The common denominator of all stressful responses is what the spiritual teacher Dr. Bob Gibson called the “emergency state.” The emergency response is a normal physiological response to a conceived or perceived threat to oneself, be it seemingly to some aspect of our existence, or a threat to our very existence itself. Whatever the threat, or from whatever source it may emanate, we respond in our incontrovertible way that was labeled by the eminent physiologist Hans Selye in the 1950s as “fight or flight.”
The question before us is whether the emergency state is a true or false one. That an emergency response has occurred, there is no doubt. The more important consideration is whether the emergency is a true or false one. True means there is an actual threat to our existence, e.g., a gun to our head, the trigger about to be pulled (a la Daniel Pearl shown on Al Jazeera/Arabic TV some years ago). False means there is no gun to the head, no plane about to crash, but nevertheless we feel as though there is a true emergency, e.g., the check you expected in the mail that day didn’t arrive.
When we are caught in the web of a false emergency, the stories begin to abound about the awful ramifications that will ensue because of the current situation that we are experiencing. We project into a time, place, and circumstance we call the future, which actually does not exist. There we are sitting in an illusory state of being, called “future,” treating it as though it is a fact right here now in the present. Misconception and misperception take over as we physiologically become stressed — our heart races, muscles tighten, distressing emotions overflow.
Sitting in two places at the same instance, dividing ourselves between here and there, is the source of the stressful response. I say “stressful” response rather than “stress” response. The distinction becomes meaningful when we consider — spiritually — that stress is a built-in given of living in this world dominated by the laws of the jungle — a world premised on survival of the fittest and divide and conquer. These stresses are an inescapable part of life. They appear to each and every one of us every single day. From the time we rise in the AM till going to sleep in the PM, we experience at least one stressor. (I’m being kind to leave it at one.) Echoing what the Buddha put so pithily: “Human suffering is inevitable.”
Now that you have encountered the stressor(s), you have two options to respond to it/them: either equanimity or distress. A distressful response is synonymous with false emergency. When the false emergency arises, as in the true emergency state, we gear up to face it. There’s an overall physiological output to help us prepare: All sorts of hormones are mobilized, and neuromuscular activity is generated. Lactic acid is produced, and disturbing emotional responses occur.
In the true emergency, there is an opportunity to discharge these metabolic products immediately through fight or flight. In the false emergency/distress state, there is no immediate outlet, for there is no true emergency. Since these metabolic products have nowhere to go, they naturally break down in the body and become metabolites, poisonous waste products that need to be eliminated. Here, the organ systems of the body are called into action to do so. The lymph system, the sanitation department, begins the cleaning effort. The immune system gobbles up these poisons. We begin urinating, defecating, sweating, feeling pain, and experiencing rashes as the poisons depart, in an overall cleansing response on the way to regaining balance. These “symptoms” are not pathology. Rather, they are a natural healing response helping us regain balance. Nonetheless, the more false emergencies we create, the more stress we put on our organ systems. As we do this, the body becomes weakened, begins to age, loses life energy, and heads us toward death.
In summary, 99.9% (or more) of the emergency states we experience are false ones. It is up to us to discern the true from false. A tip about this: When the emergency/distress arises, ask yourself if this threat or situation is one in which your life is at stake. Answer frankly and truthfully! If you say, “It feels as though there is a gun to my head,” remind yourself that while the feeling is real, it is not converted to a fact! Once you get the hang of this, your life becomes one of moving toward equanimity and peacefulness — guaranteed.