The human brain is hard-wired for pleasure, pain, and bliss. (As discussed in my video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tcBZ9r1f_Yk) Recently, through functional MRI scans of the brain, scientists have discovered the default mode network of the human brain is mind wandering. Mind wandering promotes subjective mental stress and unhappiness. During waking hours, as high as 80% of the time, the human brain is thinking about the past and future. This rumination leads to mental stress and dissatisfaction with life. True happiness is found in the present moment when the mind is focused. Mind wandering offered an evolutionary advantage to human beings when in the jungle. Thinking about the past or future allowed us to plan for droughts, protect ourselves from saber-tooth tigers, and prepare for war against the neighboring tribe. However, in modern society mind wandering leads to anxiety, depression, insomnia, irritability, headache, anger outburst, addictions, emotional eating, social isolation, criticism, self absorption, chest pain, tremors, jealousy, heartburn, muscle tension, fatigue, and skin disease. Our default mode of mind wandering leads to suffering through subjective mental stress. Chronic mental stress leads to inflammation, premature aging, and chronic diseases.
In modern Western psychology and the ancient Eastern philosophy of Vedanta, there are three universal stressors that afflict all human beings. Cataclysmic stressors are natural disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, hurricanes, etc. In our modern world, we can add acts of terrorism and mass shootings to the list of cataclysmic stressors. These events are unpredictable and lead to catastrophic pain and suffering for those directly involved. Also, there are objective stressors that are environment-based. These include getting rear-ended in a car accident, a sprained ankle, or a fever. There's nothing you can do about those events. If you accidentally trip and fall and bruise your knee, this will cause pain and is an objective stressor that all humans deal with at some point or another. The last stressor that universally touches all humans is subjective mental stress. Subjective mental stress is stress about things out of your control. The late Stephen Covey calls this worrying about your circle of concern, or the things you have no control over. Instead, focus on the circle of influence, or the things you can directly control, like your attitude. Subjective, perceived mental stress, is avoidable and managed through a shift in perspective. It is therefore optional. Some estimate that stress in the workplace cost U.S. employers up to $200 billion per year. As a practicing clinician, I am more interested in the cost of mental stress on the individual's health.
Studies have found a significant correlation between high levels of perceived mental stress and cellular aging. Research has shown that work related exhaustion can accelerate biological aging as measured through leukocyte telomeres. Subjective stress leads to 75-90% of all doctor’s office visits. What does a patient with excessive cortisol, adrenaline, oxidative stress, and hormone imbalance look like? These patients with chronic stress look haggard, they have bags under their eyes from insomnia, excessive fat on the body from emotional eating and cortisol release, and excessive wrinkles and grey hairs. Stress can manifest in the physical body as muscle tension, headaches, fatigue, irritability, depressed immune system, high blood pressure, heart disease, crankiness, insomnia, impaired wound healing, acid reflux, stomach ache, forgetfulness, and anxiety. A stressed person's general appearance looks older than stated chronological age. The biological age is usually older as well with an elevated blood pressure, elevated blood sugar, decreased cardiopulmonary fitness and an elevated resting pulse. Chronic stress affects psychological well-being and the patient rarely has a healthy emotional expression, vibrancy, or overall happiness for being alive. Uncontrolled chronic stress directly impacts physical and mental well-being.
Modern psychology defines subjective mental stress as an “emotional experience accompanied by predictable biochemical, physiological, and behavioral changes.” Humans are hard-wired for survival with the well known fight-or-flight response, which is an unconscious reaction that happens in our autonomic nervous system. Without thinking, our sympathetic nervous system stimulates the adrenal glands to release stress hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine from the adrenal medulla. In a cataclysmic event such as an earthquake, it will be natural and normal for your body to have physiological changes and release of stress hormones. However in our society, in the midst of the hustle and bustle, one is releasing stress hormones in traffic jams, in line at the grocery store, or at a business meeting at work. This chronic stress leads to suffering and disease. Research shows that chronic stress leads to premature aging by shortening telomeres and increasing oxidative stress. Unless the events are cataclysmic or objective, than all other events are one's subjective interpretation of reality. This subjective experience of stress, which leads to unnecessary suffering, is our number one killer.
In summary, there are three types of universal stressors that humans face. Cataclysmic stressors from natural disasters, objective stressors that are environment-based, and subjective stressors that come from mental perceived stress. By far, the number one killer in modern industrialized societies is chronic mental stress. The secret to superior health is the management and interpretation of subjective stress. Subjective stress is usually ephemeral and always illusion. However, its impact on the human mind and body is real and leads to disease. In my next blog, I will describe the three specific remedies for the three universal stressors.