Physical or mental distress can be challenging at times. We certainly don’t go out of our way to acquire it, and we generally try hard to prevent it, but like Murphy’s Law if something can becoming challenging and distressful it will, and probably at the most undesired time. Just the idea of distress is frequently distressful.
Our minds act in concert with our bodies in how they handle or respond to our specific environments. When our bodies are perceived to be under attack from, say, a virus, the hypothalamus – the area in your brain that acts as your body’s thermostat – shifts the set point of your normal body temperature upward, producing a fever. So, in fact, a fever is your body’s way of letting you know two things: one, that a microorganism and toxin is present; and two, that your natural immune response is on the case.
Likewise, your brain has a response against any perceived attack. In fact, a similar part of your brain that fights against a so-called physical invasion or infection by raising a fever – the hypothalamus – is the same one that lets your body know you’re under a perceived mental attack or distress.
When you feel physical, mental or emotional distress, the hypothalamus responds by releasing a flood of adrenaline and cortisol – known as “distress hormones” – that provoke a rally from your body to assist, known as the “fight-orflight response.” Your strength and stamina increase as your reaction time is shortened, and your senses become sharper as your heart rate increases and your breath quickens. Overall, your body’s reaction to mental distress can temporarily enhance your focus and coping capabilities.
In this way, mental distress can be viewed as a feedback mechanism – a process that uses the conditions of one component to regulate the function of the other. While the sense of distress is a signal to our body to make a change from the situation causing the distress, neither our body nor our mind can maintain proper functionality for extended periods of it. When we feel distress, we are wise to act immediately to remove ourselves from it, or it from ourselves, either by changing our actions or our perceptions.
Why do we experience mental distress?
We often experience mental distress because our personal highest priorities and values are ill-defined, and we unknowingly focus our attention on low priority, immediate or instant gratifiers instead of more meaningful and productive long-term objectives. Without a clear picture of our highest values, we often end up tending to another person’s values not our own, and/or lower priority issues.
Another cause of mental distress is not cataloguing and expressing gratitude for the so-called challenging events, actions and people who have helped us in life. When we are grateful for what we have, we receive more to be grateful for. All is ultimately on the way, not in the way.
Frequently, our distress is self-perpetuated. When we allow our mindset to be filled with doubts and “what-ifs,” we can work ourselves into a state of inaction – the “flight” aspect of “fight-or-flight” and the feedback loop, left unchecked, just increases. Vicious cycles can be the result.
What can we do to prevent distress?
On a daily basis, we need to stop and evaluate our highest priorities and honestly assess if we are tending to these goals or not. We are wise to ask ourselves what is truly working and not working, and then refine our actions and skills so as to maximize our meaning and productivity. When we are doing high priority, meaningful actions we transform illness creating distress into wellness.
It is wise to make a daily practice of entering into a state of mindfulness where we feel present and centered, can think wisely and clearly and become engaged in an efficient time and life management system.
By constantly reminding ourselves of our highest priorities or values and our mission and vision through self-affirmation and checklists, our achievements can be even more sustainable. Without distracting, or lower priority inputs from others, we can heighten the impact of our body’s feedback mechanisms and override and master the “fight” aspect as our body’s distress response.
Much like the palpable relief our bodies feel when our high fever breaks after successfully breaking through an infection, so too will our minds be cleansed with a similar sense of relief when we overcome or transform the mental distress we once imagined attacked us.
By listening to the subtle responses of our perceived distress we can attend to the personal signals they offer us to make wise and meaningful change. Then we can make the change that enhances and transforms our lives.