Emotional stress is something that we all experience when we have to cope with the many demands and responsibilities of home and work. Stress can be defined as an intense emotional and physiological reaction to a situation or the mental representation of a situation as a memory or anticipation. Chronic stress is produced when stress reactions do not resolve themselves and become habitual. The sustained physiological effects of chronic stress can have a serious effect on the body and lead to an increased risk of disease. The psychological effects of chronic stress produce fatigue, poor concentration and an impaired ability to perform tasks, which leads to more stress. Stress produces a general feeling of helplessness and negativity, both of which reinforce the stress reactions. This produces a lack of vitality, enthusiasm and creativity and many people describe chronic stress as a heavy blackness that covers everything and in its severe form, chronic stress leads to depression. Chronic stress can result in an increased chance of accidents as well as reducing work performance. Chronic stress also reduces our listening and learning skills and this reduces the quality of communication in our personal relationships and family.
It is well recognized that stress reactions are learned and originate from the influence of our own mental outlook and from belief patterns acquired from our parents, family and culture. Stress always contains both an objective component and a subjective component and in most situations, it is the habitual subjective emotional reactivity that generates the emotional tension and physiological characteristics of stress. There is pain and there is suffering. Pain is the objective component that is often inevitable or unavoidable, but suffering is a subjective reaction that we generate and add to the pain. The Buddha described this subjective suffering as dukkha and not surprisingly, mindfulness, which is one of the central teachings of the Buddha, was and continues to be very relevant for working with and resolving emotional stress.
The other major source of stress comes from unresolved traumas that result from physical injury, assault, domestic abuse and violence. In general this kind of trauma-related stress results from experiences and associated emotional reactions that we cannot process, because they are outside of our normal range of experience. These unresolved wounds become repressed and submerge into the subconscious mind where they continue to simmer and generate a generalized anxiety. This is described as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Occasionally, in severe cases of PTSD resulting from war or other intense situations, the stress reactions will erupt as nightmares and flashbacks in which the individual re-lives the trauma.
Whatever the source of the stress reactions, it is important to understand that each reaction has an internal structure in the form of negative thoughts and beliefs and associated emotional energy that gives power to these thoughts. It is often very helpful to examine these negative thoughts and try to change them. This is the approach taken in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Another approach is to change the emotional energy that empowers the thoughts and beliefs, because without this compulsive charge, the beliefs will have no power to generate stress. This is the approach taken in MMT. Through careful attention and investigation of the emotion through mindfulness, we can uncover the internal structure of the emotion and discover what needs to change. As the structure changes, so does the emotion. Resolve this and you will neutralize the stress reactions.
OVERCOMING STRESS REACTIONS: THE FOUR Rs
Stress is generated by habitual emotional reactions to external events and internal beliefs. These patterns of negative thinking can be changed by the application of the four Rs, which are the primary focus of MMT. These are: RECOGNITION, REFRAMING, RELATIONSHIP, RESOLUTION.
All habitual emotional reactions rely on two key elements: ignorance and emotional energy. The first task in MMT is to learn to recognize our stress reactions as they arise in stressful situations. We train ourselves to watch very carefully for any impulse to react. This counteracts the automatic and mechanical part of what makes reactions habitual. The maxim of MMT is that all change begins with mindfulness and mindful-recognition is the first and most important step. You know what pushes your buttons. It might be in your personal relationships with your partner or with your children or perhaps with your parents. One of the most important steps you can take on the path of self-transformation is to take the initiative to examine what stressors cause you to react and to learn to recognize your impulse to react. This is very empowering and changes your attitude from being a victim to being a warrior. For most of the time, most of us react out of habit and have no awareness of what is happening while it is happening. We are simply seduced into the same automatic patterns of reactive thinking over and over again. Clearly, the first step is to break this pattern of ignorance and know what is happening as it happens. This is the fundamental first part of mindfulness. Mindfulness means to be present for experience as it is unfolding.
Now you are learning to recognize anger reactions, disappointment and frustration reactions, fear and anxiety reactions as they arise in real-time. This new awareness can be very transformational by itself by simply making you conscious of what you are doing. It is a truth that what you don't see is what has the greatest power over you. Awakening to what is happening is therefore the first step to change.
The next step that paves the way for transforming the emotional energy that powers stress reactivity is to change your relationship to the emotion. Our usual response is to say I am angry or I am afraid or I am upset and we literally become the emotion. Contrast this to saying I notice anger/fear/upset in me. Now the emotion becomes reduced to an object, not me, that I can relate to with mindfulness. This simple reframing of how we perceive an emotional reaction - as me or as an object that has arisen in me is itself transformational.
However, what keeps a reaction alive is the associated emotional charge, without which the reaction would have no power to cause stress. MMT teaches us how to form a non-reactive relationship, the Mindfulness Based Relationship, with this underlying emotional energy that compels us to react. This is the RELATIONSHIP phase of MMT.
The mindfulness relationship is very important. This is where we allow ourselves to open our awareness and investigate the emotional energy, which is quite different to our usual reactions of ignorance, avoidance or aversion. We choose to be fully present with the inner feelings behind the stress reactions, rather than getting sucked into the content and story line. Just as in personal relationships, it is the quality of our PRESENCE, our ability to listen with an open mind and heart that is most important. Now we are learning to cultivate this same presence for our inner emotional stress. The nature of the mind is such that if you allow things to change, they inevitably will. If you allow things to change and unfold into this safe spaciousness of the mindfulness-based relationship, things will change in a beneficial direction that will transform and resolve the inner conflict and pain. It is the habitual reactivity that stops this natural healing and as we learn to disengage from the patterns of reactivity we create the right conditions in which emotional tension will resolve itself.
Mindfulness creates a therapeutic space that allows the emotion to unfold and undergo transformation. If you give it space it will change. This is one of the great discoveries made by the Buddha, 2500 years ago and which we are rediscovering today. It is not what we do that matters as much as how we relate to our emotional stress. When this relationship is based on the receptivity and openness of mindfulness, then we create the best possible conditions in which emotional tension can resolve itself.
Resolution can be understood as the process in which a stress producing emotion like anger or anxiety or disappointment undergoes a process of unfolding and differentiation. When we investigate anger with mindfulness, we begin to see that the anger is actually an assembly of more subtle content - the inner structure - in the form of feelings, memories, sensations and often some form of inner imagery that pulls all these parts together into the form of an emotion. The anger differentiates into feelings of sadness, emptiness, fear. With intense stress reactions resulting from trauma, we will likely notice vivid inner imagery. It is by uncovering the internal structure of the emotions and associated imagery that change becomes possible and mindfulness provides one of the best ways of cultivating a safe relationship with painful content by teaching you how to stay present and avoid becoming reactive to what you are uncovering.
Through becoming conscious of the inner structure of the emotions that power our stress reactions, the emotional energy will change and resolve. Without this emotional power, there is nothing to sustain the emotional reactions and life-long patterns of stress producing reactivity begin to dissolve, leaving you free from their compulsive grip. Like the petals of a lotus bud that were previously held and constrained so tightly, the mind begins to explore a new freedom with all its possibilities and choices. This is the freedom that the Buddha talked about and that is possible for all of us to discover through the practice of mindfulness. MMT teaches you how to apply mindfulness to resolve your patterns of habitual reactivity so that you can realize your full potential and enjoy your life and relationships to the full.
Peter Strong, PhD is a scientist, author, teacher and Professional Online Psychotherapist, based in Boulder, Colorado, who specializes in the study of mindfulness and its application in Online Psychotherapy for healing the root causes of anxiety ( Online Anxiety Counseling ), depression ( Online Depression Treatment ) and emotional stress ( Online Stress Management ).