Mark Pottenger


Several Great Courses I have listened to over the years have inspired musings, and I am starting to write this the week I have just started listening to How to Make Stress Work for You by Kimberlee Bethany Bonura. It is already clear that this course has a lot of good tips for Second Level Awareness. The course has a 2017 copyright, but like my too many books, too little (reading) time situation, I also have too many courses and too little (listening or viewing) time. The course is still listed as available at The Great Courses, though they no longer list the audio-only version I am listening to. I will limit this musing to highlights of the lectures, not attempt to summarize every point or describe every exercise.

Two items that come up in multiple lectures are mindsets and mindfulness. Changing the mindset with which you perceive, a core of Second Level, is one of the most important tools that Bonura mentions repeatedly. Mindfulness, practicing Be Here Now, not necessarily as a meditation, is another.

Lecture 1 emphasizes that widespread attitudes treating stress as an evil to avoid aren't helpful, and that we are much better off when we can view stress positively as something we can use to learn from and to enhance performance. It suggests four categories of stress that need to be handled differently: trauma, stressors of daily living, activities of daily living, and irritants. It mentions that most of our minds wander a lot, spending more time distracted than in the present moment.

Lecture 2 discusses happiness, and how directly pursuing it is often the worst way to achieve it. It covers play, and natural and synthetic happiness (adjusting our thoughts to be happier with reality). It mentions the pleasant life, the good life, and the meaningful life. It encourages practicing gratitude and mindfulness.

Lecture 3 discusses anger. Research shows that the catharsis theory that people should let anger out is actually one of the worst ways to handle anger. Stifling anger is probably the next worst practice. Relaxing or finding a distraction are both better. Ruminating on (stewing about) causes of anger just keeps anger alive—we need to shift mental focus to something else to replace anger. Expressive complaints are just more expressions of anger, while instrumental complaints are actually attempts to fix something. It mentions that the unhealthy effects of Type A personalities are specifically associated with the hostility which is part of Type A for many people.

Expressing anger is essentially practicing and training the brain in how to be angry, not how to eliminate anger. This is a physical example of the metaphysical maxim that "The Universe always says YES." Any thought or behavior pattern that we repeat creates stronger brain circuits that make future repetitions easier.

Lecture 4 discusses sorrow and trauma. A change of mindset can't remove a trauma, but it can make a huge difference in how we recover from a trauma. The Be Here Now of mindfulness is needed to deal with sorrow or grief or other results of trauma by recognizing and acknowledging feelings instead of trying to suppress or ignore them. PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) is a negative response to trauma, but it is possible to react to trauma instead by seeking meaning and achieving post-traumatic Growth. Forgiveness can be important. We need to recognize that the bidirectional influences of mind and body affect us after a trauma.

Lecture 5 defines stress as determined by arousal level plus emotional state. Eustress is high physiological arousal with positive experiences. Distress, high arousal with negative experiences, is what is usually just called stress. Whether an experience is positive or negative is determined by how our brain interprets and evaluates the raw sensations. Everyone has their own unique profile, based on genetics and experience and current environment, for how they interpret and evaluate their experiences, so similar raw stimuli can produce different levels of stress in different people. Learning to face and deal with stress is better than trying to ignore it.

This is another opportunity to use the System 1 / System 2 model. If you don't consciously (System 2) try to deal with stress, it will be evaluated only by System 1, which has a bias toward the negative (evolutionary survival through alertness to danger). So facing stress gives you a chance to start with a more positive evaluation and a chance to use System 2 to work on replacing a negative response with a positive one.

Lecture 6 discusses choice. Both too few choices and too many choices can cause stress. Maximizers, who try for the best possible choice, have more stress than satisfiers, who are fine with "good enough" choices. Too many choices can cause decision fatigue. Choices you make to reduce incongruity between what you have and what you want, or what you value and where your time actually goes, are important.

Decision fatigue is another System 1 / System 2 example.

Lecture 7 is about how other people can be both Hell (per Sartre) and Heaven. Multiple ways social media can add to stress are described. Many relationship and partnership issues are discussed.

Lecture 8 is about stress in children. Many aspects of modern society that have changed in recent decades can contribute, including over-scheduling, less play time, less physical activity (structured and unstructured), more electronic device time (for children and caregivers), amount of touch, and more. The lecture ends with a yoga exercise that is probably much clearer in video.

Lecture 9 is about changing your mind to change your response to stress. It discusses cognitive restructuring, reinforcement, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, reframing, and resilience. It mentions how important wording can be when we talk or think about stressors. It again mentions expressive (not helpful) vs. instrumental (helpful) complaining.

This is entirely Second Level Awareness or System 2 territory. The lecture touches on something in my brief Be Words and Affirmations musings—we can use "be" words with nouns for positive changes we want to make, not just avoid them for present habits we want to replace. Expressive complaints are just reinforcing problems (exercising brain circuits focused on negatives). Instrumental complaints are shifting focus to search for solutions.

Lecture 10 is titled Emergency Stress Management. It divides stress into life-or-death situations and everything else. It mentions the fight, flee, or freeze reactions, and the tend and befriend additions from more recent research. As an exercise, think about your usual reaction, and try to react differently to break habit patterns. It emphasizes being in the moment, not adding to stress by thinking about past or future. It mentions that stress uses up resources for self-control, and that evoking happiness is one of the better ways to replenish those resources. It describes catastrophizing (imagining things snowballing to the worst possible outcome), and using a stop cue or bringing attention back to the present to stop it.

Lecture 11 is about good stress. This includes learning self-control, physical exercise, and being busy. Most good stress includes recovery time.

Self-control is part of System 2, so learning self-control increases our System 2 capacity just as physical exercise increases our physical capacity. Good stress is an example of the ideal of moderation: no stress is bad, too much stress is bad, and in between is a good level of stress that lets us improve ourselves. For an analogy, look at the muscular effort required for the simple action of standing up. You can't stand at all if all your muscles are totally relaxed or if you are too tired to move. You also can't stand if your muscles are so tense that they are completely locked up. You can stand when your muscles are between those extremes.

Lecture 12 discusses learning and mastery, and how a lot of stress is work-related. It mentions that a majority of the population can exhibit impostor syndrome (a feeling that one is faking a skill). Achieving expertise takes a lot of work. The best way is through what is called "Deliberate Practice", which is focused practice that includes feedback and error correction. Even thousands of hours of good practice may not achieve the best results if you are forcing the practice in a skill that doesn't align with your nature and talents.

The need to combine talent and practice for peak performance is part of the uniqueness that I frequently mention. Each of us has a unique mix of attributes (including talents).

Lecture 13 discusses complementary, alternative, and integrative medicine, such as acupuncture, yoga, and massage. It mentions that validation by research varies considerably. Several mind-body approaches have strong evidence. Diet is important.

Lecture 14 is about mindfulness, a term that covers more than just one form of meditation. Mindfulness practices can improve our health, improve our efficiency, and help manage stress. Loving-kindness meditation is to learn kindness and compassion.

This lecture includes several exercises or practices which would definitely be easier to do if the lecture is the only thing you are doing, unlike how I listened while on an exercise bike. Mindfulness practices train our ability to focus, our ability to dismiss thoughts, and our ability to interrupt thought loops.

Lecture 15 discusses reframing stress as excitement. This channels the physiological arousal present with stress in a positive direction instead of trying to fight or suppress it. It also discusses posture, which can strongly influence emotions. Slouching and shrinking reinforce negative emotions, while bold Superman postures reinforce positive emotions. It mentions that failures can come from overthinking, which can be triggered when we think our actions are monitored and evaluated.

This lecture is another reminder that the mind-body connection is two-way, even though body influences on the mind are discussed less than mind influences on the body. Beyond the posture influences discussed in the lecture, I have read about how smiling and laughing can improve moods. The importance of physical exercise for mental as well as physical health is also well-documented.

Lecture 16 talks about many possible new stress management techniques. Some are more confirmed by research than others. Biofeedback, virtual reality, and visualizations are among the more researched. Visualizations include picturing scenes to relax and "process visualization" as a form of mental practice.

Lecture 17 is about our need to rest, restore, and recover resilience. This discusses how vacations, sleep, daytime relaxation, and taking time to do nothing all help us better manage stress.

Lecture 18 closes the course with learning from your stress. It discusses living your calling and setting priorities, and emphasizes the attitudes and skills we can learn to live in a world in which stress is inevitable.

For years, listening to Great Courses has been an incentive that has helped me maintain a routine for regular physical exercise (using a stationary bike). I mostly tend to buy and listen to courses about academic or intellectual topics rather than practical topics or skills, with more history and science courses than anything else. This course includes quite a few practices or guided exercises, which I chose not to interrupt my bike time to fully participate in. I would recommend that anyone choosing to enjoy this course do so as a sole activity rather than multitasking it with physical exercise as I did.

One thing I think I got from listening to this course is a new attitude about the term "mindfulness". It is not just an unthinking meditation. My first exposure to the term (as far as I can recall) was as a label for a meditation practice focusing attention on breathing, with a not particularly complimentary presentation. As I heard it, it sounded pretty mindless and pointless. The multiple mentions of mindfulness in this course reinforced my very gradual learning of benefits of mindfulness practices. They strengthen mental muscles to improve our ability to focus and our ability to control our own thoughts. So, just like my exercise bike time, which sounds pretty pointless in and of itself, time practicing mindfulness exercises is valued for what it strengthens.

Pretty much everything in this course is for people in Second Level Awareness (actively using System 2 of the fast/slow model). Since most of our daily lives are spent in First Level Awareness (System 1), there is a necessary first step before we can apply any of the knowledge or practices in the course in our own lives: we must ACT (Awaken/Activate/Achieve Conscious [Level 2 / System 2] Thought/Thinking)!

Copyright © 2022 Mark Pottenger

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