By Jerome Stone, MA, RN
Swamped and Stressed? Join the Club!
Do you ever get a sense that how you’re engaging in your life could be a lot less stressful? Do you ever feel like stress is driving you and you’re in the passenger’s seat?
We’re living in an increasingly complex and connected world, where our lives are busier than ever and our obligations are more extensive and overwhelming. The way that most of us deal with this “modern” life is to try to keep up.
The problem is that while we’re playing keep-up and catch-up, we’re also experiencing a good deal of stress. And, we’ve come to expect that feeling stressed is normal, it’s how we should be, because of external factors like our schedules, to-do lists, and general busy-ness.
How often do you find yourself huddled over a device, surfing the internet, checking email, or texting a friend overwhelmed with the stress of having to do so much so quickly? So many of us live like servants to the very tools that are supposed to help us run our lives more effectively. With long “to do” lists and an abundance of opportunities and expectations, it’s hard not to feel pressured to keep up with everything.
Or, maybe you’re able to limit the time that you’re consumed with technology. And, if that’s the case, let me ask you this: even if you have good technical “boundaries,” how do you deal with normal daily stressors like maintaining your health and finances, and keeping up with your calendar of events? It appears as if stressing over life and keeping up with obligations is the new “normal.” Welcome to the modern age, full of modern-made stress, anxiety, and busy-ness!
The Negative Effects of Stress
The physiology of stress has had benefits throughout human history; the “fight, flight, or freeze” response was meant to keep us out of harm’s way. When Sabre Tooth Tigers roamed the planet, there were good reasons for being on high alert. Now I’m not sure about you, but the last time that I saw a Saber Tooth Tiger was…never! Yet, many of us engage in our daily lives as if they were still roaming the earth. We’ve turned an unexpected bill, or a change in jobs into our own Sabre Tooth Tiger.
How do you suppose a prolonged stressed state affects our bodies? “Not good” you say, and you’re right.
In fact, ongoing research has provided ample evidence that prolonged stress has negative impacts on our cardiovascular, immune, musculoskeletal and even reproductive systems. What does this mean in your day-to-day life? It may translate into reduced concentration and an inability to focus, or an increase in colds, or increased number and length of hospital visits. For each person, it’s different, but the bottom line is that stress reduces your quality of life may even impact your life expectancy.
But again, why am I telling you this? You already know what stress feels like in your body, right? And it stinks!
But what if you could still run on high gear (or not if you chose to) but not experience as much physical and mental stress; wouldn’t that feel a whole lot better? The good news is that with some work you can.
Before we get into discussing stress and how to relieve it, let’s define stress.
Oh, I know what you’re thinking; “Who’s this guy who thinks that he needs to define stress for me? I live it!”
The circumstances, people and events in your life that stimulate a stress response in your body are stressors. They’re the “something” in your life that causes you stress and that you’d like to be able to control, but may not be able to.
How you react to these stressors is the stress; it’s the physiology that you experience in your body and the mental “tension” that you experience due to stressors. And, this is the “something” that you can control.
So far so good; I’m sure none of this is new. But, before we go on, there are two more definitions that we need to include. Often times, these two terms are mixed up and confused with one another.
The first term is emotions. Emotions are the physiology, the “juice,” that we experience in our body when we’re anxious, happy, angry, sad, etc. It’s how our body interprets the input from the outer world, and in some cases, how we experience stress.
Feelings, on the other hand, are how our minds interpret our emotions. We experience a rapid heart rate, or fast breathing, and “feel” (interpret these emotions) as excitement or anger. Or we experience a slowing or dampening of our senses and feel sadness or depression.
So, stress is the emotional component of our experience, and our understanding of our emotions are our feelings. But why does this matter?
Our understanding of stress in our lives is how we react to our emotions and to the physiology of stress. But rather than engaging with this interpretation, we can work with the part of our bodies that is doing the reacting; our mind. We perceive a lot of “real stress” in our day-to-day lives that wreaks havoc on our bodies and our minds.
Defining “Real” Stress
As a nurse who used to work in the ICU and ER, I know the stress of having a real “life and death emergency” on my hands. I also know that most of the time, in my daily life, someone isn’t going to bleed to death if I don’t get all of my shopping done, or if I miss a deadline. Yet at times, I still find myself reacting as if this were the case. And you’ll see throughout this article that the very things that keep those “life and death” reactions in place are the ones that inhibit your ability to meet that deadline or finish your shopping.
Now, major life-changing events like loss of a job, failure of a relationship, or the death of a loved one can trigger major stress-responses, and that makes sense. The problem is, if we’ve learned how to deal with the physiology of stress by constantly reacting as if everything was a life-changing event, we end up “programming ourselves” to react to even the smallest events in the same way. And that leads to a negative effect on our bodies, our minds, and our lives.
Stress Occurs in the Mind
Learning to deal with stress is about creating a gap between the perception of our physiological experience – stress – and our feelings, or ideas about that experience. It’s about contradicting the “Sabre Tooth Tiger” response by becoming aware of when we’re getting stressed and saying to ourselves, “Don’t go there!”
Developing awareness of the triggers of stress starts by learning to know your body and your mind well enough not only to recognize the symptoms of stress, but to short-circuit the habitual pattern of responding to what we’re experiencing as a “life-and-death” event.
Think of the answers to the following questions:
- Where does the experience of stress reside? In your body and to some extent your mind.
- Where is the interpretation of stress processed? Within your mind and your nervous system.
- Where does a sense of personal power reside? Within your mind.
- What can you work with to control the stress in your life? Your mind and, subsequently, your nervous system.
- What part of you benefits from doing this kind of work? Every part!
So, it seems that your mind is pretty important in empowering you and decreasing your experience of stress, and in keeping your body healthy.
I can hear the moans and groans now; “Great, just don’t tell me that all of this stress is in my mind!” Well, it isn’t ALL there, but that’s where you’ll make changes that will improve your life.
We’ve already determined that your emotions and the experience of stress occur within your body; it’s the physiology, the juice of your experience. However, your mind is where the interpretation of your experience is processed. And, if you work with your mind, not only will you have a relaxed mind, your body will be a lot happier too!
When you harness the power of your mind, your perceptions and experience of your daily life change. Why? Because when you experience less mental stress, your view of your own emotions changes. And with that change, you’ll experience less stress and a greater sense of power in your life regardless of what’s going on in your work or home environment!
Getting to it: Minding Your Stress Levels
What I’m sharing here are the basics of how to begin working with your mind as a means to diminishing the effects of stress on your body and mind. The essential component of this kind of practice is patience…no worries…no stress!
Beginning to work with your mind involves using what’s known as mindfulness to become aware of what’s going on in your mind and your body. Basic mindfulness can be practiced by learning to follow your breath with your mind, without trying to do anything with the breath. In fact, using the breath as the object of your mindfulness is the basis of many meditation practices. It makes sense doesn’t it? I mean, the breath is always with you and always available for you to work with. And if it isn’t…you’ve got more important things to focus on! ☺
There are many scripts for watching the breath; you can even find audio downloads on how to begin using the breath as your focus of mindfulness. Bear in mind, the purpose of mindfulness isn’t about watching the breath; we just use it as an anchor for our attention, learning to become less distracted and more “in touch” with what’s going on emotionally.
Here’s a very short exercise for using the breath as the object of mindfulness:
Sitting on a straight-backed chair or couch or on a cushion on the floor, allow your body to become still. The back is straight without being stiff; the posture is relaxed, awake, and dignified. The hands can rest gently on the knees or in the lap. The eyes are open, simply resting the gaze on whatever is in front of you, without thinking too much about what you’re viewing. Settling into this moment, begin watching the breath.
Become aware of the fact that you’re breathing. Become aware of the movement of the breath as it flows into and out of the body. Feel the breath as it comes into the body and as it leaves the body. Simply remain aware of the breath flowing in and flowing out, not manipulating the breathing in any way. Simply being aware of it and noticing how it feels.
When your mind becomes distracted—and it will become distracted—simply return to the breath. No commentary. No judgment.
Allow yourself to be with this flow of breath, coming in and going out. Notice the feeling of the breath as the lungs fill with air on the in-breath and deflate as you breathe out, the chest expanding and collapsing. Perhaps feeling the breath in the abdomen, rising as you breathe in and flattening and sinking as you breathe out. Allow your attention to gently ride on the sensation of each breath, not thinking about breathing, without the need to comment. Simply watching your breathing.
Allow the breath to naturally breathe itself, not needing to change it in any way, giving full attention to each breath. Observe the full cycle of each breath, locating the very beginning of the breath, as it enters the nose or mouth, and following it as it fills the lungs and expands the chest and the abdomen, then comes to the gap where there is neither in-breath nor out-breath, before it turns around and makes its journey out of the body. Simply remain present for the cycle of each breath, being there, letting your attention gently float on the awareness of your breath.
After a short time, you may notice that the mind wanders off to thoughts of the past, fantasies, memories, or regrets. Or it may move to anticipation of the future, planning, wishing, and judging. You may find yourself thinking about what you’ll do after this exercise, what you have to do at work, things that you have to do.
As soon as you become aware that the attention has moved off the breath, guide it back to the next breath with a gentle and firm awareness.
There’s no need to give yourself a hard time, saying, “How did I become so distracted?” Simply come back to this breath. Watching the breath and the arising thoughts without judgment, simply observing.
Once again, bringing the attention to this breath, in this moment. Breathing in with the in-breath, breathing out with the out-breath. Feeling the movement in your body. The breath anchoring the attention in this moment.
When the mind wanders, bring your attention back to the breath, knowing that you can always use the awareness of your breath to refocus your attention, to return to the present. Whenever you notice that you have drifted from the present—when you become distracted, preoccupied, or restless—the attention on the breath can be a powerful anchor to this moment and to this state of awake stillness.
And now, for the time remaining, let go of all particular objects of attention, allowing yourself to simply be here, simply present. Breath moving, sensations in the body, sounds, thoughts, all of it coming and going…allowing all of it…and dropping into being, into stillness, present with it all, as it unfolds, complete, as you are, whole.
For information on how to use the breath, download this script. It will lead you in the basics of using the breath as an anchor for your attention.
Once we’ve learned to anchor our attention on our breath, we begin to work with observing how stress arises in our body and when it does, we watch it in the same way that we watch our breathing; just observing it without trying to change it.
Gradually, we become familiar with how we experience stress, and this familiarity offers us the chance to open a “gap” in the time between when a stress reaction occurs, and our mind starts building on it. This is the beginning to freeing ourselves from the habit of the stress response.