We all know what stress feels like: Negative thoughts and emotions cloud our experience and leave us depleted. Upon a perceived non-ideal situation our brains have us react to these situations in a fight or flight mode. We either become aggressive, passive aggressive, or avoidant. If your boss wants you to do something but you don’t want to do it, it may feel too threatening to talk to him or her about it thus avoidance occurs and we effectively give a dishonest yes. If someone cuts you off in traffic you may be more apt to become aggressive because your job isn’t at stake. The body also takes a toll and the ‘stress response’ includes symptoms such as sour stomach, headache, tight chest, shallow breathing, and insomnia, to name a few. It manifests differently for each of us but is usually some combination of these. And…the ravages of stress in the long-term are well documented.
Certain stimuli give us a run for our money: Multi-tasking too many things at once, unresolved relationships or tasks, job dissatisfaction, lack of adequate pay, lack of appreciation, etc. Most times stress happens because of our reaction to stimuli in the environment; we create a lot of our stress by how we process and think about situations. Unfortunately it is literally impossible to think fully rationally when we are under stress, so our fight or flight reactions leave the situations perpetuated and stress unchallenged. There is hope however, that we can give ourselves the gift of less stress and happier lives. Mindfulness practice is one tool to help you get off the stress treadmill.
Mindfulness is our ability to live in the present moment. It allows us to create spaciousness where clutter exists. It allows us to get perspective on our situations without reacting so much and thus eliciting a calming response to our stressful reactions and feelings. When things happen that we don’t like we react with negative thoughts and feelings and think that the stimulus is to blame for how we are feeling. But we have it backwards. We are actually in charge of our thoughts and feelings and how we react or respond to stimuli. We may not always be able to control life, but we can control more our internal experience to give us more relief and perspective. Stimuli, thoughts, feelings, actions all happen in the present moment. Everything is NOW. The past or future are experienced as thoughts, bodily sensations, and feelings in the NOW. So everything is happening in real-time. As we realize that life is always in this moment we can become more in control of ourselves whatever the winds conjure up. But this takes practice.
Mindfulness is a practice of tuning into your experience of body, mind and emotions from moment-to-moment as much as we can. It is simply about noticing what is happening ‘out there’ and ‘in here’. This noticing is the ground for self-awareness and self-reflection. If things trigger a stress response and we can, instead of reacting with frustration, calm down and notice what triggered us and maybe how it could be different, then we have enacted a different operating system. Mindfulness gives us self-awareness, that tiny little window to know what is happening and thus giving us a choice on how to respond, instead of being knee-jerk and automatic in our reactions. Mindfulness is best achieved formally through the process of meditation, focusing on one’s breath in a calm environment. ‘Watching’ your breath helps you to anchor yourself in your body so that you can be more present with your body, thoughts, and emotions. You will find, as most people do, that there is a ‘monkey-mind’ syndrome that happens when you begin to sit in quiet. The thoughts in your head start to amplify and jump from one thing to another at lightning speed. This is natural, and uncomfortable. It is a challenge to see what is going on inside your head, but the more you give yourself this gift, the more mastery you will have over how you choose to respond to stimuli. Spaciousness begins to creep into your experience and you become more settled. Start small, 2 minutes in a chair or on the edge of your bed. Just sit, relax, breath, keep your back erect, and your eyes relaxed or closed.