Mainstream belief has caught up to the scientific community and even aligned with the modern self-help industry, in agreement that there is a provable mind-body connection. We recognise how stressful thoughts are linked to physical stress, like imagining a future situation creating tension in the body. The question is; does thinking create stress, or does stress create thinking? Do our minds create fear, or does fear create our thoughts?
As a psychotherapist, working with people from all different cultures around the world, I have found that the mind body connection is a two-way-street. It often creates a closed loop, or a feedback loop, where stressful thoughts create stress in the body, and stress in the body creates more stressful thoughts. Fear creates fearful thoughts, and fearful thoughts trigger more fear. So how can we escape this feedback loop?To answer this question, we need to first understand what stress is and how it is triggered, to better understand its root cause. According to Harvard Medical School, stress is a physiological and psychological response to survival threats. Plants and animals experience stress when sunlight, food or water is lacking, or even in excess. This leads to physiological and psychological responses to cope and adapt to the survival threat. For example, a plant might lose its leaves to prevent drying out when water is scarce, and an animal might increase hormones like adrenaline and cortisol when food is lacking or there is a predator nearby, increasing heart rates and respiration, and suppressing the immune system.
However, when we look at humans and stress, it gets a little more complex. We find ourselves experiencing fight-or-flight responses in situations where our physical well-being is not directly threatened. There is no shark swimming beneath us, and yet our bodies respond as if there is. Perhaps we are late to work, and we experience adrenaline production, increased heart rate and respiration, and so on.
So why is it that humans interpret certain benign, or at least survivable circumstances, as life threatening? Why do we react to everyday situations with survival stress like fear, anger and depression? Why does a looming deadline for work feel like you are about to die? Why does the children not getting dressed for school on time trigger hopelessness and rage?
The answer can be found in looking at the link between survival and thinking. Humans have an upgraded brain compared to our mammalian cousins. We have an increased capacity for thinking and reason that apes and other intelligent lifeforms on Earth do not have. The result of this increased intelligence is the creation of perhaps one of the greatest survival tools on this planet: the mind created sense of self, more commonly known as the “ego.”
The popular understanding of this word ego is an inflated sense of self. However, it actually encompasses all conceptual ideas we have of ourselves. “I am a bad person” is as much ego as “I am a wonderful person.” Both are thoughts that reflect our identity in our minds, be it the conscious mind, or the subconscious mind.
Once we have a mind created identity, we now are susceptible to mind created threats to our identity.
The story of me
Now that we know we have an ego, we can look at the link between the egoic identity, thinking and stress.
All humans see the world through a mental identity based on our names, our bodies, our thoughts, our emotions and our life circumstances. You could call it “The story of Me.” Often completely subconsciously, this story is running like a software program in the background. It then becomes an imagined subjective reality we live our lives through. We see others as revolving around ourselves, and these others are an ally or a threat to “me,” or a neutral character, unimportant to “me.” We see events as important only if they affect “me.” This completely self-centred focus becomes the underlying structure of most human thinking, and it is most certainly stressful always trying to defend, prop up, protect and better this story of me.
The ego is not all bad. It is not the enemy; it improves our survival chances, by making “me” the centre of the universe. We would do anything to protect “me” and its objects, reputation, relationships and body. It works very well to survive as a unit; as a singular being. The ego even extends to groups, as we identify with our family, tribe and country, culture and religion, again, helping the group survival, which in turn helps the individual.
With this amazing upgraded survival mechanism of the ego, humans have survived better than any species. Yet, here we are in 2019, and the psychology, psychotherapy, psychiatry and new age self-improvement industries are booming. More and more people are seeking help with anxiety and depression. There are myriad physical issues like chronic fatigue, stress or burn-out, and mystery illnesses that are affecting people the world over. Why is that?
It is because the conceptual identity we hold in our mind is simply not real. It is a story, that we habitually tell ourselves every day; it is defended and bolstered and obsessed over.
Yet, in a moment when the mind is totally at rest, still and quiet, there is no story of “me,” and the result is there is nothing to defend or project or fix. There is no one to fail, live up to, or be.
Now the connection between thinking and stress can be seen more clearly in the context of the ego; thoughts about “me” are a mind-projected image of who I think I am, which leads to a full range of mind-created survival threats that are imagined to threaten “me.”
It’s not just the fact that there is no shark– it’s also that there is no “me” that is being chased by the imaginary shark. To see this directly in a moment of openness, where you allow yourself to be totally present, with no story of who you think you are, or what you think is happening, you can directly experience a quiet mind and an open heart. Then you can see how your body reacts to this. What is the body’s reaction to an absence of the story of me? You may find that in true survival situations, that your body-mind knows very well how to react – to jump out of the way of a bus, to run from danger – and that when there is no existential threat, you can rest fully and simply be.
Going on a thought diet, or a “me” diet, can be a profound way to reduce thinking and as a result experience far less stress in your life. It will help you to have a quiet mind and an open heart, without needing to worry about every little thing, or every possible outcome in the future.
This investigation is only a starting point. It gets deeper and more profound as you explore this rabbit hole of the egoic identity and its role in amplifying stress in your life. My invitation to my clients is to take the first step, and just take one moment to be nobody at all, and discover what the effect is. Often it is scary to be nobody, until with some encouragement, the mind can rest fully, and an overwhelming relief arises; causeless joy even.