This article outlines the content of Week 1 of my Mindfulness Series at Beaches Acupuncture Clinic. If you are interested in attending any of the remaining sessions, reading this article is a good way to catch up on what was missed this week. Feel free to contact me for more information.
‘Stress’ is a term that gets thrown around a lot – “I’m stressed out”, “My job is stressful”, “She gets easily stressed” – but what is stress, really? Where does stress come from and how does it affect our body and our minds? Most importantly, how can we better manage the negative effects of stress?
The Oxford Dictionary defines stress as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances”. That definition seems alright, but it suggests that stress is an occurrence, an event – not a constant factor of life. Most people would say that they deal with stress on a daily basis, so are we continually facing ‘adverse or demanding’ circumstances every day? Well, yes we are, aren’t we? We have to work, we have to deal with traffic, with extreme weather, with extreme people, we have relationships, we have families – all of these things can cause stress.
When you’re in pursuit of a balanced state of health, it is more important to consider factors that happen every day more than those that happen every once in a while. So when we recognize that stress is generally a constant in our lives, it becomes important to explore what the physiological effects of stress are; that is, what does stress do to our bodies?
The primary mechanism behind stress response in our bodies involves the nervous system. You don’t need to worry about too much of the anatomy and physiology behind this in order to understand what stress does to your body. There are two basic terms that you need to know: One is called the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the part of our nervous system that allows us to ‘rest and digest’ – that is, rest, sleep, heal, repair, and digest and absorb nutrients. The other response is through the sympathetic nervous system – this is where the fight or flight response comes in.
Our response to stress is a part of our instinct for survival. For example, imagine a scenario where you are facing possible danger – let’s say an attack. Understanding that you are under attack, you automatically go into the ‘fight or flight’ mode; that is, fight the predator, or run away to safety. When you are in this mode, several changes occur rapidly in your body:
– You see the attacker, recognize the danger, and right away your muscles tense.
– Your brain starts to secrete hormones that act as signals throughout your body – these signals create changes in both your physical and emotional state. Some of the changes include increased alertness, increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, and rapid, shallow breathing.
– Your circulatory system starts to pump blood to the areas of your body that are going to help you survive the possible attack and redirects it away from the ‘non-essential’ organs, the areas of your body that are not necessary for survival at that moment – your skin, reproductive organs, and digestive organs.
– The hormones that are being secreted at this point also affect your emotional state – you start to feel an increased sense of urgency and anxiety.
Indeed, you are the very opposite of relaxed; you are on edge, on high alert, ready to make any necessary move for your own survival. When the threat is removed, your body tries to regain balance (homeostasis) by shifting you back into the ‘rest and digest’ mode, where all of the above reactions are reversed. The thing is that this process is gradual – your body is still keeping you on high alert ‘just in case’ the threat returns.
This is where our stress response is useful. This is where our ability to recognize and act on stress is part of survival. This is good.
But there are many different degrees of stress – you (hopefully) won’t be facing possible attacks on a daily basis, but you will be faced with multiple stressful situations. Maybe it’s a car that cuts you off on the way to work, maybe it’s your boss having a bad day, maybe it’s a big hydro bill that pops up in the mail – these are all stressors and they will have the same effect on your body, in varying degrees of severity.
It seems like it is becoming common knowledge that stress affects your health, which is great because that means that we are recognizing the connection between mind and body. Research findings are pointing more and more to stress being an underlying cause of many diseases; high blood pressure, stroke, chronic pain, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and diabetes, to name a few. The fact is that exercise, nutrition and lifestyle choices are all very important factors in health and healing, but stress management is an often forgotten and undervalued component.
What does it mean to manage stress? To me, the concept of managing stress implies that we learn to do two things: avoid unnecessary stress and reduce the negative consequences of stress that we cannot avoid experiencing. Let’s be honest – stress is a fact of life. We have to work, we live in busy cities, we’re surrounded by noise and pollution, we have a never ending list of things to do – it’s not as simple as just quitting our jobs and getting rid of things in our lives that stress us out.
So how do we go about managing stress? Start by trying this exercise:
1) Stress Inventory
First, take a stress-inventory of your current life. Take time to sit down for five or ten minutes and write down the sources of stress in your life. Everything – whether it’s your job, a certain person in your life, finances, or even the line up at Tim Horton’s every morning – just write it all down.
As you begin to cultivate mindfulness in your life, that list might actually start to grow. This is because often times we might not even be aware of where stress comes from in our lives…while some sources are obvious, others are not at all. Part of mindfulness training is being able to feel tension and dis-ease in our bodies. When we are better able to do this, we can more effectively judge what things in our lives are sources of stress.
2) Stress Analysis
After making a list of all of the stressors in your life, take time to go through that list and analyze it. Figure out what things you can do something about and what things you are unable change. If you notice some things on your list that you can easily change, then go for it. This is reducing the sources of unnecessary stress. For instance, if driving through the construction on Kingston road has been a major source of stress for you, simply changing what route you take to work might be a good idea and a simple way to reduce stress.
3) Change your stress response
The next step is changing how you deal with stress – or more importantly, how stress affects you. This is a change that happens within you; this is a change that happens when you break old patterns and build new ones. This is where mindfulness comes in.
What is mindfulness? I have purposely chosen to use this term instead of the term ‘meditation’. Why? Because most people associate meditation with a practice that doesn’t seem possible for them – most of us are not able to sit in quiet contemplation, watching our thoughts for an hour. That’s OK, building awareness in your life doesn’t have to look like that. Mindfulness can fit into your daily grind and will profoundly change your life and how you deal with stress.
When you begin to be mindful in life, you begin to create space between your awareness and your thoughts. Instead of being controlled by your thoughts and identifying fully with them, mindfulness allows you to watch your thoughts arise. This way, you can choose which thoughts to pay more attention to, which thoughts to give life to, and you can identify which thoughts are destructive.
Your mind can be an incredible tool – it can help you problem solve, make decisions, plans and insights. But it can also be a major health hazard.
Most people are ruled by their thoughts. Some people are living in the land of ‘what ifs’, where their thoughts keep them in the future. They spend their days worrying about possible scenarios that may arise, situations that are not real, events haven’t yet happened or might never happen. Other people are living in the land of yesterday, obsessing over things that have happened in the past or that didn’t happen and should have. Some people are a little bit of column A and a little bit of column B. Very few people are living in the NOW, living each moment as it comes.
Mindfulness, a term made popular by Jon Kabat-Zinn, involves the process of paying attention to the present moment, including what thoughts arise in your mind. How does this relate to stress? Well, our bodies respond to stressful scenarios in our minds just as they do to stressful situations that we face in reality. Have you ever been worrying about something and it started to feel like there was a knot in your stomach? Have you ever experienced heartache, when you actually feel a heavy ache in your chest? This is the connection between mind and body, between thoughts and physical changes. It’s very real.
So when you are dealing with stress on a daily basis, it becomes very important to watch your thoughts – because all of those changes that happen in your body when you’re under attack will also happen in your body when you are THINKING about being under attack. There is no difference. Your body reacts to your mind, period.
Mindfulness starts with breath. It sounds very simple, but most people don’t actually know how to breathe, how to take a deep breath. The physical benefits of deep breathing are huge – your body releases 70% of toxins through breathing, so taking deep breaths will increase the amount of toxins your body is able to release. Deep breathing increases your oxygen intake, which benefits your brain and muscles throughout your body, and improves the quality of your blood. It has been proven that deep breathing reduces pain reception and improves your mood. It also nourishes your nervous system and helps boost your immune function.
Focusing on your breath is the easiest way to be mindful – no matter where you are or what situation you are in, you always have the ability to focus on your breathing. When you pay attention to the process of breathing, you are creating space between your awareness and your thought process. You are grounding yourself in the moment. This is the foundation of any mindfulness practice.
How to take a deep breath: Inhale slowly through your nose. Allow your lungs to fill with air and allow your stomach to expand as you breathe in. When your lungs are full of air, pause for a moment, then slowly release the air through your mouth or nose, whichever is more comfortable.
Week 1 Challenge:
Find a way to fit deep breathing into your daily grind.
In under 20 seconds you can start to radically transform your life.
Find what works for you – it helps to build a habit.
Ideas: Take 3 deep breaths before you get out of bed every morning.
– Take 3 deep breaths before you start to drive
– Take 3 deep breaths every time you pee
Start with small, attainable steps – just 3 deep breaths at a time. Do this as often as you can remember. The more you do it, the easy it will be, and eventually you will find that it starts to come naturally.
Find what works for you and start to incorporate that into your daily grind.
Next week’s discussion will teach you how to use mindfulness to better connect with your body and feel the symptoms of stress.