Is Stress Making You Sick?
A while ago I had a conversation with one of my clients who told me how, whenever he became overwhelmed, he would get a migraine headache and often had to leave work because it was so debilitating. If you’ve ever had the misfortune of a migraine, you know they can have a variety of effects: extreme sensitivity to light and sound, nausea, seeing flashing lights in front of your eyes, and an intense need to lay down in a dark room till it all passes.
According to my client, this had been going on for years. He’d had a variety of medical tests, taken different medications - he tried meditation and relaxation techniques, none of which substantially reduced either the length or the severity of his migraines. When the migraines came on, he would attempt to grit it out and continue working until he couldn’t stand it anymore. Being in a position of high visibility and responsibility, having to leave the office was the last thing he wanted to do. But sometimes he just didn’t have a choice.
He went on to say that certain situations almost always triggered a migraine and within hours he was out of commission. Even when he knew well in advance when those situations were likely to occur, he couldn’t prevent the migraines from coming on. He was frustrated, exhausted and a little embarrassed that he could neither muscle through them or find a solution.
My heart went out to him as I, too, had suffered from migraines for decades. We all know people who suffer any one of a number of conditions related to stress, and the medical research confirms that heart disease, obesity, GI problems, depression and anxiety are just a few of the ways in which stress affects us. Most of the solutions that are prescribed involve a checklist of things to do in order to avoid or reduce stress. And while that can be helpful, it can involve an awful lot of preparation - either before or after a stressful event - that may or may not work.
But what if there’s a different approach to stress, whether your body reacts with a migraine or anything else? What if a different understanding of the nature of stress could radically change your life?
Maybe you, too, were taught that the mind was like a camera; taking in information according to what we perceive through our senses. It seems like a logical explanation, after all. And yet, what accounts for the fact that many people experience the same event and have entirely different interpretations of it? One of the best examples of this is the 1950 Japanese movie classic, Rashomon, in which an event is interpreted very differently by each of the individuals who are questioned about it. There’s even something called the Rashomon effect, which refers to the perplexing contradiction of eye witnesses. However, each eye witness sees according to what s/he believes is happening, so for them, they are telling the truth.
Circling back to the nature of stress, the Oxford dictionary defines it as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances”. Who’s defining the circumstances? For some people, an ”adverse or very demanding” circumstance is seen as a challenge with enormous potential and for other people, those same circumstances are threatening, unsafe or downright dangerous. Bungee jumping, public speaking - we all respond differently.
What if the mind is not a camera but a projector? We interpret what we perceive according to what we already believe is true. It can’t be any other way. Our thoughts are always the intermediary between what we perceive and how we respond.
This inside-out interpretation explains why we respond to life the way we do, and, how, through an innocent misunderstanding, we attribute our reactions as being evoked from what happens to us (that thing makes me stressed) rather than what gets triggered within us (my thinking about that thing makes me stressed).
Did this understanding stop my client from having migraines? As a matter of fact, it made a big difference. When he realized he’d been reacting from negative imagination rather than fact, he became interested in dropping the labels about what was happening to him and allow his natural resilience to kick in. The freedom he felt allowed him to stop adding mental suffering to the physical discomfort. Gradually, there was less of a storyline for those migraines to attach themselves to. He didn’t have to do anything about or to his thoughts. He simply questioned where they were coming from. And that alone significantly improved both his mental and physical well being.