On Misinformation About Stress


As many of you know, Lisa Feldman Barrett is someone I cannot get enough of. She's by no means new to the field of neuroscience, but if you look at the mainstream-ish media, she appears to have shown up on the scene only a handful of years ago. And I think I know why, and there's a parallel here with my own career: people don't want to hear what she has to say because it's so different from what they've been taught. Plus, and I relate to this as well—she's a lot of work and most people simply don't want to think about having to change the way they think about things.


If you want a brief description of what she writes about (and she is by no means alone) check out her Are you a spectator to reality or are you its creator? From that article:


When it comes to the question of what your heart rate means, psychologically speaking, the scientifically correct answer is: it depends. That’s because physical signals from within your body have no inherent psychological meaning. A particular heart rate does not indicate any particular emotional state. It’s not the case, say, that 100 beats per minute is happiness and 150 beats per minute is anger. The pounding in your chest during instances of both emotions can be physically identical. More specifically, your heart rate may vary just as much among different instances of anger as it does between instances of anger and happiness. Ditto for every spurt of cortisol, every trickle of dopamine, and every other electrical or chemical change in your body. What differs is the meaning that your brain makes of the physical signals in a particular context.

In other words, it's somewhat-fake news when we talk about stress as if it's something that's real and objectively occurring in our bodies. Instead, what we call stress is a situation where there are sensations and physical shifts in our body and we have decided that they're stress. They could just as well be excitement or maybe food poisoning. Stress is the meaning we've decided to bestow upon a constellation of physical sensations. It's the thought that gets attached to those sensations as a result of . . . what has happened previously when those sensations showed up.


Not only do we live in a simulation, meaning our brains are constantly simulating what's occurring and what they'll need to do for us to handle it (so they're predicting what's happening and what will happen next), but we decide what our experiences mean. There's no such thing as stress until you've decided it's stress.


What to do . . .

The biggest obstacle to changing our relationship to how we handle the sensations and thoughts that arise is the past. The past has encoded our brains (well, WE have encoded our brains) with patterns of thoughts and memories. We've programmed our brains to do Y when they notice X is present. And the only way to change that is to start reprogramming.


I'm not a fan of the software metaphor, however it's kind of applicable here. The brain will do what you programmed it—consciously or otherwise—to do. And in order to get a different outcome—in order to change your "stress response," which, by the way, is super-problematic language—is to begin to do things differently. This takes effort, which is more difficult than the path of least resistance (i.e., what you're brain wants to travel on).


How Humans Learn New Things

So get out there and change the way you meet the sensations and thoughts that arise for you! Good luck!

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Just kidding. That's not how humans learn new things. How do they learn? Piecemeal. By getting good at one thing at a time, which might then be worked on more seriously, or once that first thing is solid, they add another thing. Or work on increasing endurance with the first thing. Point being, we learn by doing and by practice, and we start simple and doable and increase in complexity, difficulty, and time-on-task, appropriately. If we go too fast we get frustrated and stop, and if we go too slow we get bored and don't see the results we want to see and stop.


One More Time for the People in the Back

You do you. By far the most difficult part of mindfulness is actually doing it every day. Ten minutes is too long, you say? Then practice for two minutes. Set an alarm and practice for two minutes at the same time, every single day. Last week I featured a body scan and this week it's a resourcing practice, which is a practice that helps you notice resources available to you at any moment. Maybe you can alternate between this and the body scan?


You do you.


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