Reduced Stress using a Mindfulness Approach
A quick look at what stress is
Stress does not discriminate and it will at one time or another find each of us. It can affect everyone differently and is unique to each individual. Every person’s stress is unique to them, it can feel like a bespoke tailored suit tailored suit…made to fit you personally. Many people think of stress as strictly a physiological or strictly a mental state. However the latest studies show that stress is your body’s way of trying to fight both physical and emotional situations. For example you may be feeling emotionally stressed about an interview, but the physical stress may display it as flu-like symptoms.
Stress can be broken down into three distinct classifications. Acute (short term), Acute-episodic (short term but frequent), and chronic (long term). Long term stress has been shown to be a major contributing factor of depression, social anxiety and isolation, and significantly boosts the odds of chronic diseases becoming a factor in your life.
By the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) estimation roughly 16 million American adults, approximately 7% of the population, has had at least one major depressive attack in 2014. The numbers are actually worse for women, they are 70% more likely to experience depression, while young adults aged 18-25 are 60% more likely to have depression than people over the age of 50. The numbers can be staggering, but show that we should take measures to manage stress on a daily basis before it becomes full blown depression.
So why do we have stress from a biological point of view. Believe it or not short term stress can be beneficial. Short term stress can help us prepare for an upcoming mission important event. We have all experienced it, deadlines are looming, the stress level is high, but you do become hyper focused and alertness and adrenaline is through the roof. Many people claim that they actually work better ‘under the gun’ so to speak. The downside of course is when the deadline has been met with a wave of exhaustion,anxiousness and irritation take over. It is at this time that we are more prone to making bad decisions and actions are often done haste.
Your brain and stress
We have really only touched on the emotional side of stress. However stress has a physiological component to it as well. The stress trigger begins in the brain. The trigger begins with a signal sent from our senses. Your brain is suddenly sending out a signal that feels like ‘Danger, Will Robinson, danger’. Your brain is letting you know that there is a perceived threat and it is letting your whole body know.
Once your brain has triggered this response a stress hormone called cortisol is released into your body and that gives the feeling of ‘flight or fight’ feeling that we associate with stress. People experience a shortness of breath and heightened sense awareness and a racing heart beat. With the passing of time this can lead to an upset digestive system, a lowered resistance in our immune system as well as an irregular appetite for food. We have all experienced this sensation at some time during our life. The danger arrives when this becomes our standard.
A chronic stress state can lead to an unusual physical and emotional well being. This often manifest as erratic behavior, a sense of dread, anxiety, substance abuse and even violence against oneself or others. This chronic heightened stress state if left unchecked can develop into longer term problems such as heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure and a host of other maladies because of our lowered immune defense.
The part of your brain that is responsible for making executive decisions finds itself in a battle. It is trying to calm down and control the stress symptoms. If it gets overwhelmed a person can find it hard to use their reason and make good rational decisions.
The Need for a Reset Button
Everyday the world makes demands of us. Work, personal lives, school, social, etc. they all command a degree of our attention and we are constantly trying to juggle all of them everyday. Some days we succeed beautifully, other days, not so much. Although it is nearly impossible to give each on our full attention and care 100% of the time we still aspire to try. People will often describe themselves as a good multitasker. In reality research had shown that trying to multitask is overwhelming and contributes stress in our everyday lives.
A study done at Carnegie Mellon University demonstrated through brain imaging, that people who multitasked the most had significant less brain density in the area of the brain responsible for empathy and emotional control. The same study also showed that people who were focused solely one one single task had improved brain activity. Multitasking is not efficient at all, it demands more resources( time, money and talent) and it increases the stress level because more effort and resources are required by your brain to ‘get it all done’. The majority of the time it leads to frustration and disappointment. It would have been better to concentrate on a single task at hand than trying to spread yourself too thin.
So what to do, when you got a lot to do?
Hit the reset button! Take a momentary time out, get yourself centered through focused breathing. This will get your brain in focus and you will be able to make better more reasonable decisions with intention. This ‘reset’ is going to control the stress hormones that are flooding your body giving you the fight or flight feeling. You want to cultivate a thoughtful mindset rather than a reactive mindset. This focused breathing is going to help put the situation in realistic frame, where you can make good thoughtful decisions instead of reacting emotionally and irrationally. BREATHE.
This reset button is done with a purpose. Your focused breathing is giving us a respite for the onslaught of stress. We are using this time during our focused breathing to organize ourselves and reenergize not only our thoughts, but our bodies as well. We want to get out of a downward spiral of trying to multitask, or doing a lot of things poorly. We are creating mental space between us and our challenge, how are we perceiving the challenge vs. the reality of the challenge. Once we can do this we will have more space for creative thoughts and rational well reasoned responses.
This all sounds well and good in theory, but what are the nuts and bolts of this, I hear you asking. Well actually there are several ways to hit the reset button. Studies have shown that your productivity and focus will increase in you take a 10 minute break for every 90 minutes of focused task work. Sounds counterintuitive, right? Your instinct is to power through until the job is done, burning the midnight oil, all systems go! However taking this 10 min break for every 90 minutes of focused task work is actually going to improve the quality of your work and mental state! How is that for a win,win! Using a reset button is a personal choice and it can be tailored to each individual, but the 10/90 rule is a good rule of thumb. It is an intentional, mindful way to handle stress in your daily life.
Using Mindfulness to Hit the Reset Button
So what is all this mindfulness that everyone is talking about? I think Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn has encapsulated the best, “Mindfulness is the awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.” Keep this in your thoughts, it is not just staring into space, it is a purposeful pause that requires focus.
One of the key aspects is that mindfulness is an observational state. We are not passing judgment, we are simply observing with a detached state of mind. We are creating the mental space we need. None of the thoughts are necessarily bad or good, they just are. We are not going to react to them automatically, we are going to respond thoughtfully, with awareness and intention. We are not going with knee jerk reactions.
It’s important to know what mindfulness is not
It is not religious
It may share some common ancestry with some religions such as Buddhism or Taoism, but mindfulness is secular in nature and practice. It is more about an awareness of oneself through not only emotions and thoughts but also through the physical body sensations. You are not blocking out the external world you are aware of it and all of the sensations that come with it. This is not a judgmental act this is about cultivating a compassion and gentleness not only for others but for yourself as well.
It’s not about not thinking
Your not trying to clear your mind and avoid thinking. Your intention is to bring your thoughts and sensations into focus without judgement, not trying to avoid them.
It’s not a quick fix band-aid solution
To really get the benefits of reducing stress and addressing aspects of your life with well reasoned clarity, it is best when practiced consistently rather than short term. It is more akin to following healthy habits like exercising the results come from steady consistent implementation. Best when done daily.
Not about doing, but being
When you are doing things you are active you are doing your task. This is about the time in between when you are recharging. This is observing all the thoughts and sensations without judgment, they just are. We are providing time to truly connect with not only our surroundings, but with ourselves. This why some call it a state of ‘being’.
The Goal is Mental/Emotional Wellbeing
Mindfulness creates a space that is conducive to improving your emotional resiliency and focus.Increase your wellbeing:
Reducing stress levels
Stop obsessing about a situation
Lower your anxiety
Boost your working memory
Increase your self awareness and compassion
Overall wellbeing foundations that increase not only your physical health but your mental health as well. When these two are not congruent an imbalance in one can affect the other rather dramatically. Chronic or long term stress can affect your physical health and your sense of wellbeing that show in areas that you might not have thought of before.
Cultivating mindfulness is most often done through meditation. There are plenty of places and meetups where you can go through a guided meditation. However meditation is not the only way to achieve it. You can incorporate it into your everyday tasks. A simple act such as brushing your teeth or combing your hair is a perfect time to practice mindfulness. Pay attention to your breathing. Be aware of the present moment, the smells, sounds and sensations that surround you. It is about experiencing the moment not simply passing through it going through the motions.
When you are having ill thoughts, allow them to be recognized, and be aware that they are short lived and will pass. No single thought or action will live indefinitely, they all have their time and they all shall pass.
Be aware and compassionate with yourself and others. Exercise gratefulness and forgiveness not only to others, but yourself as well. Being grateful for the moment and sensations and allowing them to pass without judgment.
You are not trying to make yourself numb or block emotions. You are recognizing them for what they are. The monets without judgment creates time for space free from your inner critic. Create a gentle forgiving space not only for others, but yourself as well. It is the practice of patience and acceptance. That is why most people refer to mindfulness as a state of ‘being’. You are not striving to become something you are not, you accepting things as they are, some of them you can change and some of them you can not. Just…BE.