Friday, March 23, 2007


Our 'sense switches' are turned on almost all the time, taking in many different kinds of information which we knowingly or unknowingly sift through to create a picture of what is both inside us and around us and the mind is the collector and mediator of it all. When we concentrate on an activity, we learn to shut off any and all impulses that reach the brain which do not have immediate relevance to whatever task is before us. When we're loading the diswasher for example, there are dirty dishes in the sink and clean ones to be removed and placed back in their assigned positions in our cabinets and drawers and we logically order the tasks that need to be done to effectively complete the job. Of course, not everyone does these tasks in the same order but the end result is basically the same, the dishes get done. Some, however, who may be mentally impaired will often mix the dirty dishes in with the clean ones simply because there is no logical sequence that the brain can reference to do it efficiently. I know because I used to work with mentally handicapped people. One actually punched me in the face simply because I was trying to help her with the task. Why she did this I'll never know, but I surmise that she somehow knew that she was incapable of doing the job and became upset because she was limited in her dishwashing abilities and perhaps became frustrated with herself (and me) at about the same time. At any rate, there are times when we are more aware of our surroundings than at other times and the level of concentration regulates the amount of information we are getting from them.

In the same way, on a larger scale, we often reactively become frustrated with the immense amount of information we have to deal with from moment to moment and there sometimes is a vague but palpable sense of disquiet that manifests itself symptomatically in our bodies and/or in our emotions. Our stomachs may become tight or a bit queasy, the muscles in our backs and necks may become painful or we may just feel anxious, depressed or even agitated and we then search for ways to reduce the offending stimuli by removing ourselves from its reach in order to rebalance. Often it is impossible to do, and our hands get clammy, our heart rate speeds up, or we become angry and lash out verbally or even physically to lower the perceived threat level. All physical, sentient beings have this built in mechanism for dealing with large quantities of information whether it be of a threatening or non-threatening nature but humans are able to process a vastly greater amount of cognitive information since our brains are larger with more surface area to perform tasks such as abstract reasoning and that's also due to the way we've been put together. Consequently, there is a much greater degree of variation and complexity in human behavior than in animal behavior.

We Westerners are a driven herd. Hypnotized by the constant lure of sense pleasures, we run on all twos like hamsters run on all fours riding the great wheel of productive activity all day long till we drop to possibly gain a few of them. Since there are few of us who have the luxury of not having to participate in that wonderful pastime, work, there are some things that we should be aware of. To make up for the range of negativity that being productive may evoke, we tend to daydream about things that make us forget our unpleasant thoughts and this usually helps to slow down the mental machine that keeps driving us on. Sometimes the machinery isn't able to compensate for anxiety, anger, frustration, etc., and our defense mechanisms break down and we end up punching out sick so we can recover from the overload. When enough overload occurs, the mind and body starts a shutdown sequence and we may then be asked by our co-workers, "are you feeling alright?" There are times, though, when we just don't want to honestly display our inner disconnectedness and we say something like, "Well, I'm just not feeling too well. My stomach is like this, my head like that." You know what I mean. It's difficult in our competitive world to admit insufficiency and give away our hand because people easily sense weakness and can turn it to their advantage in the complex jungle of the workplace. I'm including child and elder care here too, folks, since caring for family is usually just as difficult, if not more so than dealing with the challenges at the office or shop, and we don't have the option of going home sick. Let's also not forget the mental load our partners place on us as well but that's another story in itself!

At the rather young age of 35 I started having disabling panic attacks and didn't know why. I'd just start to fall asleep and all of a sudden would sit straight up in bed in a cold sweat, hyperventilating myself into a complete terror. As I think back it seems these attacks resulted from many minor assaults on my emotional defenses that had accumulated over those 35 years and my system just became swamped with too much stuff but it seemed the actual precipitating event was my impending divorce. As the years went by these episodes would come and go but after a time they progressively got worse until I was often getting them several times a day. Fortunately, they're gone for now. Medication and meditation are now my main weapons to keep them from coming back but often I still feel that vague feeling of dread that seems to want to take up residence somewhere midway between my stomach and my head. Now there are some people that develop hyper-allergic conditions to various types of offending substances most of us can easily handle, but in an overload condition the immune system runs amok and becomes alerted to them even when they are present in only very small amounts. A similar thing occurs in anxiety disorders. Something in the brain senses danger when no actual danger exists and it responds by sending hormones into our bloodstreams that put our 'flight or fight' instincts in gear. I remember back in the early 80's a friend of mine tried to tell me about his panic attacks and I thought he was putting on an act. He wasn't. Sure as can be it caught up with me as well and if you haven't had one of these killer-chillers, believe me, they're quite frightening and you literally fear for your very life.

It's important not to overlook the signs of overload when they start staring at you because the human brain, like the physical body has its limits in being able to fend off stress. Take some time out each day to create a quiet place within yourself where you are able to completely relax, a little oasis where you can check in with your body and mind and ask them how they're doing. It may help to write down both the good and bad events that occurred up to that point during the day if they're not immediately obvious to you. Also, you can include breathing exercises during that quiet time which can help to rev down your engines so you can think about the events of the day in a clearer way. Mantra meditation, I've found, is especially good because it gives the mind rest from distracting or intrusive thoughts. The main point here is that we need to learn how to take good care of both our minds and our bodies so they both can run optimally. Mental health and physical health are inseparable partners in the nurturing of wellness and it is up to us to keep a close watch on how they are doing.

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