In order for the reader to process the information in this guide, he must first understand basic definitions of certain terms used in it. This would ensure that both the reader and the author are ?tuned in? with each other. This is important because the reader brings into this learning process his own meaning of certain terms, which might not be consistent with their true meaning. For example, the term ?stress? might mean different things to different people. When asked, ?What is stress?? the often heard incorrect replies are, ?Anxiety?? ?worry?? ?out of control?? ?overwork??
1. What is a symptom?
A symptom is an uncomfortable sensation in the mind or the body indicative of some problem with one?s health. We experience one symptom or another on a daily basis: headaches, aches and pains in the joints, cough, stomach ache, heartburn, sleeplessness, etc. Vast majority of television advertisements are on drugs meant to help alleviate these common bodily symptoms: sleeping aides; pain medications, constipation medications, etc. Most symptoms we experience on daily basis are transient.
As we read before, when symptoms become persistent, we visit doctors. When the doctors do not find any physical cause for our persistent symptoms they conclude that we now have a stress-related symptom. For example, if I keep feeling exhausted all the time and the doctor can not find anything to explain it, he would tell me it is stress-related.
2. What is stress?
Simply put, stress means getting upset about something. Peace of mind is gone. Sense of tranquility is gone.
This simple definition of stress often baffles people who are already down with a stress-related disorder such as depression or anxiety, as evidenced by their statement, ?I am not upset about anything except this disorder itself!? This is because they are not aware of the role of various stressful events and problems that upset them prior to the onset of their disorder. It is the job of the psychiatrist to help them connect the dots.
[By the way, drugs that seemingly bring back our sense of peace and tranquility are called tranquilizers. Almost all psychotropic (?mind-altering?) drugs such as antidepressants, mood stabilizers, anti-anxiety drugs and anti-psychotic drugs have this effect on the mind.]
3. What does ?getting upset? mean?
Human beings are endowed with the ability to experience hundreds of emotions. Most of them are negative or painful emotions. Positive emotions are precious few: joy, happiness, contentment, ecstasy, peacefulness, etc. Of the hundreds of negative or painful emotions, I have listed here thirty five as the most important in our understanding of stress. I made up this list after carefully listening to thousands of stressed-out patients. When upset for whatever reason, we experience one or more of these thirty five painful, potentially toxic emotions in our mind:
Fear, hurt, anger, sadness, guilt, shame, disappointment, frustration, helplessness, hopelessness, humiliation, hate, bitterness, resentment, envy, jealousy, terror, horror, disgust, embarrassment, rage, exasperation, insecurity, despair, dejection, remorse, regret, worthlessness, hostility, vengefulness, dread, sorrow, sinfulness, despondency, uselessness.
It is these painful, potentially toxic emotions in the mind and the brain that make us feel and look upset, cause changes in the brain chemicals and make various stress symptoms to appear. If we can make these painful emotions go away from the mind, the brain chemicals go back to their normal state, and stress symptoms disappear. The simplest way to look at this is to imagine the mind as a balloon. When we are calm, the balloon/mind is empty of painful emotions and so it can be seen as ?deflated?. When we are upset, the mind/balloon is inflated with painful emotions, and stress symptoms appear immediately. If we can somehow make the painful emotions disappear from the mind/balloon again, it deflates again, the brain chemicals go back to their normal position, and symptoms disappear immediately. See picture below.
Picture 1: The mind is like a balloon!
Here is a gross example. As you step into your bathroom, you see a six foot long cobra in the bathtub. Scared, your balloon inflates immediately, your brain chemicals change and you experience many stress symptoms: fast heart beat, shortness of breath, trembling of hands, anxiety, sweating, etc. Your first response is to get away from the bathroom. After mustering some courage (the antidote to fear) you decide to prod the snake with a long stick. It does not move. You get a little closer and discover that it is just a real-looking rubber cobra put in the bathtub by your kids as a prank. You get a good laugh at this innocent prank. Your balloon shrinks, your chemicals go back to normal and your stress symptoms disappear promptly.
This inflating and deflating of the balloon/mind happens continually day in and day out in response to various upsetting events and problems we face in life. Even when we dream in sleep, our balloon could become inflated and we could experience various stress symptoms such as fast heart beat, shortness of breath, sweating, etc., in response to the danger we perceive in it. If you dream of being chased by a ferocious bear, you would feel very stressed. When you wake up and realize it was merely a dream, your balloon would shrink and you would feel calm once again.
Those of us who are able to keep our balloon shrunk on a daily basis live free from stress. Of course, there are appropriate and inappropriate ways of accomplishing this. If for whatever reason one is not able to keep his balloon shrunk, his stress symptoms would become persistent, get worse over time, and he would need a shrink to do the shrinking for him. Now you know why we psychiatrists are called shrinks!
In small to moderate doses these painful emotions are very useful for normal emotional growth and maturation, just as a small dose of fertilizer is essential for plants to grow to their full potential. In large doses, however, these emotions could become toxic and damage normal growth and maturation of people, no different than a large dose of fertilizer ruining the health of plants. This is especially true if one mishandles these emotions. A 16 years old boy involved in a fender-bender car accident could benefit from this scary experience, and learn to be a better driver. A total car wreck with loss of several lives could, on the contrary, leave permanent emotional scars on the same 16 year old, resulting in life-long suffering, especially if he did not deal with this tragedy promptly and in an appropriate manner