By Jerry Morris, PsyD, MsPharm, MBA

MB (Marc Braman, MD, MPH):
Dr. Morris, welcome back.

JM (Jerry Morris, PsyD, MsPharm, MBA):
Glad to be here, Mark.

MB:
So, today we’re talking about stress and awareness. There’s new science showing that this concept of awareness is hugely important, especially the beginning of dealing with stress. So, Dr. Morris, can you tell us what awareness means, and what the latest science is showing?

JM:
Yes, and that’s a very interesting evolution of medicine and psychology, and relational work. From several fields now, psychophysiology, medicine, psychology, even from some Eastern lifestyle thought processes we’re now finding that becoming more aware of automatic thoughts, and automatic decisions either from projections from our training and family, our culture, blocking out certain signals in our body because it is seen as productive or tough to ignore some things and push through. And certainly that’s a skill at some level, but becomes a very detrimental process at some level, all play and impact on how long we live, how healthy we are, how quickly we deplete organs and systems in our mind and body.

MB:
Okay, so awareness, I’m thinking of this in terms from a medical perspective, sort of like diagnoses. If you don’t diagnose the problem, if you don’t diagnose it accurately, you’re not aware of it, you’re never going to deal with it effectively. The disease is just going to continue.

JM:
That’s exactly right. A good example of this is pain. Farmers are taught that when you get your hand cut a little bit, in the old days, the farmers would put a little coal oil on it, block out the pain, and go on plowing the field. Now, that was a skill and a coping skill for farmers. However, if we’re blocking out those kind of injuries or pain both psychological, social, interpersonal, or physiological regularly, they become automatic. In other words, we become too tough for our own good. So, we begin to automatically block out negative signals whether they’re emotions, physiological, or interpersonal. That means we stay in very stressful states, and we actually become too tough for our own good, and we don’t use those negative signals to revise our situation, our strategies, and our choices.

MB:
Okay, so good. And you’re starting to touch on some of what that may look like in life, some of the stressors. Can you speak a little bit more about what kinds of things we tune out both mentally and physically?

JM:
Sure, and I might add that all of the newer cognitive therapies and research that shows such marvelous effect not only on mental disorders, but general health are really focusing on things like mindfulness or awareness of automatic thoughts so that we can process these choices and signals. But, for instance, fast food is a great example. If we enter into a lifestyle that is often encouraged in our society such as we get up before dawn, jump the train, ride into the city, work hard all day, have anxieties about the job, about whether we’re meeting our quotas or we’re doing well. We jump the train again and get home at eight at night. All day long, our nourishment is fast food nourishment with high fat contents and really poor quality. We go home at night and it’s after eight o’ clock. By the time we get to bed, we got indigestion from that food. We’ve lost our energy and enthusiasm, and we repeat it all the next day.

JM:
However, in a modern lifestyle, we might be taught to block all this out, and we give ourselves psychological, rationalizations for these things. Like, “I’m doing it for the family. I’m doing it for higher income.” Whatever. But we are actually engaging in blocking all the signals that tell us about things that need to be modified in our decisions and our strategies.

MB:
So, on a physical level, we’re ignoring our own, I guess the car dash lights if you will, that are trying to give us warning signals. Whether it’s the indigestion, whether it’s the fatigue from not getting enough sleep. And then even into the mental level, where we’re ignoring the negative thoughts that we’re having, the negative feelings, and those things however just keep harming us. Those processes that the warning lights are trying to tell us about are not getting regulated.

JM:
That’s exactly right, and we are too tough for our own good. Often too committed to make things work that are difficult, and that we don’t achieve the balance between being tough enough…But yet sensitive to the signals we’re getting and making choices that are in balance.

MB:
So, for both the physical level, and as we’re talking about the stress or mental level, the science is clearly showing us that one of the key components, and usually the first clinical component is tuning in, becoming aware, observing those dash lights and starting to actually do something about them.

JM:
That’s exactly right, Marc. And what’s marvelous is, you no longer have to go to the Himalayas and sit on the side of a mountain for seven years and chant mantras to do this. We really have the science now that can teach us about what we’re doing physiologically, what we’re doing psychologically, what we’re doing in relationships, and what we’re doing with processing all of these signals. However, there is a big caution here. There is a sign of the culture that tries to teach us that all negative signals are to be avoided and are negative. Negative signals are really just as important as positive. I liken this to a radar screen on a ship. The captain is not disappointed when he or she gets a negative signal that there’s rocks structures out there. That negative signal is so valuable to the captain in making choices and strategies that calling it negative is a misnomer. It simply is a signal that we are moving on a course or in a strategy that we may need to evaluate and modify.

MB:
Great example. So we wanna make friends with these negative signals and use them to our advantage for our good.

JM:
You’re right. And we want to respect them too.

MB:
Perfect. We’ll get into more of the science of stress, how we deal with it and how we can manage it well and use it to our benefit. Dr. Morris, thank you.

JM:
Thank you, Marc.

Environmental Adversity and Increasing Genetic Risk for Externalizing Disorders. Hicks BM, South SC, DiRago AC, et al. (2009). ARCH GEN PSYCHIATRY. June, 66(6): 640-650. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2008.554.

Prenatal Stress Alters Dendritic Morphology and Synaptic Connectivity in the Prefrontal Cortex and Hippocampus of Developing Offspring. Mychasiuk R, Gibb R, Kolb B. (2012) SYNAPSE. 66:308-314. doi:10.1002/syn.21512.

How culture shaped the human genome: bringing genetics and the human sciences together. Laland KN, Odling-Smee J, Myles S. (2010). Genetics. Feb, (11): 137-139. doi: 10.1038/nrg2734.

Jerry Morris, PsyD, MSPharm, MBA

Dr. Morris is former President and current Executive Director of the American Board of Medical Psychology. He has owned and operated mental health hospitals and community centers and has run residency-training programs. He has managed clinical programs that treat lifestyle related diseases and is a member of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine.

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