From Stressed to Blessed, Part 2

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As we exit Stress Awareness Month, I wanted to share a specific practice may allow you to have another perspective on stress. In the Mindfulness -Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) class we define stress as change, which is an inevitable part of life. We adopt the mindset that change can be helpful, allowing us to grow and experience things that otherwise might not have occurred (and perhaps see things through a silver-lining). We notice how stressful events or changes go through a cycle, having a beginning, middle and end to them– much like the changing nature of our breath or physical sensations. Much like our
thoughts and emotions as well. They all come and go. We practice many sitting meditations in MBSR focusing on the breath, body, thoughts and emotions, so this analogy fits nicely, as we sit and notice what arises and falls away.

Categorizing Stressors

We also talk about different kinds of stressors that propel opportunities for change; such as internal stressors, originating from our inner self- like a certain thought or belief, to external stressors originating from the outside world- like the demands of  work. We also categorize the duration of stressful events from acute- lasting a short time-like recovering from the flu, to chronic stressors- like being a caregiver to an aging parent or a child with special needs. Finally, we talk about maladaptive responses to stress that are conditioned happening on autopilot, where we just react without thinking.

Opening up Your Awareness

Expand your awareness around stress this week by noticing how it shows up in your life and being curious by asking/answering certain questions. Are the stressors originating internally or externally? What might be the duration of the stressors? How often is it/are they occurring? Intermittently (acute) or constantly (chronic)? Do you have any control over the stressor? How do you normally react to the stressor? Is auto-pilot controlling the reaction, or do you have some control over your reaction? As we begin to open our awareness to stress, and become curious, we see stressors for what they are and how some fall away and pass, and for some we can choose a healthier response by bringing in mindfulness.

When we bring mindfulness to stressful events, we have a moment to pause and notice, and see the change for what it is rather than what we are (with our judging, striving, and impatient minds). Just by pausing, we break the auto-pilot cycle and have the freedom to intentionally choose a different response.

Looking for that Silver Lining

To cite an example of seeing stress differently and bringing mindfulness to the table, let’s consider an acute external stressor many people experience every day: traffic. Seeing traffic as negative– it’s stopping us from what we want to do– our initial auto-pilot reaction may be maladaptive; we may grip the steering wheel tighter, breathe shallowly, and intently stare at the red car lights glaring in front of us “willing” the situation to change- for the light to turn green or for the bottleneck traffic jam to break up. We may start to ruminate about how much traffic “stresses us out”, and begin mentally going to our to do lists (of what we need to do next and in less time now), or worst case scenarios about what may result from the traffic- being late, disappointing others, etc…Maybe you will be so late, you’ll miss what you are aiming for all together!  Rumination can easily lead to over identifying with the situation.

By taking a “stress can be helpful” mindset, we might see traffic as a time to STOP:

  • Stop
  • Take a breath
  • Observe and
  • Proceed

This breath allows the oxygen we take in to our bodies really nourish us. This breath has a calming effect, that engages the parasympathetic system of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). On a cellular level, this breath strengthens your well being by  allowing your body to take in more, and affect telomeres that are responsible for the aging of cells. On a conscious level, you may then choose a healthy response, such as focusing on a positive memory from the day, or using gratitude to recall something that went well during the day, and for this moment to recall and savor it.

You may realize that this stressor or change will end soon, and that rumination won’t make the event pass faster, and may even get you more riled up. You realize that with each opportunity to literally pause, you are refueling yourself. If you adopt this suggestion you may find that you arrive at your event calmer and with greater perspective– taking in more around you.

Try It Yourself

I encourage you to try this breathing practice the next time you are in traffic, and notice what arises in you. Check in with your body. Are you gripping the wheel with tension, or breathing in and nourishing your body? Whichever behavior you choose, notice how it
feels IN your body. What do you notice directly? Check in with your mind: are you ruminating about the future or rehashing something in the past, or perhaps bringing gratitude and remembering something that went well today? Check in to how your thoughts influence the way you feel in both your heart and body. What do you notice?

Attempt this practice for one day or one week. Notice what you are feeling and thinking as a result. Chances are you’ll be a little more compassionate behind that wheel- starting with yourself and working outward. What we know about change and stress is that they happen, and if we bring mindfulness to our lives during this time we are creating
a more compassionate world, starting with one event and one person. If you choose to take on this challenge, email me with what you noticed. I would love to hear what you experienced and noticed from taking this new perspective



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