Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Distinguishing between suffering, pain, and stress

Yikes! Who wants to burden their brain with such an unappetizing topic? Yet, the clearer you are about suffering and stress, the more easily you can minimize their impact on your life. With this in mind, you may want to consider the following helpful (and admittedly unofficial) distinctions:
  • Pain consists of direct, visceral experiences with a minimum of conceptual overlays. Your best friend says something mean to you, and you feel a painful constriction in your heart. You hit your thumb with a hammer, and it aches and throbs. You get the flu, and your head feels like someone’s squeezing it in a vice. Pain hurts, pure and simple.
  • Suffering, by contrast, is what happens when your mind makes hay with your pain. For example, you decide that because she hurt your feelings, she must secretly hate you, which means that there’s something terribly wrong with you . . . and the next thing you know, you’re feeling depressed as well as hurt. Or you turn your headache into a sure warning sign of some serious illness, which just heaps a big dose of fear and hopelessness onto an already difficult situation. Suffering, in other words, results from seeing situations through the distorting lens of the story your mind tells you.
  • The stress response is a physiological mechanism for adapting to challenging physical or psychological circumstances. Certain physical stressors, such as extraordinary heat or cold, an extremely loud noise, or a violent attack, will be stressful no matter how your mind interprets them. But the stressful effect of most stressors depends on the spin your mind adds to the situation. For example, driving to work in heavy traffic, sitting at your desk for eight hours handling paperwork and phone calls, and then driving home may be only mildly stressful on a purely physical level —believe it or not. But when you are afraid of arriving late, have a conflicted relationship with your boss, feel angry at several of your clients or coworkers, and are still mulling over the argument you had with your spouse or best friend, no wonder you crawl home at the end of the day completely exhausted. Just as your mind can transform pain into suffering, so it can parlay ordinary stressors into extraordinary stress.

No comments: