hydraulics of the mind

What is stress?

Mental stress is the way the mind feels a change in the state of the body that is created in order to push or pull an experience.

To understand this point better, imagine that you hear a sudden loud noise behind you. Your body instantly tightens, your shoulders go up, trying to hide your head in between. Your stomach contracts, and energy levels in your arms and legs increase. Your body turns into armor, ready to protect yourself from a source of the sound.

This type of stress response is natural in situations that the mind perceives as threatening. We can easily see that it is essential for the survival of an organism and is shared by all vertebrates.

Now try to imagine the following scene. You’re sitting in an outdoor café, sipping a cup of coffee and listening to pleasantly soothing music. The waitress just got you a nice slice of chocolate cake.  It’s nice. If you’re not currently engaged in fighting the holograms, you are slowly relaxing more and more.

Suddenly, a small traffic jam forms in front of you. Cars start honking. Noise bursts into your relaxed mind. As it happens somewhere in India, a sneaky cow appears from nowhere and starts munching on your cake. Your body responds with tension to every sound. At the same time, it tries to push the cow’s head away. Simultaneously, your mind tries to hold on to the waning feeling of peace. It’s not that nice anymore…

You can easily recognize the different pushing and pulling energies that the body generates in this situation. Interestingly, to resist the sounds of honking, the body puts in an energy similar to the one it uses to push away a physical object (such as a cow’s head). Similarly, to hold on to a fading sense of peace, the mind applies the same type of force as it uses when holding on to the plate of cake.

All these changes in the state of the body are instantly felt by the mind, and they are all felt as some form of mental tension.

However, the example above clearly shows which tensions do not make sense and which are actually helpful in the situation.

It seems quite obvious that trying to push away a sound is pointless. The sounds are already present in the consciousness and if we are not going to do anything with the source of the sound (in this case the line of honking cars), the body’s reaction to push away the sensation makes no sense. The situation is different in case of pushing away the cow’s head. The generated tension translates directly into muscle work and can effectively protect the chocolate cake.

The same goes for trying to hold on to the waning sense of peace. The body is applying the same type of energy as it is using to pull the plate of a cake towards it. However, an attempt to hold on to a mental state is doomed to failure. The tension in the body and mind generated as a result of this attempt cannot be released, as it will not be translated into bodily actions.

This short story can give us a clue on how to relax the body-mind. All we have to do is to stop reacting with tension when it doesn’t lead to bodily actions. In the case of a coffee shop story, it would be wise to push the cow’s head away and rescue the plate of chocolate. Trying to push the sound away and keep the feeling of peace only causes additional, unnecessary stress. Stress that is all the more harmful as it cannot be released as it is not translated into bodily actions.

Unfortunately, this cannot be done by an effort of will alone. One cannot relax one’s body-mind only by asking them to do so. Let’s see why.

By marcin wozich

I love open awareness and I love coffee...

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