introducing: target stress

note: this concept is running on a predictive processing paradigm, approximately, but a fairly generalized version of said paradigm which seems obviously true.

target stress is the expectation of how much stress one is going to experience at a given time. a low target stress level is, for example, lying in bed before falling asleep: this is a low-activity state, the body is relaxed, etc. an example of a high target stress level would be, say, doing physical activity in the cold. low target stress is generally correlated with reflectivity and openness to change of direction; flow states are usually associated with high target stress. i claim that target stress is a parameter which you can alter explicitly if you so choose and one which you likely should be tracking.

this parameter heavily regulates pain tolerance and change tolerance, since it changes how surprising they are. hence, one of the avenues of dealing with pain, sensory issues, and the like is upregulating target stress so that the level of discomfort is no longer important/​relevant to perception. chronic low target stress is basically the ever-present expectation that it is not worth it to spend energy on persisting through adversity because it is time to rest. the extreme form thereof can lead to inability to stand for long periods of time in seemingly physically healthy people.

chronic high target stress, particularly emotionally, is, i think, roughly the same thing as c-ptsd: it means constantly living in fear and eventually adaption to care a lot about avoiding pain and inability to lower stress (this is still better than having low target stress and being wrong). it is good to avoid that. it appears that in order to be healthy, people need to regularly cycle their target stress level. i do not yet fully understand this phenomenon. “self care” seems to basically describe dropping target stress really low and then taking care of all the needs that appear once they are not being filtered out, to keep them from accumulating (“self care” is also some other things).

when target stress is higher than experienced stress, you get twitchiness, anticipation, the need to exercise, and sensory underloading. the need to stim is sometimes caused by this. experiences stress higher than target stress is confusing, very unpleasant, and difficult to deal with. unexpected negative events like having a drink spilled on you can require a period of frozen adjustment before getting to a state sufficiently compatible with that having happened to react to it.

it costs energy to process negative events and keep being okay. overly high experienced stress can prevent rest, because it is impossible to reach a relaxed state without, for example, being overwhelmed by the scratchiness of one’s clothes. overrunning the amount of stress you can safely accommodate often manifests as headaches, processing issues, and a growing inability to maintain a high target stress level.

it is useful to have levers available to control target stress when it doesn’t happen naturally. these are some things which may work.

  • for lowering it, ritual works well—a favorite calm-associated drink, putting on soft clothes, peaceful music—and dealing with sensory needs, particularly by processing through repetitive action, is basically necessary. attending to your state being tolerable to a low-stress instantiation of you should probably happen mostly before relaxing, unless the acts involved in that are themselves calming (e.g., showers/​baths both make one’s state more acceptable to low-stress selves (more clean) and many people find them use them to feel safe, calm, warm, etc).

  • for increasing, gradually increasing physical activity works well. if you can’t move at all, a good place to start is slightly wiggling fingers or toes and then spreading the wiggling until all your muscles are actionable. energetic music also helps.

attending to using target stress properly seems pretty obviously one of the things important to general mental (and eventually physical, as these things go) health. my model of what using it right means is pretty loose and i would appreciate people playing around with the concept and mixing it with their other models and commenting on that.