This post is written by Max Alaghband, our newest contributor and a longtime student of mindfulness.
Your boss is hounding you about a deadline, your 3 year-old is about to push over the planter—again—and the news is spouting worrying facts about COVID-19 in the background. A familiar feeling arises. You want to throw something, run away, or maybe just shut down.Enter: mindfulness.
Mindfulness allows us to recognize and elongate the space between stimulus and response, giving us the opportunity to respond to stress with intentional action. With practice, we can even begin to see stress not as distress, but an energizing “call to action.” This starts with understanding what is happening in our mind and body when stress arises.
Understanding the stress response
“’Fight or flight’ is an automatic stress response in the body that enables us to mobilize a lot of energy rapidly in order to cope with threats in the environment.” ~ Dr. Walter B. Cannon, Physiologist
The sympathetic nervous system initiates our fight-flight-freeze response, which is triggered when a perceived threat exceeds our perceived ability to respond. When activated, our body starts to redistribute energy and resources away from restorative functions (“rest and digest”) in order to take swift action. Our digestion is inhibited, our breath and heart rate quickened, and the emotional regions of our brains engaged at the expense of our decision making center, the prefrontal cortex. We are primed to react, but inhibited from thinking clearly. Conversely, the parasympathetic nervous system, which can be activated through mindfulness practices, allows us to slow down, think clearly, and de-stress.
While incredibly useful when a tiger is chasing us across the savannah, the intensity of the sympathetic response is less suited to the stressors we face on a daily basis. Social triggers, such as real or perceived threats to our sense of competence, belonging, control, or safety, can all trigger the stress response. Once triggered, the response can keep us in loops of reactive behavior that can damage our relationships, careers, and our mental and physical health. Chronic stress can impact our sleep, digestion, immune function, and lead to anxiety and depression, among other health issues. But, bringing a balanced understanding and mindful response to stress can help us transmute this powerful energy into inspired action.
When stress is actually good for you
Stress is an unavoidable and often uncomfortable part of life. However, not all stress is bad. Hans Selye coined the term “stress” in 1936, as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” What if we could view these demands for change as motivational “calls to action?”
Selye emphasized that positive stress, known as eustress – that sweet spot between calm and distress – is a key motivator of positive behavior. Balanced responses to stressors, such as project deadlines and personal goals, give us the energy to get up in the morning and meet the world with vigor.
“It is not the stressor itself but how you perceive it and handle it that determines if it will lead to stress” ~ Dr. Seligman
The key difference between distress and eustress is often our perception of the stressor. Eustress arises when we step out of our comfort zone and into something new or exciting, like travel, exercise, or a project that asks us to stretch and apply ourselves. Distress, on the other hand, occurs when we feel overwhelmed because we think the demands we are facing exceed our available resources. At the end of the day, the difference between “stress” and “excitement” often comes down to how we think about the situation before us. Are we seeing a challenge or an opportunity?
Sometimes, this kind of perspective shift is all we need to channel stress activation into the energy and motivation we need to take skillful action. For example, as we mentioned in a previous blog, reframing the stress we feel about coronavirus as motivation to make responsible choices is critical to keeping ourselves and others safe. Seeing how stress helps us take action can help curb feelings of overwhelm, fear, or denial. Without motivation from the stress response, on the other hand, we might not be interested in changing our behaviors.
How can mindfulness help us respond to stress?
As we learned from the ABC model, we may not be able to control the events around us or the beliefs that we have adopted, but we can choose how we respond.
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth & freedom. ~Viktor Frankl
Mindfulness helps us to see and lengthen the space between stimulus and response, so that we can reclaim our agency and choose our responses. You may be thinking, “This is great in theory, but how do I actually redirect stress and make mindful decisions under pressure or in the heat of the moment?”
The simple answer: know your mind.
Mindfulness practice invites us to build active awareness of our thoughts, sensations, and emotions. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, defines mindfulness as “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” With this awareness, we can start to recognize the space between stimulus and reaction. Aware of the patterns in our thoughts and actions, we can start to choose a different response.
Training the mind
Just like playing the piano or swinging a golf club, it takes consistent practice to learn the skills of mindfulness. In the prestigious scientific journal, PNAS, Dr. Brefczynski-Lewis and her colleagues define meditation as “mental training designed to familiarize and regulate your different mental processes.” We need to train our minds in order to see clearly, past emotions and limiting beliefs, and know when and how to take skillful action. We can start by cultivating the sub-skills of focus, awareness, and compassion.
Through observation and inquiry, we can start to understand the nature of our minds, and learn to treat ourselves with kindness and patience. In this process, we may find it hard not to judge, as we become aware of strong emotions, patterns of acting and reacting in ways that we are not proud of, and others’ actions that we find triggering. Accepting our emotions and forgiving ourselves and others, we can start to let go of guilt, shame, and resentment. Without judgment, stress releases, and clarity and insight can arise. We see that we have the choice to take intentional, skillful actions in each moment. We see that the stressor chasing our tail is not a tiger after all, but an opportunity to meet the moment with energy and presence.
Start with a pause
Let’s start with a simple exercise. Close your eyes. Notice your breath. Bring your attention to your body. Do you feel any stress or tension in the breath or body? What do you notice in your thoughts? See if you can soften and elongate your breath, without straining. Scan your attention through the body, and notice, relax, and release any tension. Stay here, and observe your experience for a few breaths.
It may have been difficult in the moment, but I invite you to reflect on your experience without judging yourself. With curiosity, what did you notice about your breath, body, and mind? If you could see the stress in your system as simply energy, what would you choose to direct it towards?
When we connect to the breath, set aside judgment, and get curious, we give ourselves the opportunity to relax the body and nervous system, which opens our minds to new possibilities. We can then reconnect to our intentions, and start to reframe our distress into positive eustress to fuel inspired action.
Resourcing for resilience in daily life
Daily meditation practice is an effective tool for developing mindful qualities. You can use the above process for working with general stress, or any time you’re facing a challenging emotion or feeling triggered, and would like to gain understanding and calm. If you’d like a guided meditation to deal with stress, you can use the free 5 minute awareness of breath meditation audio on our website.
Additionally, check out the past few blog posts on strategies that can help you cope with the stress and uncertainty of COVID-19. Below, you’ll find a video recording of a live session that Shalini does every Friday over Zoom (you can join in for free this Friday). The guided meditation starts at around 27:00 minutes in this video – feel free to follow along.
Our practice is not restricted to the meditation cushion. We can look to bring mindfulness into our daily lives in order to effectively shift our reactive patterns of behavior and live with more ease, compassion, and appreciative joy. Fortunately, this does not have to be “hard work.” We can resource throughout the day by slowing down, pausing, and enjoying our moment to moment experiences.
This week, try one of the following exercises:
1. Take Mindfulness Breaks.
Take a few moments to pause, at least once a day. Even one minute can be enough to start! Stop what you are doing, look out the window, listen to the birds, take a deep breath. See if you can relax some of the tension in your body. Before returning to the task at hand, ask yourself, “What is my intention here?” Then, get back to work. Notice how you feel now.
2. Eat Mindfully.
Meals are a great opportunity to practice mindfulness. Take a moment before eating to pause, take a few breaths, relax the mind and body, and express gratitude for the meal in front of you. Relaxing the body and deepening the breath can soothe the nervous system, enhancing digestion. For at least 2-3 bites, focus on the taste and sensations of eating. Can you allow yourself to feel the delight of eating? You might even invite your family members or roommates to join you in this activity and make a mindful ritual out of it.
3. Be Kind.
Another powerful mindfulness practice is kindness and compassion. Finding an opportunity to deeply listen to a friend or loved one can be deeply nourishing for both parties. Random acts of kindness are also great opportunities to cultivate the wholesome qualities within ourselves.
4. Design a Mindful Workflow.
Working from home, we may feel overwhelmed with nothing separating our personal lives from our work lives. At the same time, we have the opportunity to bring more mindfulness into our workflow and manage stress buildup on our own terms. Incorporate mindful pauses into your workflow with scheduled breaks or tools like the Pomodoro Method that encourage breaking down tasks into manageable chunks, taking breaks, and reflecting on progress.
How are you bringing awareness and compassion to your stress this week? Comment below or on Facebook with your mindfulness goal for this week. Thank you for reading!