Thursday, December 4, 2014

buddha and the nervous system: detachment from stress & suffering via reducing threat

i'd like to suggest that buddhism has a nervous system analog. In fact any systemic approach to the
Walking Buddha
Even the Buddha
got movement
to blow off stress
(image source)

world, like buddhism and my fave the Sedona Method that all feature "letting go," of desire in the former case and feelings in the latter, are really cognitive analogues to a cold shower: something that snaps us out of our threat/neurotic focus on the thing in front of us - often to the exclusion of all else in order to restore our peripheral vision, awareness of Other Stuff, alternatives, the wider view.

When we are less attached to something it's easier to see others, other ideas; when we are less invested in one position we are open to possibilities others might offer.

I am effectively likening stress to attachment. Let me try to break this down.

Stress = Attachment = Viewfield Narrowing (ie Focus)

In buddhism, as i understand it, suffering is the big issue - and suffering comes from attachment. Let go of desire; let go of suffering. We cause our own suffering. Suffering; joy - it's argued is all just perspective.

Ah ha!

Perspective is a metaphor, but a telling one relative to what happens via the nervous system under threat.

Our field of view - our peripheral vision - closes down when we're under threat. We focus on the salient thing in front of us: the tiger, the avalanche, the angry boss, the object of lust. With that focus, there is a phisiologic response that includes that narrowed field of view (and also audio shut down). We do not hear or perceive much outside that salient focus.

fight, flight or freeze
when under threat we protect the squishy bits
that becomes our reflexive locus of concern
In a stressed state, what's more, with that narrowed often negative field of view, the salient bits that get through tend to be negative. We have a hard time perceiving positive occurrences when recalling our day, for example. We are physiologically as well as now psychologically attached to that stress/negative filter and focus.

Dealing with a Stress/Threat/Attachment Response as it happens

We often imagine the buddha sitting with his fingers up.
Maybe he's doing breathing exercises.
Buddha was also around when folks were a lot more active - not living in a sedentary culture - like now.

Thus, for most of us sitting is not a change up; not a break and NOT the best way to deal with that stress/negative focus, yet this is the dominant posture of most of us reading this post. IF you're sitting right now and feeling stressed, consider getting up and doing some stairs or going for a walk.

We go do that walk or some push ups or something to elevate the heart if we are having a stress/threat (attachment to suffering/emotional) response in a non-physical context in particular (that is not being threatened by a bear), where we are still wired to respond by movement: getting our heart rates up will help blow off the chemical responses being triggered by stress.

Stress is a sign physically to fight or run away. If we get our heart rates up from movement, our hormones charging us up for a physical response can calm down because we are doing what we're wired to do. When we don't move, that's not listening, is it? so the signal gets sent again - our stress level increases (irrationally, but physiologically) - do we respond by moving?

Reducing Instances of Threat/Attachment/Stress

That's what to do to help blow off a stress response when it's happening, but how about reducing the likelihood of getting triggered into a stress or highly emotive state (anger, fear, lust, pride - any of these can get us tripping, narrowed focus).

A great way to help stop undue triggers/attachments is sleep. If we're tired/vulnerable/less able to react effectively, we also tend to have less resources to deal with stress, so it takes less to set us into that negative spiral. Get sufficient sleep, we have more resilience. Less attachment. Easier to be buddha.

Resources to Deal with the Physiology of Attachment/Stress/Threat

One more way to make it easier to be buddha is to eat whole food so our necessary nutrients are stocked up.

Stress, after all, has a HUGE  physiological component. We may cause our stress to get worse by dwelling on a situation cognitively, or by trying to rationalise away our feelings, but there's a cycle at play: are our hormones triggering a tighter focus on getting an appropriate threat response? or our lack of physiological resources upping our reactivity to smaller triggers? If we don't eat the nutrients we need to function in a balanced way, we don't have the chemical resources our systems require to process these stressors effectively. We are running on a chemical deficit. Heck even being dehydrated can make it harder to deal with stress. Fast food or lots of processed food that takes out nutrients are both great ways to put us at a nutritional deficit such that we're more vulnerable to getting into a threat response.

And stress, hormonally, is a threat response.

Consider if we feel stressed at work. Why? because we fear our job is under threat? our performance is being judged? we are being bullied and feel unsafe?

Attachment as Threat Response

To bring this back to buddhism - Why do we fear an evaluation of our work, for instance? we are attached to our status and that may be at risk - unfairly or otherwise - from this evaluation? We are afraid to lose our perceived means of survival (income loss etc and can't perceive the options we may have)? We have a desire to achieve something we've invested in and thus are attached to that outcome ( eg i put in a grant proposal that takes months to write - do i get invested in wanting to see it come through? uh huh!) Our concerns about outcomes can narrow our focus to just that thing - we stop seeing alternatives.

The simple equation here is that attachment to suffering may just be a threat response: where attachment is focus narrowed to the most salient target - our fear (or lust), and a belief that says must focus on this as my life/happiness/success/relationship depends on it. But does it? or does it just seem that way? How do we know? If we can't pull up - reduce the threat, the attachment, the emotional state - it's very difficult to "see" what's around us, to perceive the panorama

panorama view - disappears under threat
comes back when we reduce threat (image source)
Reduce threat - reduce that hormonal response we AUTOMATICALLY restore a wider field of view; we can perceive options again - we are able to ask, for example, "what is the worst that could happen" - and work back from there.

This framing is not to say that having a threat response is not appropriate in some cases; it's not saying move to some la la state where everything is awesome when it's not  - but sometimes we get triggered more easily than may be appropriate to the situation, we get too focused on the Thing rahter than on for instance what the sedona method calls Right Action.

My observation - and the research literature seems to back this up -  is that we are more easily threatened/triggered/fearful when we are
- under slept
- poorly fed
- sedentary

just to touch on a few factors.
let the sunshine in - the earlier
in the day, the better
check out to check your levels
image source

Circadian Syncing for Neural Support
Another factor i've been noticing lately is helping me feel more balanced/less attached and less easily triggered, and therefore more able to respond effectively without freaking myself out, is getting a big jolt of light in the morning. In other words, working with my circadian rhythms which also is a key to our hormonal processes- but more of that (and the amazing sunsprite) another time.

We have Bodies: work WITH them
The big point here is that we are physical beings, and our physiology has a lot to do with how we cognitively process our environments.

You may be able to think of times when things seemed so much easier when you were well rested or had been doing more walks or were eating healthier - if not, you may wish to give it a go.

A Wider Field of View: Houston we Have Options

The benefits from a creative, innovative perspective, and from a working with others perspective, is
winter sunrise - walkin' buddha
knows sunshine helps
keep it together - in a detached
kinda way
(image source)
that it's much much easier to think new ideas, to perceive options, when our bodies do not feel under stress - when we can therefore physiologically achieve a wider field of view - literally and metaphorically.

It is easier to deal with the tiger in front of us if we can perceive the tools/support around us to deal with that situation; when we're less stressed we can also respond less reflexively and more thoughtfully/lovingly

In other words, it's simply easier to be zen about the world around us, our lives, to feel less attached, less emotionally driven, when we reduce the threat response.

It's much easier to move out of threat when we have quality movement, rest and food

So if you are feeling stressed about work, short tempered with your family, in lust with something or person, consider your movement, sleep and food as places you can start to engage the problem. From improving these aspects, you may find it easier to relax, physically look up and around the horizon, breath and see options. From here it is easier to "let go" of the attachments, the feelings, keeping us in the hole.

In other words, we can give ourselves a better chance at enlightenment with quality rest, activity and food.

If you're feeling stressed/fearful/lusty right now - narrow focus - rather than wider view - which one of these three might you be able to tune in right now: movement, rest, quality food. Give yourself a week with one of them; see how you feel. My bet is your inner smiling buddha will emerge fairly effortlessly.

let go of attachment; perceiving the options
easier with quality food, sleep movement and food
image source
Thank you to Ed Cutrell for a lovely suite of conversations about Buddhism.
The concept of the Nervous System wired to detect threat or not threat was introduced to me by Eric Cobb D.C., founder of Z-Health.

No comments:


Related Posts with Thumbnails