Stress is good for us. Well, the right kind of stress can be good. The kind that we know is transient and relatively low-risk, like riding a roller coaster or trying to stretch a single into a double at your company softball game. Acute stress like this can be enjoyable, while chronic stress can have a devastating impact on our health from a weakened immune system to the loss of brain cells.
What is stress?
Stress is a physiological response we experience when the amygdala, or the threat-detection center of our brain, is activated. When we experience a threat (or a perceived threat) our amygdala lights up and we go into "fight or flight" mode. This has been important for our survival as it forces us to act quickly, without having to wait for the slower thinking brain to weigh in on the danger at hand.
Early humans dealt with stress too, often being caused by dangerous wildlife such as tigers or poisonous snakes. However, these encounters were often very brief, and our ancestors in the African Savannah were either soon preparing lunch, or they were lunch! Just as they surged into fight or flight mode at the sight of a tiger, we have similar (if not the same) physiological responses when, for example, we are scolded by an authoritative boss or someone cuts us off on the freeway.
So, while we no longer have to deal with the bite of a saber-tooth tiger, we are surrounded by stressors both external and internal: a looming final exam, a mean tweet from our best friend, or the fearful anticipation of a public speaking event. This creates a seemingly constant wave of stress from morning until night. (Note though I'm using the word, stress, it can easily be replaced with other synonyms for suffering, such as, worry, anxiety, fear, struggle, fear, etc..)
So, what's a person to do? Wait longingly for that glorious weekend to finally be able to relax? Chug that morning coffee so our co-workers can actually be tolerable? or just grind it out until we can finally retire and drink piña coladas on the beach, only to find ourselves complaining about a sunburn and that the A/C in the hotel room keeps leaking!
Of course there are many way to manage stress. In addition to sleep, diet, and exercise, there is also having strong, meaningful relationships and living a life with a sense of purpose. Taking care of our bodies and our relationships cannot be understated, but what about taking care of our minds? This is where mindfulness comes in. Ahh, there's the "m" word!
Here are 3 understandings that show how mindfulness can help alleviate stress, anxiety, worry, and other strong mental afflictions.
1. Stress is an embodied experience
While we tend to experience stress "between our ears" via waves of excessive thinking, the stress response fills us from head to toe. The pupils dilate for clearing seeing; blood rushes to our arms and legs to prepare for action; the heart and lungs work harder to pump blood and oxygen more efficiently; and the less important bodily functions shut off such as digestion and sexual arousal.
Okay, so what, R.J. Great, love your skepticism. Becoming familiar with the embodied experience of stress by practicing mindfulness of the body can help us to understand stress as a transient, short-lasting episode. Further, alert mindfulness allows us to notice (then let go of) our negative mental patterns that exacerbate stress. Of course it's not always easy, but feeling the arising and passing of the physical feeling of stress can have profound implications on our overall relationship with stress and other difficult mind states.
2. Excessive thinking causes more stress
Mindfulness of the mind. Clear, non-judgmental observing of our thoughts and thinking patterns gives us the opportunity to make a choice: go down the "rabbit hole" of overthinking, OR let the thoughts go and proceed to something more useful. Again, this is not easy, but it's possible with practice!
Life often goes like this: something happens, and we react to what happens. Stimulus and response. When a stimulus causes stress, what is your typical response? Is it something like, This shouldn't be happening...Why me?...I'm better than this...I'm the worst...Again?!...Who's fault is this?!
We cannot control many of the stressors around us, but we can control how we respond to them. Being mindful of our habitual reactions provide us the opportunity to change our mindset. We don't have to add unnecessary thoughts, judgments, and criticisms that only fuel stress.
3. A regular mindfulness meditation practice can quiet an overactive amygdala
With the increasing depth of awareness one can cultivate through mindfulness, we begin to see things more clearly. Remember, the threat-detection center of our brain (the amygdala) often perceives threats that aren't really threats. A paper tiger is not a real tiger. A snake in a dim room is actually a rope once the lights are turned on. Mindfulness is this practice of shining a light on our experience, while also practicing being thoughtfully responsive rather than blindly reactive.
It bears repeating: Stress is an embodied physiological response. The more we can tune into this experience, the more skillfully we can handle stress and the less likely we are to unnecessarily re-ignite it with excessive thinking. But, hey, if you hadn't noticed, stress is a part of life. Is anyone completely free of stress and suffering? Even the Buddha Shakyamuni suffered from back pain and various
We don't have as much control as we think we do. Whether it's another visit from our in-laws or just a raccoon that's hopped out of the dumpster, we can cultivate clearer awareness for how we respond to these external stressors.
Mindfulness is not about getting rid of stress. It's about changing our relationship to it. The more familiar we become with stress, the looser the grip it has on us. This opens the door to the positive experience of actually befriending stress, one that forces us into action and alertness. But I think that's for another blog post.