Understanding stress

cd cover by bodhipaksa

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Stress is a disorder of well-being that is triggered by such pressures as the demands of work, interpersonal conflicts, money worries, or family problems — and often a combination of similar factors.

It is said that a certain amount of stress is essential to well being. We all probably remember times when we performed well under pressure, perhaps exceeding our expectations of what we are capable of achieving, and experiencing an increased sense of self-esteem and pride. But when we become overloaded with challenges, and have insufficient time to relax and absorb change, the strains we live with can be damaging to our physical and emotional health.

Our autonomic nervous system (the part that regulates how our unconscious physiological processes function) is divided into two parts – the sympathetic and the parasympathetic autonomic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible in part for the “fight or flight” response. It is stimulated when you are under pressure, and results in increased arousal. The parasympathetic nervous system does the opposite – it returns your system to a balanced, or homeostatic, state.

Normally, we would face a stressful situation and the sympathetic nervous system would kick in and put us into a state of arousal, which would help us to deal better with whatever it is that’s causing us stress. Then the parasympathetic system steps in and calms us down, returning our system to a state of balance and relaxation. In this context, the stress response is a healthy and useful adaptation to our environment.

But what happens with stress is that the sympathetic nervous system is continually triggered, and our parasympathetic system doesn’t have the time or opportunity to bring things back to a balance.

When the sympathetic nervous system is in “always on” mode in this way, it stops being a helpful response and starts becoming a problem. When we are in “fight or flight” mode we are more likely to respond aggressively at inappropriate times, leading to further stress due to conflicts with others.

We are also more likely to make decisions based on short term thinking, because we are very focused on the problem right in front of us. By not paying attention to the long view, we store up problems for the future, which results in — you guessed it — yet more stress. So what happens is that our stresses become self-reinforcing.

This is when stress becomes a trap, and it’s usually when we start to realize that we have to do something about it.

7 Comments. Leave new

  • Hello Bhodipaksa

    I am a beginner in meditation. Sometimes I experience a continuous sensation in between my eyebrows. What does it mean? The sensation makes it difficult for me to concentrate on breathing. Your reply will be much appreciated.

    • Hi, Priyanka.

      To be honest, I don’t know what this sensation is. People will typically talk about “the third eye” etc., but the Buddha never made any mention of chakras in his teachings and I’m much more interested in explanations that are based in science. There are sinuses in the area between the eyebrows, and there’s also a small muscle that’s there (called the procerus).

      So it’s possible that as you begin to relax, something happens in the sinuses or in the procerus muscle. This is very vague, but I’m happy to admit my ignorance.

      Anyway, I’d suggest that first, you acknowledge and let go of any anxiety as best you can. What you’re experiencing is fairly common, and many other people have told me that they’re prone to the same sensations. So it’s OK to feel this. It’s just a sensation.

      Secondly, just see if you can breathe with the sensations. You say it’s hard to concentrate on your breathing, but generally we’re not aiming to focus our attention on the breathing and nothing else. You can notice the sensations between the eyebrows and pay attention to the breathing. I’d suggest paying attention to the breathing in the chest or belly, in order to balance out the attention you’re paying to the upper part of the body. (Incidentally, when you talk about concentrating on the breathing, which part of the breathing are you mainly focusing on?)

      Thirdly, you could try imagining that you’re breathing in and out through that part of the forehead. Let the in-breath and out-breath flow through and around the area of tension, and let it “massage” the tense muscle.

      I’ll be very interested to hear how you get on.

  • Thank you for the reply….:)

  • You have written “we’re not aiming to focus our attention on the breathing”. But I always try to maintain my focus on breathing. Am I doing it wrong?

    • Hi, Priyanka. You omitted a couple of important parts of that statement, which completely changed its meaning: “Generally we’re not aiming to focus our attention on the breathing and nothing else.” The breathing is the focal point of our awareness, for the most part, but it’s not the only thing we’ll experience. We’ll also notice things like what we’re thinking about, how we’re feeling, what’s going on elsewhere in the body, etc. In fact noticing those things is an important part of the practice!

  • ok…now i have understood…thank you. Is it possible to become thoughtless for an infinite period of time while practicing mindfulness of breathing?

    • Not for an infinite time. You’re not going to live for an infinite time, never mind meditate for an infinite time :)

      There are often periods of time — perhaps even just a second or two — when there are no thoughts, but most people don’t notice this because they’re too busy focused on what they think is wrong with their meditation. Sometimes you may find that there are longer periods without thinking, or with only very faint, wispy thoughts that don’t engage your attention.


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