Social Sciences

The Five Stages of Stress

This is the tenth and concluding part of Dr. Prabhakar Kamath’s series on Managing Life Without God and Religion In The Twenty First Century. Links to all parts in this series can be found here.

Essential to coping with stress and managing life in twenty first century without god and religion is to be able to figure out which of the five stages of stress you are currently at, and to learn appropriate coping methods. Before we learn about these, let us briefly recapitulate certain definitions we studied in my previous articles:

Basic Definitions

Stress simply means getting upset about something; peace and tranquility of mind are gone. Upset means our conscious mind experiences one or more of 36 painful emotions in our conscious mind in response to stressful events and problems. Chemical changes in the brain brought on by painful emotions are transmitted to the body by means of circulating hormones and a vast network of nerves, which results in appearance of stress symptoms. Stress symptoms are of four kinds: Physical, emotional, mental and behavioral. Coping means getting rid of painful emotions from the conscious mind by appropriate means after one is upset over something. Managing means leading a wisdom-based lifestyle, which prevents or minimizes the occurrence of stressors. Stressors are upsetting bad events and problems of life. Bad events are one-shot tragic events, which suddenly upset us a great deal. Bad problems are on-going life-problems in which one feels trapped. The Conscious Mind is like a balloon; when it “inflates” with painful emotions, we experience stress symptoms. The Hidden Mind is like a gaseous soda bottle; when it is “shaken” by a current event, the fizz (bad memories and emotions from our past) spews into the balloon resulting is serious stress symptoms. I recommend the reader to review my earlier articles to make sense of the five stages of stress.

Five Stages of Stress

At any given moment, everyone in the world is at one of five stages of stress, or in between any two consecutive stages.

Stress Stage One: At this stage, one’s balloon is shrunk (the conscious mind does not have a painful emotion) and his soda bottle (hidden mind) does not have serious old traumatic emotions. He has usual life stresses, but he is coping well. He has a high level of self-awareness. He is very good at expressing his emotions. He is good at solving various problems of life as they appear. He is assertive. He is not passive and fearful. He lives a wisdom-based lifestyle: He lives within his means; he is not indulging in any antisocial activities, which could get him into trouble sooner or later; in his relationship with others, he does not violate others’ boundaries; in his business dealings he is ethical; he believes in preventive servicing of all his essential objects such as house, cars, etc.; he is not loaded with human weaknesses such as greed, jealousy, vengefulness, hubris, possessiveness, fear and hatred. He is balanced in his dealings with others. His mind enjoys evenness, equilibrium and equanimity (three Es). He is generous, charitable, kind, gracious, empathic, full of love for humanity. He sleeps well, eats well, works hard, and is full of energy. He is completely free of any stress symptoms such as worrying, anxiety, and depression. If you are at this stage, pat yourself on your back, for the way the world is today, fewer and fewer people are at this stage of stress.

Stress Stage Two: At this stage, one’s balloon is getting filled up with painful emotions. If the stressor is a bad event, such as death of a dear one or breakup of a close relationship, the balloon expands very rapidly and one experiences severe emotional pain and consequent stress symptoms. If one is not able to cope with these surging emotions, consequences could be disastrous. I read in Indian newspapers on a daily basis how a young man or woman committed murder or suicide or both after breaking up with his/her lover. These people have severe feelings of anger, hurt, sadness, disappointment, helplessness, hopelessness, vengefulness, and the like. Such a person’s mind feels, “I just can’t take this pain anymore.”

Not being equipped with coping abilities, these youngsters find suicide as the only option left to them to end their intolerable misery. If this person had similar losses in the past, the buried painful emotions from the soda bottle could fizz-up suddenly leading to extremely severe symptoms. Such people are high suicidal risk.

A case study: A young man’s wife told him that she was unable to handle his clingy and controlling behavior. She wanted to divorce him. This abandonment brought up from his soda bottle painful emotions related to his mother abandoning him at age five. This “double whammy” was too much for him to bear. He shot himself to death.

How to cope with Stress Stage Two: If the stress is caused by a bad event such as death, breakup of a close relationship, life-threatening illness, etc. one must immediately raise his awareness about the surging painful emotions in the conscious mind, and shrink his balloon by expressing them with a confidant. When one talks-out his emotions by sighing, crying, sobbing and moaning, one is said to be grieving. Grieving is the best solution to an inflated balloon. Painful emotions are “talked-out” and the balloon shrinks; brain chemicals return to the former level; stress symptoms disappear gradually.

 If one’s stress is caused by job, money, relationship or any other bad life-problem, one must come up with a sound solution for it. One should never feel trapped in a bad problem. Feeling trapped in a bad problem guarantees one a serious stress disorder as the balloon keeps inflating with painful emotions until it pops. If the solution is difficult, one must seek the help of professionals: doctor, lawyer, accountant, banker, etc.

 People with philosophical outlook or high level of rational thinking are able to deal with bad events of life better than people who are entangled with sense objects. Attitudes such as: everyone has to die some day; money comes money goes; all relationships come to an end sooner or later, etc. help a lot to cope with life’s vicissitudes.

Inappropriate coping: Instead of grieving after a loss, if one indulges in denial (“I am not upset at all”; “I feel wonderful!”) or repression (“I don’t want to think about it or talk about it; I just want to forget it”) painful emotions get buried into the hidden mind; the balloon shrinks and one feels better right away. However, now the painful emotions buried in the hidden mind are like a ticking time bomb. They could resurface and create serious havoc later on as we read in the case study above. Habitual repression leads to development of Stage Three.

Stress Stage Three: At this stage, one has habitually buried his hidden mind painful emotions related to numerous past bad events and problems. Now his soda bottle is saturated to the point that he can no longer bury (repress) his painful emotions. So, when upset about a current bad event or problem, his painful emotions remain in his balloon. As time passes, his balloon keeps inflating and his stress symptoms become persistent. Since the only way he knows how to shrink his balloon is to bury emotions and deny them, he suffers ever-worsening stress symptoms. He mistakes his stress symptoms as caused by some serious physical ailment. For example, if he has chest pain, he fears having a heart disease; if he has headaches, he fears having a brain tumor; if he has stomach pain, he wonders if he has cancer of stomach. He now has many on-going stress symptoms such as sleeplessness, tiredness, loss of appetite, headaches, etc.

Low Stress Tolerance Syndrome: Because one’s balloon is fully inflated, one has little tolerance for any upsetting event. One suffers from numerous unremitting stress symptoms such as anxiety, depression, tiredness, sleeplessness, excessive sleeping, headaches, irritability, angry outbursts, impatience, poor concentration, memory loss, weight loss, etc. Psychiatrists often label these people as suffering from generalized anxiety disorder, chronic depression, and other minor psychiatric disorders. Uninformed psychiatrists and family doctors often drug-up these people instead of helping them to figure-out their problems. These people steadily get worse over the years.

Medical Wild Goose Chase: When stress symptoms keep getting worse, one starts making rounds with doctors to “get to the bottom of this.” He consults specialists after specialists. He is baffled when they all tell him, “I can’t find anything to explain your symptoms.” When they ask, “Is anything bothering you?” he replies, “No, no, no, no! Everything is wonderful in my life.” In other words, he indulges in self-deception. He believes that his doctor must have missed something. So he redoubles his effort to “get to the bottom of this.” He starts making rounds of various high-powered hospitals and doctors. He goes to Ayurvedic or homeopathic “doctors.” He visits astrologers. Having failed to get relief from these “doctors”, he starts offering Poojas to various gods. He donates money to temple-casino complexes. He appeases priests. He falls at the feet of Sai Baba, false Swamis and hugging Matas. In the end, he feels frustrated, disappointed, angry, helpless and hopeless. These painful emotions add to the already full balloon. Now the balloon feels, “I just can’t take this pressure anymore!” Medical wild goose chase is a very common inappropriate coping way. Neither medical doctors nor psychiatrists have a clue about this common phenomenon related to stress, or its basis.

Appropriate way of coping with Stress Stage Three: When one is at stage three, he is unable to help himself unless he understands its basis in stress. Since the third stage is caused by wholesale self-deception and repression of emotions, one must get into counseling with a competent therapist. It is important that the therapist not explore buried old painful emotions in the hidden mind until the newer painful emotions in the balloon related to more recent events are first dealt with. In other words, the therapist must first create “enough room” in the balloon before bringing up old emotions from the bottle into the balloon. Inexperienced therapists often make matters worse by vigorously exploring old issues. This “shaking the soda bottle” results in a lot of painful emotions from the soda bottle fizzing up suddenly into the already full balloon. One could become very sick, suicidal or develop panic attacks after such a session leading to hospitalization. Most therapists are not aware of this potential hazard. In the long run, the person at the 3rd stage of stress must give up self-deception (“I am not upset” “I have no stress”) and repression (“I don’t want to think, talk or remember”). Cure is possible only for highly motivated people who fully understand the mechanism of stress as explained in these pages, and who are capable of becoming self-aware, assertive and expressive of emotions.

Stress Stage Four: At this critical stage, as a result of relentless build-up of painful emotions in the conscious mind, or due to sudden surge of buried painful emotions from the hidden mind, the person’s balloon has popped. Chemical changes in the brain have led to chemical imbalance. Physical, emotional, mental and behavioral symptoms have finally crystallized into a well-defined stress disorders, such as major depression, panic disorders and bipolar disorders. All people at this stage feel, “I just can’t take it anymore!” Many people in this predicament are so sick that they end up in psychiatric hospital. Some people attempt suicide. Some of these people succeed in their attempt.

Appropriate way of coping with this stage is to seek immediate psychiatric care. In general, family physicians are not trained enough to treat these disorders. Trained psychiatrists treat these people with medications, support, and counseling. Most people at this stage are almost completely free from any self-awareness and ability to express emotions, and also to solve bad life-problems. Prolonged outpatient treatment is often needed. People who rely on medications alone to stay well invariably get worse year after year as they have not learned appropriate coping skills. As new bad events and problems appear, they become sick once again. For, drugs are like a thin coat of paint holding together pieces of shattered balloon. Least little pressure could pop it again. Unfortunately, most people at this stage of stress prefer to avoid introspective and awareness-raising counseling because they are painful and expensive.

Stress Stage Five: This is the terminal stage of stress. These people’s balloon has popped many times and they suffer from multiple stress disorders such as depression, panic disorder, high blood pressure, and whatnot. They have not only suffered from serious stress symptoms, but also suffered a lot in the hands of inexperienced and stupid medical professionals. They have been prescribed wrong medications in wrong doses by wrong doctors. They have been hurt so badly by the treatment process that they now suffer from medication phobia. Some of them suffer from medical trauma –trauma inflicted by the bad treatment given by the medical profession. In the U. S. A. today, millions suffer from these conditions. Now they trust no one. They have become recluses. They do not socialize much. They like to be left alone. They avoid any sensory stimulation. They have become completely disabled. They are unable to work, participate in family affairs or social gatherings. They feel sick all the time. They feel helpless and hopeless, but their trust level is so low that they do not like to risk seeing another stupid doctor who knows nothing about the drugs he prescribes. They collect social security disability payments or they are on welfare. To these unfortunate people, there is practically no hope of ever getting well.

Progression of Stress

The above information is just a skeletal outline of the phenomenon of stress. For more detailed information on stress, the reader can read my book, Is Your Balloon About To Pop? Owner’s Manual for the Stressed Mind.


About the author

Prabhakar Kamath

Dr. Prabhakar Kamath, is a psychiatrist currently practicing in the U.S. He is the author of Servants, Not Masters: A Guide for Consumer Activists in India (1987) and Is Your Balloon About To Pop?: Owner’s Manual for the Stressed Mind.

Links to all articles in Dr. Kamath's earlier series on Heretics, Rebels, Reformers and Revolutionaries can be found here. Dr. Kamath' series on The Truth About The Bhagavad Gita can be found here.


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