Digital Dharma

The Middle Path, One Day At A Time

Thoughts, Stress and Reality

Thoughts are not real. They obviously exist (although no one is sure precisely where, or in exactly what form), but they have no physical presence as far as anyone has been able to show. Despite what the mystics and spiritualists would like us to believe, there is not one documented1 instance of anyone or anything being directly moved, discomfited, stimulated, killed, or otherwise physically affected by a thought of another being. Nonetheless, thoughts can do all of those things to we who think them, and to others through our physical efforts.

Without training, our bodies and minds are not able, by and large, to discern the accuracy of our thinking. That makes sense. Belief in our immediate perception of reality keeps us alive. If we stopped to analyze the trajectory of the falling brick, the intentions of the youths in the alleyway, or our boss’s tone of voice, it would have serious effects on our potential for surviving, thriving, and making babies. Over generations, folks with our analytical inclination would become greatly outnumbered by those prepared to make immediate decisions, and our genes would almost certainly sink to the bottom of the pool.

We are, of necessity, programmed to take uncritical action when we perceive threats, or when we see an opportunity to satisfy a need or desire. In the days of crocodiles, spear-dodging, and assessing the mood of the chief or a potential mate, we were well-served by our programming. To a considerable extent, we still are. When applied to situations less amenable to instinctive resolution, however, these same skills can cause us no end of discomfort, stress, and wrong action, or inaction–even kill us, or cause us to do unnecessary harm to others.

The problem is that our bodies, controlled by the more primitive “survival” portions of our brains, do not distinguish among threats. Physically, we react the same–in greater or lesser measure–to a harsh word from our boss, an unpleasant news item on the tube, or a child running in front of a car. In all these cases, sensing a threat, our bodies produce the well known “flight-or-fight” reaction. Our adrenal glands release hormones that allow us to burn sugar faster. Our bladders want to empty, to prepare for battle. Other chemical changes cause the metallic sensation that we call the taste of fear. Our livers release glycogen, which can rapidly be converted to sugar for energy, and so on.

If there is actually a threat that we can respond to physically, all these changes are likely to help us meet it. We have greater muscular strength, and our attention becomes concentrated on the danger. Our field of vision narrows. Our reaction times decrease, our blood supply rushes to the large muscles, and we are ready and able to rush into the street and snatch the child out of the way of the approaching vehicle–even at the cost of our own lives, if necessary. Having made use of this power surge, our bodies sense that the threat is over and we slowly come down from our state of alert and back to normal.

The fight-or-flight reaction is one of the most powerful changes of which our bodies are capable. When appropriate, and when allowed to run its course naturally, it empowers us in ways that would not normally be available to us. However–and here is the key point–when frustrated, unresolved, or when triggered inappropriately or under conditions where it cannot be resolved by physical and emotional release, we are in a different kind of trouble. In bodies primed to rush into the night and throw burning sticks at encircling wolves, all that anger and energy– unused– wreaks havoc physically, and especially emotionally.

The times after these periods of perceived threat can be perilous indeed. They are time when we have to watch our driving, our relationships and our thinking carefully, because all can be badly skewed. If we are subject to frequent–perhaps even constant–periods of high stress, it can create even greater problems.
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1By documented, I mean carefully investigated and recorded, by someone whose primary interest is the collection and impartial interpretation of empirical data. This automatically excludes all religious and mystical writings and testament. Sorry.

One thought on “Thoughts, Stress and Reality

  1. For further entertaining and informative reading, check out Dr. Robert Sapolsky’s books “Stress and Your Body” and “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers”.

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