Metaphors can be tremendously therapeutic; they help us to visualize, to take perspective, and to recognize, realize or understand aspects that we were not aware of. A metaphor, as understood by Friedrich Nietzsche and José Ortega y Gasset who defended its hermeneutic character, helps us to describe the perceived reality with symbolic language, which is more unifying and understandable by more people. The metaphor also connects brain impulses between our linguistic and visual neurons, which has a beneficial side effect, which is to «activate» memories, mental schemes, in other words, to generate new perspectives.

One of my favorite metaphors at a therapeutic level, which is more of a «theory» because of its extension, I call it the «Pressure Cooker Theory». Over the years, I have been formulating and adding concepts, variables and some scientific discoveries, which have made it more of a «theory» than a simple metaphor. My purpose in this article is to share this small resource, which I believe has been very useful in helping my clients understand the following questions:

  • What is stress and what causes it? Referring to our metaphor, what makes us raise the temperature of the pot, and generate a lot of pressure inside?
  • How does our brain communicate to us that it is stressed? Here we will use the "safety valve" of the pot to symbolize the mechanism that warns us that the pressure is too high and therefore allows steam to escape.
  • Finally, what can we do to lower the temperature and reduce the pressure in the pot? The purpose is not to "turn off the pot", but to learn to regulate it, on the basis that there are many strategies in our hands that allow us to "lower the temperature", to live with acceptable levels of stress, and to take care of our state of well-being and satisfaction.
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What is stress and what causes it?

To begin with, as many of you may have already guessed, the «pot» itself refers to or symbolizes our most precious and complex vital organ, the brain. The distinction of «pressurized» highlights the capacity of humans to harbor levels of pressure or stress, both of intrapsychic and environmental origin.

Historically, it all began with the Stress Theory of Hans Selye, a professor and researcher considered the «father of stress», not because he invented it, but because he described it from a biological perspective. According to Selye, stress is the response of our organism to the variations, changes and adversities of life, that is, our physiological responses of adaptation to the environment. In the face of situations that we perceive as adverse, in the face of threatening, unsolvable or uncertain situations, our brain sets in motion what Dr. Seyle called the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS), and we will use an example to understand it better.

Imagine that for a moment you walk calmly out of your room and encounter a lion. Naturally, your brain attributes a dangerous note to the situation and consequently, your amygdala, your pituitary gland and your adrenergic glands go into overdrive and trigger the stress response. Basically, they release adrenaline and cortisol, which make your heart beat faster, so that more oxygen and nutrients reach your muscles and vital organs, so that if you have to run away or protect yourself, you do it more effectively. Furthermore, your breathing becomes faster and deeper, your stomach seems to close up, and other changes that we usually ignore because we have a lion in front of us.

But so far we have only talked about how an external stimulus can trigger this General Adaptation Syndrome, or stress response. The reality, however, is that as Robert M. Sapolsky explains in his book «Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers», our brain is an extraordinary organ, and is capable of carrying out very complicated cognitive processes and functions on a daily basis. In other words, it helps us survive. However, unlike some animals, such as zebras for example, the human brain can carry out these complex processes repetitively or inappropriately. And that is why these processes can sometimes do more harm than good, if we allow them.

It is worth noting that our body usually responds positively or in tune with environmental stimuli and without negative consequences: this is what we call «good stress». At other times, however, our organism is not able or does not know how to adapt to the environment, since the required responses are unknown, too intense or too prolonged and the demands exceed our adaptation strategies. This is what we call «bad stress» (stress, in general).

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Once we understand that our «pot» (brain) can overheat and harbor stress, what makes the pot hot, or how do we heat our pot, or what causes us bad stress? There are many internal and external stimuli that can cause us to overheat our pot. I tend to summarize them into four «heating factors»:

  • The " I Should": this first pot-warming factor is of an internal or cognitive nature. I call it the "I Should" because it refers to all those expectations, both self-imposed or received from others (e.g., parents, society, etc.). We may be aware of these "I Should", but I believe most often we are not. They are part of our "internal noise", I also sometimes call it the "relentless demander", as it is like a voice that often says messages such as, "I should be more successful in my career", "I should be more fit", "I should have studied more". This internal demanding voice can make us very hot, because often, these are expectations that we have not been able to meet or are unrealistic.
  • The "I Have To": this heating factor refers to all those obligations, responsibilities and commitments that we have acquired over time and often end up drowning us. Have you ever stopped to make a list of all the "I have to" in a day? I encourage you to do so and assess which are really important, and which are perhaps ways to serve other people, real or imagined.
  • Unsolvable problems: negative things happen to all of us, adversities, bad experiences, problems, etc. Sometimes problems come in packs - my grandmother used to tell me that "misfortunes come in packs of three". Sometimes these problems do not have an easy solution, such as a serious illness, noisy neighbors, an unexpected breakup, or a pandemic! All external circumstances require problem-solving strategies, adaptation and this can turn us very warm.
  • Change: I am referring to the change that we generate ourselves, out of our own free will, but often, we are not aware of what it entails. For example, after several international moves, I have recently realized how much time and effort it takes me the process of adaptation, which I took for granted. Learning and adapting to another culture, language, customs, establishing new friendships, routines and rhythms, achieving financial and emotional stability and so on and on, takes a lot of effort and time - for me, three years or so, and this can of course generate a lot of overheating. Like moving abroad, there are many other changes we go through - house, job, new school, returning from vacation, etc.

How does our brain tell us that it is stressed?

This question may seem a bit strange, but I think it can provide a very understandable and practical perspective. When a pressure cooker heats up, a lot of pressure is generated inside and consequently the valve opens releasing some of the steam and pressure. When this happens, the valve makes a noise that we all easily recognize, and we quickly run to lower the temperature so that the food does not burn or the pot explodes.

In the same way, our brain, when subjected to high stress loads, sends us «signals», but we often do not recognize them as such, and generally, we do not run quickly to lower the temperature. As I explain to my clients, these signals are gradual, they don’t come all at once, and everyone is different and our brains can give idiosyncratic signals.

If I may engage in some degree of self-disclosure, when my pot starts to get too hot, the first signals it sends me usually include sleep problems (more awakenings, the occasional nightmare). If I ignore the signals and continue business as usual, my pot increases the signals, and in addition to sleep problems, it sends me some headaches and lack of energy. If I still continue to ignore the signals, my pot keeps adding signals, and sends me a series of negative thoughts that make me doubt myself, what I do and who I am. Obviously, if I allow my pot to continue to run hotter and hotter without limit, this can result in increasingly serious and pernicious symptoms.

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But, as I have said, each person has his or her own idiosyncrasies and must understand and know himself or herself, and know how his or her pot signals that the temperature is too high. Some people are more prone to anxiety or depression problems, others to appetite and eating problems, others tend to disorganization and lack of attention, others tend to paranoia or suspiciousness.

From my point of view, the important thing is firstly, to learn how your pot signals high temperature and pressure, and secondly, acknowledge and become accountable for recognizing these signals and taking care of lowering the temperature of the pot.

What can we do to lower the temperature and reduce the pressure of the pot?

This question can give rise to an infinite number of strategies, which is not the purpose of this article. My purpose is to emphasize the developments that have been made from the field of Positive Psychology and Neuroscience on our ability to generate and manage mental stability and happiness – following our Pressure Cooker metaphor, how to lower the temperature of the pot and keep it as stable as possible.

From a neurobiological point of view, there are certain neurological processes in the brain that are associated to happiness. For example, there are some identifiable structures or nuclei in our brain (i.e., the nucleus accumbens, the tegmental-ventral area, and some areas of the orbitofrontal lobe, insula, medial prefrontal and cingulate) and a series of neurotransmitters, for example, dopamine and serotonin, that are associated with happiness, pleasure and satisfaction.

However, happiness is not a permanent state and cannot be achieved instantaneously. In the field of Positive Psychology and described by Dr. Martin Seligman in the PERMA model, happiness is considered to be a state of subjective well-being that arises from the experience of positive emotions, engagement in meaningful activities, and a sense of belonging and purpose in life.

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The 5 Pillars of Happiness

Below, I summarize my view of what Dr. Martin Seligman has defined as the 5 Pillars of Happiness and Well-Being, which have been supported by positive psychology research to cultivate happiness:

  • Positive Experiences, or what I call, our "HEDONIST" side. I refer to all those experiences that bring us feelings of pleasure, satisfaction and well-being, usually immediate gratification. These experiences are considered intrinsically reinforcing to the brain, as they generate dopaminergic activation, generally in the limbic area of the brain. Positive emotions include hope, interest, joy, love, compassion, pride, amusement and gratitude. As Les Luthiers used to say, we are talking about all "pleasures, from the most sublime to the most perverse", which include, the most basic positive experiences such as eating a piece of chocolate, giving a hug, receiving or giving a gift, fantasizing about a trip, watching your favorite movie, having sex. But also includes alcohol and drug use, or more sophisticated and elaborate pleasures such as enjoying a good book, listening to an opera or admiring an art gallery, are all part of our hedonism. Of course, I am not encouraging the consumption of drugs, far from it, nor promulgating the development of addictive habits that hedonism can facilitate. My intention is to explain how positive experiences, in moderation, are an important part of our daily lives that generate dopamine and have an impact on our sense of happiness.
  • Cultivate healthy interpersonal relationships, or what I basically consider as "BE CONNECTED". For 85 years, Harvard University (USA) has been conducting the longest-running scientific study on happiness in history. Robert Waldinger, professor of psychiatry at Harvard University and fourth director of the study, explained recently that the quality of our relationships is the biggest predictor of our happiness and health as we age. He reminded us that it is never too late to "energize" those relationships or build new connections.
  • "FLOW". For Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, former Professor of Neuroscience at Stanford University, researcher and one of the founders of positive psychology, flow is "that state in which one feels completely absorbed in an activity that provides pleasure and enjoyment". Have you ever felt so immersed in what you are doing that it is effortless, you enjoy yourself, and time seems to melt away? In short, "flowing" is like going into a trance while doing what you love. In order to do so, the activity you do must have a motivating goal, you must have some skill and expertise to achieve it, and the task takes you to a state of full attention on what you do, so you lose track of time. For me, practicing my favorite sports, or engaging in a photography session in nature, are examples of activities that help me get into this state of "flow".
  • Set attainable goals, attain "ACHIEVEMENTS" or acquire mastery or competence. According to Dr. Martin Seligman's model, a sense of accomplishment is the result of working towards goals, mastering an endeavor and having self-motivation to finish what you set out to do. This contributes to well-being because people can look at their lives with pride. Achieving intrinsic goals (such as growth and connection) leads to greater gains in well-being than external goals such as money or fame. Achievements, of course, must be calibrated. For me, for example, it would be an accomplishment to finish a 10k race, but not to win it!
  • Engage in meaningful activities that reflect "MEANING". Another intrinsic human quality is the search for meaning and the need to have a sense of worth and dignity. Seligman defines meaning as belonging and/or serving something greater than ourselves. It means having a life purpose, but also, I believe, being aware of your core values, what is really important to you, and dedicating your time and effort to honoring those values. Basically, focusing on what is really important to you, as that helps a lot in the face of significant challenge or adversity.
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It is important to remember that happiness is an ongoing process and not an end state. Maintaining the temperature of the pressure cooker is a constant responsibility of each person. Each of us, I believe, harbors the capacity to learn «what can warm your pot» (internal and external stressors), «how your pot signals to you that there is too much pressure» (psychological and somatic symptoms), and «what can you do to lower and regulate the temperature of the pot» (regulatory strategies). By practicing these strategies consistently, you can develop greater resilience and a more positive attitude toward life, which can contribute to a higher level of long-term happiness and well-being.

About the author

Guillermo Gabarain Beristain is a Psychologist and Coach at SINEWS MTI with more than 15 years of experience, licensed in both Spain and the USA to practice as a psychologist, bilingual and with international experience. Trained in scientifically validated methodologies, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Solution Focused Therapy, Gottman Method of Couples Therapy, Crisis Prevention and Intervention, as well as in Humanistic and Systemic approaches. His main activity is focused on working with adults and couples, and he is specialized in the treatment of depression and anxiety disorders, complex grief, adjustment problems due to migration, substance use disorders and addictions, and couple problems.

Guillermo Gabarain
Division of Psychology, Psychotherapy and Coaching
Guillermo Gabarain
Adults and couples
Languages: English and Spanish
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