( By K. P. S. Kamath )
Some More Definitions
1. What are stressors?
Stressors are what upset us and cause our balloon to inflate. There are basically two things in life that upset us: Bad events and bad problems. Life is full of them: if it is not one thing, it is another. It should be noted here, however, that regardless how bad a stressor is, some good could come out of it in the long run, if one learns to deal with it. Wise people are able to make compost out of garbage life gives them.
Because life?s bad events and problems figuratively pump painful emotions into the mind, let us use a simple bicycle pump as an model for stressors. See picture below. Stressors have something else in common with the pump: they both suck!
Picture 3: Stressors pump painful emotions into the mind.
- Bad Events: These are one-shot, very painful life events such as unexpected death of someone we love; breakup of a relationship; betrayal of trust; rape; assault; accident; divorce; loss of job or money, and the like. Bad events cause the mind to suddenly experience numerous painful emotions such as fear, hurt, anger, helplessness, etc. In bad events the balloon inflates suddenly and severely.
Sometimes bad events are beyond our control. Death of a loved one in a car accident is an example. Very often, however, our own behaviors, based on our stupid beliefs, erroneous opinions and distorted views lead to serious bad events. For example, a man who drives his car while drunk ("I am not drunk. I can drive safely") is highly likely to be in a serious car wreck thus injuring himself or others. A lone woman recklessly walking the downtown streets at night ("I don't think these streets are as dangerous at night as they claim!") would find trouble in no time at all. Likewise, loss of job ("I can get away with being late to work"); broken relationship ("I want to possess and control my girlfriend"); accident ("I like the thrill of speeding!"), and other similar bad events are often as a direct result of our stupid and reckless behaviors rooted in erroneous judgment, beliefs, opinions or views. We refer to these people as those with poor judgment.
In bad events, we have actually lost someone or something we are emotionally attached to such as relatives, friends, part of body, health, money, property, self-esteem, liberty, job, love, sense of security, etc. As our mind experiences these objects by means of our five senses, these are often referred to as sense objects. Loss of these sense objects results in the balloon inflating suddenly. Grieving over the loss, accepting it and getting on with life, therefore, are the proper responses to a bad event. Grieving shrinks the balloon and makes stress symptoms go away. It goes without saying that people who are excessively attached to and possessive of sense objects experience more grief than those who are emotionally detached and non-possessive in their disposition. And people who are unable to grieve over losses are unable to shrink their balloon and so are highly vulnerable to stress-related disorders.
In passing, let us examine briefly a few issues related to bad events:
- Acute stress: Getting severely upset in response to a bad event is called acute stress. A woman who is assaulted or raped is likely to be in a state of acute stress. The balloon inflates suddenly and severely. Sudden death of a beloved person is another example.
- Emotional shock: Some bad events such as life-threatening accidents or sudden death of a beloved person could cause emotional shock, an extreme type of stress reaction, in people who are vulnerable to it, such as people who have low stress tolerance. Emotional shock could result in fainting; losing control of the bladder or the bowels; temporary paralysis; heart attack or stroke; regressing into fetal position; becoming totally numb emotionally; out of body experience, death, and other unusual symptoms. In emotional shock, the balloon is suddenly inflated and stretched to an extreme degree.
- Permanent behavioral changes: Painful memories of a bad event or situation, being deposited in our memory bank, could linger on a lifetime, and could lead to permanent changes in one?s behavior. The after-effects of these painful memories are called emotional scars. This is no different than the United States being a very different country today than before September 11th, 2001. Betrayal by spouse and consequent divorce could make such an impact on one?s mind that he/she might not get married ever again. Abandonment by parents in childhood could make one become so insecure that he could become very possessive and controlling of his spouse. Colloquially, these behavioral patterns rooted in emotional scars are referred to as emotional baggage, which, sooner or later, would complicate future relationship with others.
- Post traumatic stress disorder: Some very bad events, such as a life-threatening accident, assault or rape, are invariably very traumatic to the victims. If victims do not deal with the trauma promptly and correctly, the traumatic memories and emotions would settle down in the mind?s memory bank (see below), and they could resurface from time to time and result in an array of severe symptoms such as flashbacks, anxiety attacks, depression, angry outbursts, mood swings, low stress tolerance, and the like. This disorder is called post traumatic stress disorder. Without treatment, these symptoms could linger on for years, and ruin one?s life as well as those who live with them. [A brief note about the memory bank. The memory bank is located in that part of the mind called hidden mind. Just as the basement of a house is out of plain sight, the hidden mind is out of our awareness. It can also be compared with the hard drive of a computer, with many programs to run it. Let us use a soda bottle with gaseous soda in it as model for the hidden mind. In the picture below, the mind(balloon) is connected to the mouth of the soda bottle; the little dots in the soda bottle (gas bubbles) represent buried memories of events both good and bad in our life. Just as shaking a soda bottle spews up fizz, memories and emotions of old events also fizz up into the mind (balloon) when triggered by a current event. Read below]
Picture 4: The mind can hide emotions in the hidden mind
- Double whammy: Sometimes painful memories of a bad event, quietly buried deep within the hidden mind for years (the bubbles in the soda bottle), could suddenly come back to haunt us many years later, especially when we are going through another event which reminds us of them. This phenomenon is called reliving or resurfacing. For example, break up of a current relationship could bring up the pain of parental abandonment in one?s childhood, thus multiplying the current emotional pain manifold. This is also called double whammy. One might experience many stress symptoms, the severity of which might seem quite out of proportion to the current triggering event. And the person might not be able to make the connection between the past and the present without a therapist giving him that insight. The resurfacing emotions might manifest in various combination of physical, emotional, mental or behavioral symptoms: panic attacks, depression, acting-out behavior, confusion, etc.
Here is an example of double whammy in the form of behavioral symptoms. A thirty five year old man announced to his wife of 8 years that he no longer loved her, and that he was going to file for divorce. This came as a complete surprise and shock to the wife. When interviewed, he showed no insight as to why he wanted to leave his wife and two boys aged five and three, whom he loved dearly. He simply felt like he did not love his wife anymore and he must leave her. He said he had been feeling this way for about a month. When I asked him questions about his childhood, he revealed that his own father left the family when he was five years old telling his mother that he did not love her. A month before his visit with me, he celebrated his son?s fifth birthday. Shortly after that he developed intense impulse to leave his wife and children. The childhood trauma of abandonment by the father had come back to haunt him thirty years later. Unchecked, this ripple effect of early life trauma could be felt for generations to come. His children could do the same to their children. Millions of couple divorce every year without realizing how they are condemning their own children and grandchildren to this horrendous fate. Many African American men simply abandon their family soon after the arrival of the first baby because of this resurfacing phenomenon. The roots of this sad and deplorable tradition goes back to the days of slavery when able bodied young men were forcibly taken away from their families for sale. I have examined hundreds of black young men who did this to their families without any insight into their behavior. As soon as the child arrives, the father disappears from the scene.
- Acute stress often leads to chronic stress (Bad events lead to bad problems). For example, death of a parent could lead to chronic, acrimonious inheritance struggle amongst children. A bad car accident could lead to serious health, legal, and financial problems. An ugly divorce could lead to bitter and protracted custody battle between the couple. Sudden loss of job could lead to serious financial and marital problems. A serious illness could lead to financial, marital and job problem. Most patients I see in my practice give history of several bad events complicated by one or more bad problems arising from them.
- Bad Problems: These are on-going painful life problems related to our family, job, relationships, finances, health, neighborhood, church, etc. Bad problems are those for which there are no easy solutions. These problems upset us a little bit at a time, day after day, week after week and month after month. We often feel trapped in these problems. This type of stress is called chronic stress. Chronic stress guarantees one a stress-related disorder as the bad problem (pump) keeps filling the mind (balloon) with painful emotions without a break. Sooner or later the balloon would pop due to relentless inflow of painful emotions. Chronic marital conflict, prolonged abusive relationship, on-going sexual abuse, chronic emotional harassment at home or work, unending money problems, chronic health problems, chronic illness of a loved one, such as Alzheimer?s, etc., are some examples of chronic stress. People trapped in chronic life problems steadily come down with one stress-related disorder after another as they get older, due to accumulating painful emotions in their mind.
A bad life problem could be genuinely complicated, with no simple solution. Having to take care of a terminally ill or senile parent for years is an example. Very often though, the bad problem is so because the person having it does not have the awareness of the problem (?We have a good marriage even though we have not been intimate in over three years?), or the person does not have the skill to solve it (?I don?t know how to deal with my abusive boss?), or the person does not want to pay the price to solve it (?I cannot just walk away from my rightful inheritance?). Very often we feel trapped in bad problems because none of the available solutions to the problem is acceptable to us.
More often than not, bad problems are our own creations. Our deep-rooted weaknesses such as greed, envy, jealousy, hate, insecurity, low self-esteem, prejudice, possessiveness, false pride, hate, stupid or irrational beliefs, vanity, and consequent actions are the cause of most of our life?s bad problems. For example, an insecure man might buy a big house, a big car and the like to compensate for his insecurity, and consequently get into serious financial problem. A needy woman might marry a rich alcoholic and consequently suffer life-long abuse in his hands. A greedy person, suspending his common sense, might get involved in a bad business venture conjured up by a con artist. People with strong spiritual values (here I am not referring to religious fanatics), wisdom and insight do not easily get trapped into bad problems, and if per chance they do, they know how to walk away from it making the necessary sacrifices.
In bad problems, we have not lost anything as yet, but are constantly fearful of losing someone or something we are attached to (sense objects); relationship, job, money, health, position, status, love, respect, etc. The more we are attached to these sense objects, more we worry about losing them. Creatively and relentlessly searching for an acceptable solution to the hounding problem; and willingness to make the necessary sacrifices (money, time, relationships); willingness to walk away and move on with one?s life are some of the proper response to chronic stress. Recognizing one's inner weaknesses contributing to the problem and working on them helps prevent future problems.