access the courage to transform one’s self in the midst of stressful situations. There has never been a time more necessary than now to learn how to access the courage and employ the mindful/heartful practices that can manage and transform stress.

Dr. Peter Gruenewald, an anthroposophic physician practicing in England, wrote a wonderful complement and extension to the HeartMath solution. In his book, The Quiet Heart: Putting Stress in its Place (2007), we find a practical application of spiritual scientific principles. He helps the reader navigate through heart spheres with a practice of breathing into and through the heart. This simple oxygenating of the blood strengthens the capacity to listen to the wisdom of the heart and to dialogue with those aspects of our being that are capable of exercising objective compassion for ourselves and the stressful situations that come to meet us in life. The unique approach that Gruenewald brings to this practice is the use of positive imaginations accompanied by conscious affirmations. This mitigates and diminishes that wild and chaotic voice unleashed by the amygdala alarm.

      In all that we are about to face in the next year and decade, there can be no better antidote to the impending feared chaos than knowing the names and features of stress. It has become the pervasive and sinister breath of the dragon. With the appearance of this dragon we have a challenge and an opportunity. Both require that we find the sword of Michael and the breastplate of equanimity to weigh rightly the actions needed to overcome the evil allowed to fester in stressful situations. To follow the wisdom of the heart to do the good, we must harness the forces unleashed by stress and learn to listen deeply into the heart, for in it the voice of love exists. Following the wisdom of the heart is simply finding the courage to love all that comes to meet us out of the future. Trusting in this power of love assures that good will prevail over the evil wrought by such states as Prolonged Traumatic Stress Disorder.

 

 

 

 

References

 

Satinover, J. The Quantum Brain. NY: John Wiley & Sons, 2001.

 

Talbot, M. The Holographic Universe, NY: Harper & Collins Publishers, 1991.

 

Jensen, E. Teaching With The Braín In Mind, Alexandria, VA ,

Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1996.

 

LeDoux, J. Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are. NY:

Penquin Books, 2002.

 

Healy, J. Endangered Minds. NY: Touchstone, 1990.

 

Childre, D. & Rozman, D. Transforming Stress: The HeartMath Solution

For Relieving Worry, Fatigue, and Tension. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger

Publications, 2005.

 

Steiner, R. Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and its Attainment,

NY: Anthroposophic Press, 1904, 1947.

 

Gruenewald, P. The Quiet Heart: Putting Stress In Its Place, Edinburgh,

Scotland: Floris Books, 2007.  

 



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