Buddhist psychology claims there are three primary feelings, or sensations, which meditation can help access:
- Painful, and
Arising from these primary feelings are our reactions to them, the so-called secondary emotions. For example, we feel desire or joy in reaction to pleasant feelings, anger or fear in response to painful feelings, and boredom or apathy towards neutral feelings.
We also weave narratives and fantasies in with these secondary emotions. When these are pleasant, life is seen as filled with possibility. When painful, we might ruminate on perceived failures or memories of past hurts and traumas. In either case, the mind tends to get pulled out of the present moment where life is really happening.
It’s easy to get caught in the delusion that by continually monitoring and judging ourselves we can increase pleasure and avoid pain, but as Sylvia Boorstein wrote, “the First Noble Truth is that life is difficult and painful, just by its nature, not because we’re doing it wrong.”
Meditation is an opportunity to take a break from the continual cycle of grasping at pleasant experiences while avoiding painful experiences. It’s an opportunity to rest into a deeper awareness of selfhood, less attached to the drama in our minds and in our lives.
Many are aware of the benefits of meditation — it’s become the wonder cure for the side effects of high stress lifestyles — yet relatively few of us regularly meditate. And as little as twenty minutes twice a day may reverse some effects of aging, along with increasing empathy for self and others.
And yet when too stressed, meditating can be extraordinary difficult to do — in some cases, even increasing agitation and dysregulation.
Fortunately, there are ways to reduce stress, as well as increase resilience to stress, without meditating.
Action systems versus primary feelings
According to trauma specialists Onno van der Hart, Ellert R. S. Nijenhis, and Kathy Steele, there are two basic action systems organizing our responses towards our environments — one based on approach “to the rewards and responsibilities of daily life,” and the other based on avoidance “and escape from physical threat.” Like the primary feelings, action systems are organized around feelings of pain (defense) and feeling of pleasure (daily life). Van der Hart and colleagues point out:
“In mentally healthy adults action systems of daily life and defense are integrated. For example, most people live daily life while also being aware of potential dangers: They drive defensively, avoid walking alone at night, and seek shelter during a major storm.”
Yet when triggered by reminders of past traumas or chronically stressed, integration — and mental health — at least temporarily suffer.
When neurobiologically organized for the action system of daily life, we are more able to enjoy our relationships, play, and are more likely to be curious rather than reactive. Furthermore, we are more likely to engage in basic responsibilities of daily living without feeling stressed or overwhelmed. This is also the action system in which we are most likely to be aware of our primary feelings and more readily benefit from meditation.
In contrast, the defense action system is organized according to the body’s reactions to real or imagined threats, including fight, flight, freeze, submit/shut down, and cry/cling responses. Depending on the environment and past conditioning, some of us regularly react defensively to situations, even without life-threatening circumstances. The human brain is wired to scan for threat, since scanning for threat increases the likelihood of survival. But if you work or live in a stressful environment, or find yourself continually triggered by reminders of past traumas, the defense action system can overrun your life.
With an activated defense system, meditation might seem like a great way to calm down, and thus return to the action system of ordinary living. Yet sitting still and ‘doing nothing’ can sometimes be dysregulating when overwhelmed by stress, traumatic or otherwise.
At such times, instead of focusing on letting go, it may help to focus on increasing feelings of safety. Thus, rather than returning your awareness to primary feelings or sensations (e.g., the breath) as is commonly done while meditating, the focus is on returning to a felt sense of safety.
Safety has three primary categories:
- Body Safety (Free from external harm or inner worries about your body)
- Emotional Stability (Lack of inner chaos or mood swings)
- Safe Environment (Lack of actual threat or generally feeling unsafe where you are)
When we have all three, most of us have an easier time focusing on the “rewards and responsibilities of daily life.”
Most of us don’t think in terms of safety. The idea seems to admit to weakness, or suggests some level of paranoia. And yet our entire physiology has adapted for the possibility of threat and thus we easily activate the action system of defense, especially if there is a history of trauma or if chronically exposed to traumatizing conditions or chronic stress.
Yet if you become skilled at identifying when defenses are activated, you can take action to reduce your felt sense of threat, and increase the sense of safety that underscores peaceful and productive living.
Anti-Stress Tool Kit
Typical signs that your defenses are activated include:
- Feeling shaky
- Feeling frozen
- Having obsessive thoughts about yourself or someone else
- Feeling tense
- Feeling enraged
- Feeling the need to be right
- Wanting to get even
- Feeling terrified
- Having a sense of doom
- Feeling a panic attack starting
The following ‘Anti-Stress Took Kit’ uses the body, thoughts, and relationships as resources for dealing with activated defenses when a life-threatening event is NOT imminent. Working with all three not only can increase the felt sense of safety, but also support reorienting towards the action system of daily living.
When under stress, the body is the first to feel the effects even if we don’t consciously register its reactions. Thus, when you become aware of your lost sense of safety, or that you are beginning to act defensively, it can help to pay attention to the body, which is another way of disengaging from the secondary emotions and storyline that tend to escalate defense reactions.
Some helpful techniques:
- If your body feels like its collapsing, try pushing against a wall with your arms out, and your head up so you feel your body reaching from head to toe. This can increase your sense of personal energy, thus increasing your felt sense of body safety.
- If you are feeling enraged or like fighting, try pushing against a wall, but without aggression. Rather, the focus should be on grounding or deep breathing, keeping your thoughts on your body sensations ONLY.
- If you are feeling frozen or panicked, try wrapping yourself in a blanket or comforter, breathing full breaths, repeatedly bringing your thoughts back to the present moment.
Sometimes it helps to say to yourself, “I can be present without getting caught in the story,” or something like that.
When overwhelmed by stress, decision-making and relationship skills are at their lowest. I believe most of us know this, at least intuitively, and yet will often stay engaged with the source of stress in pursuit of a solution or resolution. I tend to think of this approach as an abuse of the thinking function — a common problem in a society that overvalues the power of analytical thought.
It’s always best to step away from a stressful situation if possible, even if only for a few minutes. Go to the bathroom. Take a walk. Drink some water. Take that therapeutic “timeout” that couples therapists wisely recommend. And then rather than thinking about the problem, mentalize that you are actively taking care of yourself. Maybe even say (even if just in your head), “My defenses are activated, and I am going to take some time to help myself feel safe again.”
Such self-talk and acknowledging the loss of a felt sense of safety can be a powerful first step to regaining clear thinking. In his book, The Developing Mind, Daniel Siegel wrote about the power of what he calls mindsight, “this innate capacity for perceiving the minds of others and of the self.” When overwhelmed by stress, and particularly traumatic stress, we tend to lose the capacity to have healthy skepticism towards the contents of our minds and the minds of others, acting as if our thoughts and emotions accurately reflect the situation. By mentally ‘standing back’ and taking a mindsight of our inner landscape and the psychological states of others, there is greater opportunity for awareness that you (and/or others) have entered the action system of defense and are feeling threatened, regardless if the threat is real or not.
When overwhelmed and stressed, analyzing your own thoughts or the thoughts of another can exacerbate the problem. Instead, use mindsight to acknowledge the state of your whole being and that you are not feeling safe, and then purposefully distract yourself by refocusing attention and thoughts. This can take many forms — thinking about a movie you liked, listening to music you enjoy (maybe even singing along), or indulging in smells that appeal to you, such as lavender or sage (maybe keeping a bottle at your desk or workstation). When the mind tries to re-engage with the problem, just remind it, “Let’s try to feel safe first,” or something like that. Give yourself time to let go and get focused on your chosen distraction, staying aware of the underlying goal of creating a felt sense of safety.
In a perfect world, none of us would ever worry alone, be scared alone, or face our anger alone. We are much less likely to spiral into negativity or fear when we have someone who can both support us and provide a reality check.
Spend time with someone safe and who you trust, preferably on a regular basis, but especially after a stressful event has left you feeling defensive and unsafe. But don’t talk too much about the problem, or problems in general. Instead, focus on calming yourself, even playing (e.g., watch movies, bake, do art, dance, exercise, play sports, visit a museum or a theme park, have a sleepover – [yes, adults too!]), and thus fully leave the action system of defense.
Being perpetually busy, as many of us are, doesn’t always allow the time needed to return to a sense of safety. When super stressed or feeling threatened, it can take hours, even days, to get back to experiencing the rewards of daily living. That’s why it’s good to practice increasing a felt sense of safety on a regular basis. Engage in the above activities with the purposeful goal of increasing general feelings of safety. Be mindfully aware throughout your day of the times when you feel safe: Who are you with? Where are you? What are you doing? What are you NOT doing? Who knows, with enough practice, you might find yourself making the time for — and enjoying — meditation.
Hart, Onno van der, Ellert R. S. Nijenhuis, and Kathy Steele. 2006. The Haunted Self: Structural Dissociation and the Treatment of Chronic Traumatization. New York: WW Norton & Company.
Kornfield, Jack. 2009. The Wise Heart: A Guide To Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology. New York: Bantam Books.
Siegel, Daniel J. 2012. The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. Second ed. New York: The Guilford Press.
© 2014 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).