Mindfulness has reached our Western shores in a bid to counteract the impact that our rapidly changing, fast paced lives are having on us. Our work, family, and social lives are constantly scheduled by a calendar of events, there is continual rushing around and urgency to meet deadlines, and we can often feel like we are bound by a strict clock. Because the demands and expectations placed on us, and those that we place on ourselves, often exceed the resources we have to cope with these demands and expectations, we are faced with a societal stress epidemic that is wreaking havoc on our health and wellbeing.
Stress is a reaction to our perception of a stressor, and when triggered constantly and over time, can wreak havoc on our physical and mental health and wellbeing. When we perceive a stressor in our environment, our natural, built-in stress response is triggered; known as the very primitive ‘fight or flight’ response. This has evolved from our caveman days as a reaction to danger, when the need to survive from predators was high. The fight or flight response triggers the production of key chemicals after an individual perceives danger, in order to prepare the body for survival. These chemicals initiate behavioural responses, which include increasing the heart rate, pumping blood to the muscles, sending adrenaline throughout the body, releasing glucose; all to increase our energy production for our survival. This response is an in-built biological and psychological response that helps us to survive as a species. Usually, once the stressful situation has passed, these responses are “turned off” and our body is able to re-establish balance.
However, the frequent low grade stress people experience today, where the perceived demands and pressures exceed people’s resources to cope, triggers the fight or flight response and pumps our body full of these key stress chemicals. This occurs even if we are rushing from one meeting to another, running late to an event, experiencing relationship troubles, overdoing it in the gym, undergoing conflict with co-workers, facing financial issues, or even being exposed to a poor diet. Although we are not being chased by a predator, our body still has the same reaction because our mind can’t discern between ‘real’ danger that is threatening our survival (i.e., a looming predator) and our perception of danger (i.e., running late to a meeting). Whether the perceived stressor is good, bad, real, or imagined, the reaction we have is still the same. Even those 3:00am tossing and turning scenarios, lying awake in bed either ruminating about the past or catastrophizing about the future, disrupts our sleep, which in turn triggers a reaction to activate the fight or flight response, pumping our body full of chemicals with nowhere to run. This is the most common scenario people describe when they feel stressed.
Although stress can impact our performance, cause wear and tear on our body, and affect our health and wellbeing, not all stress is bad. We do need a certain amount of positive stress, or eustress as Hans Seyle coined it, to motivate us to increase our performance and achieve outcomes, but only up to a point. When we perceive that the demands that face us start to outweigh our coping resources, our positive stress starts to tip over the edge into our ‘danger zone’, and becomes the ‘bad’ stress that can cause burnout and exhaustion. Yet when we find the ideal level of stress to perform optimally to achieve our goals, and reach the outcomes we seek without feeling exhausted and burnt out, we find ourselves in balance and performing optimally. Finding that optimal balance can be likened to a set of scales; we need them to sit level to reap the rewards.
The question is, how do we bring ourselves back into balance when we are feeling that we are tipping over into our ‘danger zone’ of stress? As opposed to …. One scientifically proven and very effective way is through a regular mindfulness practice. A regular mindfulness practice is known to promote equanimity, a state in which we are better equipped to deal with whatever challenges come our way. It also helps us to recognise unhelpful patterns of thought that give rise to the stress response, so that we can manage and switch off its inappropriate activation. A mindfulness practice provides us with a greater appreciation for the present moment – not being lost in thought, not being distracted, not being overwhelmed by difficult emotions. Instead, we learn how to be in the here and now, and have a greater propensity to cultivate positive mental states such as loving kindness, compassion, patience, and energy. For many of us when stressed, we tend to breathe rapidly and from the chest up. Mindfulness helps us to notice this, so that we can engage in practices and techniques to activate the part of our nervous system that counteracts this response.
Being human, our problem solving minds are going to wander and worry about the stressor. That’s ok, we can’t be mindful 100% of the time. However it is our reaction to the stressor that counts. Research has shown that people who engage in a regular mindfulness practice can experience their emotions and reactions to the stressor selectively. That is, they have better emotional regulation to manage the stressor and can take responsibility for their responses. Most often, you cannot change the situation that faces you. However, you can change the way you respond, and research consistently shows that individuals who practice mindfulness respond rather than react.
Constantly worrying about something that hasn’t yet happened in the future, dwelling on something in the past, judging, reacting to what’s happening in the present, or caught up in self-criticism; all factors that can influence our sense of self. Mindfulness is a proven method to enhance our focus on the here and now, reducing the likelihood of becoming caught up in worries that have come and gone or those that have not yet happened, allowing us to have greater focus on building our connections and relationships with others as opposed to our own preoccupations.
Mindfulness is a wonderful technique that can dramatically change your life (it did mine, and I cannot advocate for it enough). Stay tuned for the next blog featuring ‘How to incorporate mindfulness into your life’.
Article by guest blogger Kelley Reynard of www.bodyzcompass.com.au