Handling Stress Part 1: How Our Reactions Rule
Existence is very cool and, among other things, incredibly interesting. This is because the Cosmos in which we exist is rich in majesty, beauty, splendour, diversity and the possibilities of expression and there are mysteries and the unknown wherever you look. On top of that is the gift of being able to express ourselves in so many ways, the variety of experiences we can have and at the root of it all is the fact that we exist and are capable of having experiences.
As an example, and paraphrasing an old parable, the gift of taste is not that we can taste a strawberry or jalapeño pepper or anything else, the gift is that we can taste anything at all. It would be nice if we could dwell here and always be amazed and joyous about just being alive and were able to express ourselves to the fullest potential doing whatever it is we choose to do. Alas, for all of us, there are always some rain clouds in our skies.
We are the creator’s of our rain clouds. Natural disasters and so forth aside, they do not appear of their own accord. Even our lower emotional reactions to tragedies, while understandable, are of our own making. Some would attribute much of what happens to us, whether we see it as good or bad, to be the result of something commonly referred to as Law of Attraction. This is a misnomer as this supposed law is merely a corollary of the Law of Action and Reaction because what we attract is the result of the kinds of reactions we have to the experiences we have, experiences that are the result of our actions or choices.
We are all unique in our reactions for, as they say, one persons pain is another’s pleasure. My rain clouds are the result of my own negative reactions to my experiences. This holds whether the circumstances are the result of choices I made or are the result of circumstances beyond my conscious control. I can also look at my rain clouds as being the strains in my life. Notice I use the word strains and not stresses. I will explain why for many tend to use the two terms as if they are the same thing when they are not.
Strain occurs when our reactions are causing us problems or are uncomfortable and so on, whereas stress is the pressure or tension exerted on us. For example, the challenge of paying bills could put stress on me, but not until I get scared or worried about the outcome does it strain me. It is my reaction to or how I handle stress that causes the strain and not my reaction to the challenge itself. I also realize that my differentiating between the two may seem like a minor point as many relate to the two words the same way, but it is not. Stress is the force exerted on something or someone; if the object or person cannot mitigate the stress they experience strain.
Everyone deals with stress differently. For example some people have challenges handling any stress at all hence when it occurs they are immediately strained while others rise to the challenge and rarely experience strain at all. Stress is a natural part of life and how we deal with it tells us a great deal about ourselves. It is our mind reacts to stresses based on how we have reacted to them in the past. Those who handle stress well were usually taught to how to manage and deal with stress or channel it and have continued to apply this knowledge. Those who do not handle stress well likely missed developing some of skills to cope with and manage stress.
It is certainly harder to learn this when we are older, but most certainly is doable. We can do this by understanding how the mind reacts to and deals with experiences, learning to recognize when we are under stress, notice how the stress is affecting us and ways to reduce it and then how to learn from the experience. However, before we go into more detail on this we will take a brief look, and for many a review, at our mind and its relationship with the experiences we have.
With each new day we have the opportunity to experience any one of a number of things, though we also need to recognize that our non-conscious mind does most of the choosing for us (1). Be that as it may, we choose to do one thing or another, which leads us to certain experiences. In turn we react to these experiences one way or another and our reactions that affect subsequent choices. Our experiences and our reactions to them are intrinsically linked and not separate. They are bundled in a tidy little merry-go-round, though not a tiny one by any means. Regardless of the complexity of mind and it’s seemingly countless thoughts we can reduce the challenge. This is done by understanding the reaction process in general rather than focusing on individual thoughts.
The mind’s complexity is really only an issue if we allow it to be. One can get caught up imagining it as an endless jigsaw puzzle in the form of some of the architecture in a Maxwell Escher  drawing. We can do this because the basic dynamics of the mind are not that complex. The thoughts that lead us to react in particular ways under certain circumstances are connected and we only need find what binds them together, which is what have in common. More importantly, we created the thoughts hence we can modify them. I am willing to bet that everyone has had at least one moment in their life where they suddenly “got it” on some matter. We do not think about how this occurred, we tend to accept it. So, we can let them happen on their own, or if we understand ourselves a little more we can hasten the process.
The high level reaction process is composed of three steps. We experience something, we react to it and then we choose what to do as a result of our reaction. These steps comprise a loop that is repeated continually. There are subsets of it such as we react, a reaction is an experience and so we react to the reaction. This is how our minds integrate experiences and we will touch on it again below. We will look at this loop in the order I mentioned, that of experience, reaction and choice though one could choose to start at any one of the steps.
We are examining the basic experiential flow cycle as shown below. Naturally there is a great deal going on a multiple levels when we make a choice and when we react. We will look at them where they are relevant. Also note that both reactions and choices are actions and that the number of thoughts involved in either depends on the types of thoughts involved. Higher level composite and conceptual thoughts have a higher number of entanglements and when activated engage more thoughts than lower level or “simpler" thoughts.
Background: How the Mind Integrates Experiences
Our minds are built by our reactions to our experiences. It starts by our becoming aware of a stimulus of some kind be it a thought, a feeling or something we perceive with our physical senses and so forth. The act of perceiving a stimulus of any kind is awareness of it. We then react to this reaction. These reactions take the form of “a stirrings” in matter of our mental body, typically at the lower mental end. The stirring manifests thoughts, which is how our mind remembers. This is not new to anyone, we all know this for ourselves. When we react to experience we manifest thoughts. This is how we remember though most reactions occur at the non-conscious level.
Over time our thoughts about our experience become more and more linked or entangled by commonalities of various kinds and our mind or mental house takes form. Some examples of various commonalities of various degrees of complexity would things that are red containers, sweet, furniture, buildings, good, bad and smooth and fastener. Our memories influence future choices and the loop starts anew. As a side note, this is why when we repeat a thought we reinvigorate it and it stays closer to the surface where we can get at for longer periods of time. Not doing so allows it to slip away out of sight, forgotten.
We make countless choices every day, though we think little of it. Ever movement of our body, every word we speak and every act we do, which includes the thoughts we have, are the result of choices or decisions. Just consider how many thoughts are engaged in simply grasping an object; how to get the fingers, arms and perhaps whole body to move a particular way in order to grasp it, observing distance and determining whereto grasp it and so on and then doing so. For this act alone the breadth of thoughts is staggering.
All of these ongoing decisions are made with various degrees of conscious awareness. A vast number of the choices we make are handled automatically, just below the conscious level and there are few afterthoughts to go with them. The mind does this for us and by doing so frees us our conscious mind to consider what is going on without concern for whether we will trip over our own feet. In a way our mind floats on a sea of experiences and reactions, which ones we notice and do not is also a choice we made.
We pay attention to what we have trained our minds to be concerned about, just as we make decisions based on what our mind has learned through our experiences (2). Fortunately, we do not have to think about each smaller movement or a number of other things because our minds create and uses composite thoughts ((1) Part 1: The Dynamics of Thought), which are combinations of other composite thoughts or atomic one’s. The downside of this is that we often allow our minds to make decisions that we should not allow to be automatic or one’s that are not valid even though we may not be aware of it.
At this point it is important to note that all thoughts include one or more higher level thoughts. For instance our higher level thoughts about the very nature of matter are inherently part of every thought about anything we perceive be it physical or not, it even applies to our imaginings. This is an important point to remember and contemplate. We started manifesting thoughts, including high level beliefs, the day we are born, perhaps even in a very rudimentary way before birth. They also include thoughts related to our physicality long before we have words to be conscious of doing so, ones that grow stronger with time.
These high level thoughts become associated with every thought about things and as a result they affect not only our interactions with physical things, but also our senses and even more importantly how we relate to and "perceive" everything. This is why higher level conceptual and abstract thoughts wield so much influence over us. If our mind is the mental house we build and then live in such thoughts would be akin to those that affect house itself (in this analogy I would be referring to such things as the foundation, plumbing, heading, electric wiring, the kind of material the walls are made of etc.). Hence our reactions are also affected by these higher level thoughts. Beliefs about the nature and various aspects of reality and those concerning who and what we are higher level conceptual thoughts.
I will not go into how experiences shape our mind as I have done so in the Our Mental House series and other essays; however, certain concepts are relevant. In those essays I defined awareness as the ability to react to a stimulus where a stimulus is something observed or occurs. Consciousness is defined as awareness plus memory. Consciousness remembers or figuratively “stores” the reaction in the form of thoughts of various types and the entanglements between them. Another example of this would be how once we understand the concept of a container the mind will automatically associate this concept with anything perceived to possess the properties of a container.
There are two fundamental forces at play in all we do; they are actions and reactions; though do note that a reaction is in turn an action. This means that when we react to something our mind then reacts to the reaction as every reaction is a stimulus. This is how we integrate our experiences, which is also the process by which we learn. How long the process lasts depends on the reaction, and how many thoughts it is related to or entangled with. It will continue until no new thoughts or very few are being created. This implies that the mind has completed processing the experience.
We integrate most experiences quit quickly others can take days, months, weeks and even years. For instance, when we are learning how to run properly, which takes years, our mind does a great deal of integration and in the process more thoughts are manifested. Once we have the thoughts for running we can use them and don’t need to integrate new thoughts. We may make adjustments over time, but even then it takes little time for us to do so. You likely have other examples in your own life. If, for example, you have ever said to yourself “I am still trying to get my head around it” or “I cannot get my head around it” then you have experienced a prolonged integration process.
We react based on how we have reacted to similar experiences before, or even ones with some significant degree of similarity. How similar two stimuli need to be to be viewed by our minds as sufficient depends on a number of factors the primary one’s being how abstract the thoughts are and the necessity for surety. You would not likely put your feet down if you weren’t sure what was beneath it or try to use something as a container if it didn’t have the properties of a container. On the other hand, when one is trying to make a decision about something they may draw from on what was learned from a wide variety of experiences, even ones that do not appear to be directly related to the decision.
We react to everything we perceive and with each reaction every existing thought that shares a commonality with any part of what we perceived is activated ((1) Part 1: The Dynamics of Thought). We are not aware of the vast majority of thoughts activated but certain ones can come through of their own accord. This is something that anyone who has had been back to an old neighbourhood and had memory’s come flooding back can attest to. The nature of our reaction is the result of the totality of all the entangled thoughts. The thoughts that will factor into our reaction to an experience, regardless of the nature of our reaction, are factors such as:
- How similar past experiences are with the current experience
- Past reactions to similar or related experiences
- The relative strength of the various thoughts manifested previously
- How much risk is involved
- Our mental and emotional states at the time of the experience
- Concerns arising from the extrapolated future
- Perceived risks to the present or future (degree of potential threat)
It is impossible to say which ones will dominate or if any will (which leads to indecisiveness). What we decide to do as a result of our “thinking” is another matter. Whether a particular reaction is stressful varies from person to person, as the saying “One man’s pain is another’s man’s pleasure” clearly illustrates. What we need to do is try to figure out what trigger’s our stress reactions so we can handle them better, stop or lessen the stress to reduce future stress and the potential for strain.
The Sources of Stress and Strain
The stresses we feel are our own making; they are our reaction to experiences. We can get stressed over our jobs or lack of one, over our relationships, over money, our cars, and clothes, whether we feel accepted or our favourite show being cancelled and so on. We can also be stressed and not know why, we just have that “something isn’t right” feeling or we do not feel comfortable. This happens when a buried memory is stirred into wakefulness and figuratively we feel the emotions of the memories speaking but do not hear the voice of the memory that gave rise to it.
We can certainly change our situation and move away from the experience we are reacting to in a stressful manner, we can try to avoid the stress or find a workaround. The goal here is to manage the stress thereby keeping it from building to strain. There are positive stresses too and though they may motive us to do better, try harder and so on there is still something causing the stress. However, the spotlight in this piece is on negative stress. That said many of the same ideas we cover will be applicable to positive stress should you want to explore such experiences as well. Doing so could enhance them even more by reducing the stress without affecting the positive results.
We all know there are trigger’s for the various stresses we may find ourselves experiencing. We know that they are not likely to go away without a changing either the experiences we have or ourselves. This leaves us with primarily three choices: manage them, allow them to build or try to clear the source which is in our reaction to our experience(s). In terms of humans and figuratively speaking, we manifest stresses based on three main 'sources':
Laws of the Cosmos: Our actions not aligned with the “way things work”
Monad or soul: Our actions are not in alignment with what our monad is trying to learn
Mind: Our reactions to our experiences tell us that what we are experiencing is not in alignment with what our minds have come to like or feel comfortable with.
It is hard to come up with a fixed definition for what “stress” is, though what we call stresses are reactions to experiences or influences that do not match with thoughts we have in our mind or what we believe is desirable (either consciously or non-consciously). You cannot call them positive or negative because they are just forces and such qualities are applied by us due to our interpretation of them. Strain occurs when we cannot deal with the stresses we have manifested increase and become unmanageable though even low levels of stress over long periods of time will cause strain. There is no fixed demarcation point for when stress becomes strain as it depends having good coping.
In a very real way stress is the result of our resistance. This happens when two forces are not going in the same direction (unaligned). I have listed the three main players’ in this equation above. You can imagine each of these as a flow and so long as what we do and experience matches that flow we have no stress. Stress occurs when what are experiencing or our reactions to our experiences, are not in alignment with one or more of these flows. I have listed three potential “sources” of our stress; however, the vast majority of stresses we experience arise from our own minds. As a result we will focus on our minds though I will briefly touch on the other two as they are not unimportant.
The stress that comes when we are not in alignment with the way things work is associated with fundamental laws of the Cosmos such as the Law of Limitation (4) and Law of Action and Reaction (includes karma which is based on it) (5). The saying “You reap as you sow” while misunderstood implies that what we do returns to us though it is the intent and not the outcome that is reaped. As an example of this take the karma that results from our deliberately doing harm to another. The lesson to be learned is related to why we chose to bring harm to another in the first place and not the harm that resulted from our actions. The latter is a by-product of having learned the former. The stress factor from this area tends to be in the form of the experiences we have. Any stresses that arise when we react to these experiences are of our own making. Our “true self” or monad can also influence our mind, though again any stress from this is due to our reaction to its influence, as it also is not the source of our stress, our minds are.
Experiences, and of course our reactions to them, that take us out of our comfort zone which we perceive as stresses of various kinds. Fear, anxiety, jealousy, anger, frustration, uncertainty, guilt, blame and so on are examples of the stresses we can experience. The degree of stress depends on how far out of our comfort zone we find ourselves. This varies dramatically from person to person, issue to issue and experience to experience. The greater the importance we place on certain things or situations, the more we are fearful or insecure or require things to be a particular way the greater the stress we feel. In other words, the stress we feel is in a very real way the result of our needs not being met.
“When we observe ourselves we may notice we like certain types of people, experiences, ideas, colours, clothing, material possessions of all kinds, smells, foods, places, shapes etc... Overtime, we allow certain things to become needs and may not be aware they are needs until we lose them. We need a good or certain job to feel positive about ourselves, we need people to act particular ways and so forth or else we feel uncomfortable in various ways. When needs are not met, we react with lower emotions. This occurs simply because we allow ourselves to need instead of prefer certain things.
What we like is strongly influenced by the mental programming that results from our integration of experiences. Certainly, we are born with certain traits and tendencies, and the influences of culture, heritage and family values affect how we integrate our experiences and thus establish our personal tastes. Nonetheless, our experiences play a more significant role.” (3)
There are actually few legitimate needs, namely food, water and shelter, though some would argue that even these can be circumvented. I would be remiss if I didn’t also state that we can choose to take on responsibilities that require us to meet the needs of others. This occurs for parents and those who have chosen to be care givers to others and so on. Be that as it may, all other needs beyond the three basic ones are those we have allowed ourselves to take on, as the above passage mentions. I get that most of us are nowhere near enlightened enough to be nearly devoid of need, however this does not suddenly make good for or beneficial to us. I have met people who will not drink a coffee that is not made exactly the way they would like it or who fuss about things to the nth degree in attempt to make things match their version of what would be perfect and continue to try to do so.
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)is a prime example of need run a muck. OCD has been linked to abnormalities with the neurotransmitter serotonin. While I agree OCD can be the results of purely biological functions I believe that it is most frequently the result of a person having created very powerful needs in their own minds. Why? We know that how we think and our conscious mind’s activities have an effect on the chemistry of our brains. Studies have also shown that stress is one of the biggest factors in reducing serotonin levels. Since our mind is what creates the stresses and not our brain, then it is highly likely that OCD is mostly of a person’s own making and hence they can also “un-make it”.
Our minds are the source of our stresses because we built up expectations as well as come to want and need certain things and conditions and so on. When our mind determines these are not being met we feel stress, nor are we necessarily consciously aware of what expectation, want or need is not being met. Whenever we feel uncomfortable or angry or frustrated and do not know why buried thoughts related to what we are experiencing are the likely culprits.
Preference can and need does lead to stress and strain can result, though obviously the latter will result in far more stress and strain unless the preference is a very strong one. One can look at the downside of this, in that stress and strain are a problem, but there is also an upside. Stress is a great teacher, it tells us when something is amiss and if we are paying attention to the experience we may even be able to find and clear the thought(s) that led to it.
One may have noticed that the list is devoid of external factor such as the actions of others or other events such as natural disasters. Our stress does not have an external source. It is our reactions that manifest the stresses we experience and since our minds manifest the reactions we don’t just manifest stresses. We are their creator’s and architect. The problem is a great deal of that creating is done at the non-conscious level. The mind does it using our conscious directions as a guide. Nor does the mind concern itself with truth per say (as explored in the Our Mental House series).
Our minds will accept mistaken notions we have consciously and will act in kind behind the scenes. If we choose to not see someone’s good qualities or believe they have none it is not unlikely that we will ever see them if they are on full display, in which case it is not unlikely we will see any “good actions” on their part as deceitful, dishonest or see it as some form of guile on their part. An act of kindness may be seen as an attempt at guile, every work might be distrusted and so on.
It is important to note that not all stresses lead to strain or are even an issue at all for two reasons. First, if some stresses are easily dealt with then the mind will start to believe that it is possible one can learn to manage or deal with any stress better. This can be a bigger help to us than most realize as they fail to recognize the power of our beliefs over us. As the self fulfilling prophecy fairly accurately states, believe something is impossible and it likely is; however, believing that something is at least possible opens up a whole new world of options. Also, as mentioned earlier some stresses push us to be better, try harder and so on. I am still a proponent of learning to overcome even these kinds of stresses; however, they are certainly are not as great a concern unless we are not succeeding, which increases the stress we create or they lead to obsessions of one form or another.
The reasons we manifest stress relate to the list of factors that contribute to our reactions to experiences (as listed above) as our stress are the result of how we react to our experiences. Anything that affects our needs and wants will lead to stress be they those of the present moment or the imagined future. I think most of us can relate to the stresses that result when our needs in the moment are not being met or when we perceive a threat to our future. What is not so obvious is actual source of the stress.
We may for example remember a past experience that lead us develop a fear of heights, however, say we are stuck in traffic, will likely be late for some event as a result and that being late could have negative consequences for us. We may be inclined to get angry over he traffic problem, but the actual culprit is not traffic, culprit is us. It maybe that we were a little lazy in getting ready or we were doing something else and lost track of time or it may appear to have been unavoidable in that another commitment may have taken longer than expected and so on. In the first two cases we would look at why we were being lazy or were not paying due attention to the time in the latter case we would have to look at our inability to accept what happens and deal with whatever the consequences may be. In all three cases letting our stress build up is not likely to help us resolve whatever problem we may have.
Life isn’t fair no matter how much we might want or hope it to be. If we think it is then we are potentially setting ourselves up for a lot of stress. We all need to accept that there is much more that we cannot control than we can and that while it is fine to try to do so we should not let ourselves be overcome by stress if and when we cannot. Do not mistake acceptance of circumstances with giving up or surrendering to them, it means we will carry on as best we can regardless rather than war with what is beyond our control. For example, if we are in a car accident and are severely injured we should do what we can to recover or to deal with any injuries and other consequences, but we should not blame the accident and whatever led to it as the reason(s) for our predicament. That simply keeps us locked into the past and will lead to more stress and very likely strain.
 Maxwell Escher: (Jun 17, 1898 to Mar 27, 1972) a Dutch graphic artist known for his use of mathematics in his works (woodcuts, lithograph and mezzotints). His works also featured explorations of such topography, infinity and architecture as well as impossible constructions. Two of his more famous pieces are Waterfall (1961) and Relativity (1953).
End of Part 1
==> Continue to Part 2: Locating the Source of Our Stress
© 2013 Allan Beveridge
References (*- denotes essays only available to site members of TheTwinPowers.com)
- Our Mental House Series (the whole series is relevant for this reference, the link is for Part 1): The Dynamics of Thoughts
- Paying Attention to Our Attention
- *Preference versus Need
- Awareness Series Part 1: Learning to Work With Energy
- Sssh It's A Secret
Last updated March 4, 2016