Reaction: My Mind Is Spinning
How Stress Affects Our Mind
Stress affects our mental functioning in four interrelated ways: 1) Our focus becomes more narrow; 2) We become less receptive, less able to take in new information; 3) It becomes harder for us to concentrate; and, 4) We tend to recycle or repeat negative thoughts over and over.
Narrowing focus is an adaptive response for an animal who is threatened. A few years ago I woke in the middle of the night to the sound of glass breaking. I ran outside and saw that some of our chickens had flown through the window of the chicken coop. I grabbed the pitchfork and opened the door to see a silver fox sitting in the laying boxes, eating the eggs. I jabbed the pitchfork in front of the laying boxes and the fox quickly moved back and forth between the two boxes. Whenever the fox moved, I moved the pitchfork in response. I (along with the pitch fork) became the total focus for the fox. It didn’t glance over at the remaining chickens to see which one might make a good meal. It kept its entire focus on the guy who could cause serious damage with the pitch fork. Fortunately for the fox, I was struggling with myself about using that pitchfork. It was a beautiful animal, yet if I didn’t kill it, there was little question that it would be back and my chickens would disappear. I must have moved a second too late while I was having this internal dialogue, because the next thing I saw was a silver blur whizzing out the door.
Maintaining that singular focus under a threat saved the fox’s life. The problem with human stress is that our threats are much more complicated and rarely come from a single direction. Most often we are dealing with multiple stressors as well as memories from past stress. As we narrow our focus, we miss other things that are happening. In many cases, the solutions to our problems and stress lie hidden among those other things.
Stress gears us up for action mentally as well as physically. We easily get so caught up in what we are doing (or should be doing) that there is no space for contemplation or reflection. I recall a lesson learned when installing a ceiling fan when we were building our home. I had workers scheduled to help finish drywall early that next morning and needed the fan to circulate the heat from the wood stove so that the plaster would cure properly. Upon coming home from work, with an evening meeting scheduled shortly after dinner, I thought “If I hurry, I can get this up before the meeting.” I hurried and got it up and running. But after the meeting I noticed that I had hung the fan directly over the stove. A call to my neighbor confirmed that the fan had to be moved: the heat from the stove would ruin the fan. There were lots of unforeseen complications with the new location but, though tired and frustrated, I persevered until well after midnight and got the fan up and working.
The next day, my wife looked at the fan and said: “Why did you hang it there?” She couldn’t understand why I had put the fan in such a strange place. It was because of a typical mental response to stress. My first focus was to get the fan up and working. The second focus was to move it a certain distance from the stove. I never took the time to ask myself: “Where would be a good place to hang this fan?” The fan came down one more time and was moved to the center of the room where it is now both attractive and functional.
Hurry and pressure limit our vision and receptivity. We can get stuck on one track and totally miss that there might be other influences or considerations. When we struggle with numbers of stressors at the same time, our focus gets pulled from one to another. We are dealing with one problem but thinking about what needs to be done about two or three others. The result is distraction and difficulty concentrating.
Mind and Body
Our mind and our body are intimately connected. When we think about something our body gets ready to perform. When our mind and body are both focused in the same direction, there is little stress. We are generating energy but using it toward a productive end. However, when our mind is scanning all of our various stressors or dwelling on old hassles, stress and tension increase.
When tension is building, our mind is drawn to focus on “what’s wrong?”. Dwelling on stressors creates more tension and a greater tendency for our mind to be distracted. Our thinking becomes less and less productive as tension and distraction escalate. Long after a stressful event has passed, the escalating tension continues to pull our thoughts in a negative direction. We repeat similar thoughts again and again. This recycling of our thoughts continues to build stress and tension until it seems that our minds just won’t stop. The same stressful events can be recycled through the night and into the next day when we return to the stressful situation with even fewer mental resources to deal with it effectively.
The simplistic solution is to tell ourselves “Don’t think about it.” I have never found this to work. Trying not to think about something draws our thoughts right back where we don’t want them. Chapter Thirteen outlines specific exercises that teach us to take control of our thoughts, to let go of unproductive thinking, and to focus on solving the problems at hand. These are not difficult skills to learn; and most clients and students report improvements within a week or two. However, these skills become much more effective to the extent that we practice them regularly and maintain overall balance with our body, mind, emotions, and spirit.
From Van Oosterhout, Slow Down and Lighten Up: Letting Go of Stress and Tension, 2001, 2016.