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Mud Fight

Mud Fight   As I drove eastbound on I-40 to Nashville last Friday night, I noticed the westbound traffic had stopped for several miles just east of Nashville. It was an eerie feeling driving for miles on I-40 with no opposing traffic. I wondered what calamity lay ahead, perhaps the Zombie Apocalypse had taken root somewhere beyond the darkness. At a certain point, the emptiness magically changed into seven miles of standing bumper-to-bumper traffic. I felt relieved, yet at the same time worried. What could cause such a disaster? I was happy I was not one of the victims trapped in the traffic jam or a victim of the catastrophe that caused the traffic jam. I wondered about the poor drivers and passengers who were stuck in miles and miles of the inhuman congestion of idle automobiles. Of those trapped in the frozen highway, who would have silent heart attacks as a result of the tension of standing still for hours?   What makes chaos like a traffic jam stressful? Who can survive psychological stress and who cannot? I gathered that most of the people trapped in that traffic jam were different from each other; and that the same external reality, the same outdoor misery was challenging their allostatic harmonies in infinitely different ways. Under what conditions are we likely to succumb to the same stress response? What is the largest factor in creating psychological stress responses? The loss of control. If you believe you have no control in a stressful situation, your stress response will be intensely activated. What contributes to the idea of no control? Several factors, among them are the lack of predictability about what's coming, the lack of knowledge about the intensity of the adverse event, the lack of understanding about the longevity of the stress, the absence of outlets to vent frustration over the stress, and the lack of social support to help handle the stress. These purely psychological factors activate and prolong the stress response to a non-physical challenge.   Several well-recognized studies give us information about the loss of control and its relationship to the intensity of our stress response. One such study includes seating a test subject in a chair and frequently subjecting them to approximately a 110 decibel blast of noise, without any warning. Clearly, this is an entirely unpleasant experience. The subject has no control. They cannot predict the timing of the blasts. Consequently, their stress response was powerfully activated after each blast. A second scenario has the same subject sitting in a chair, but they have a lever to push. The subject is told that the more frequently they push the lever, the more often the sound blast frequency will be decreased. However, the researchers kept the blast frequency the same as in the first scenario. Yet, the stress response was muted because the test subject had a sense of control. The third scenario has the same person receiving instructions that a warning signal light will come on five seconds before the blasts occur. The researchers kept the same blast frequency as the primary experiment. The test subject had much less stress response because they thought they could prepare for the blast. There is sound evidence that in certain contexts, loss of control or loss of predictability can amplify the stress response.   In some contexts, loss of control seems to be enjoyable. I remember taking a roller coaster ride with my son and daughter at Liberty Land. I disliked roller coasters because I had vomited after riding one when I was a child. But when my kids were with me, after I talked to them about my predicament, I was able to ride the roller coaster with little more than butterflies in my stomach. I consider that carnival ride as one of the best events in my life. Context is very important here. I learned from that experience that psychological stressors have the potential to illicit a major stress response only when we get suckered in by them.   Not everyone has the ability to control responses to psychological stress. The people most susceptible to the ills associated with change are those with repressive personality styles. You know these people; they are the ones who tightly regulate their emotions. They do not like surprises. They refuse to express much emotion. They cannot read other people's emotions. Physically, these people have an overactive frontal cortex. They squeeze their psychic sphincters as tight as they will close every moment of the day. They have major stress hormone elevations and all the trappings of an over-stressed body. They are sometimes happy, dignified, productive, and enjoyable to be around. But they are ticking time bombs as far as stress induced disease is concerned.   I thought about those motorists trapped in that traffic jam. It turned out that a terrible accident had occurred at 2:00 pm that day in the westbound lanes. As a result, the freeway was closed until the debris could be removed. It was 8:30 pm when I passed the original starting point of the traffic jam. If five percent of drivers and passengers waiting in the traffic congestion for six hours happened to be repressive personalities, I can’t help but wonder how many of them suffered silent heart attacks from the stress of waiting without any control of getting on their way.   Try not to build a wall between you and our unpredictable vibrant world. Humanity is a big mess and that is what makes it beautiful. If you are one of those repressive types, you might have the world figured out until it takes a sharp turn to the left or the right. Navigating in an uncertain world is stressful. If one mindfully creates artificial certainty all the time, it will be incredibly stressful to create a life in which something stressful never, ever occurs.   Go ahead. Have a mud fight once in a while. Get dirty. It's probably good for you and your stress hormones.   Doc
Posted by Amanda Sanders at 9:37 AM
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