(This blog post was adapted from a piece written for HeraHub: Co-working Space for Women– for April is STRESS AWARENESS MONTH)
The demands of the business day seem to continuously pile up: the phone calls, emails, voicemails, budgets, reports, and meetings on the schedule. You are the ultimate producer, juggling multiple roles and projects to build or contribute to the business that you envision will change the world. You look at the clock, realizing although you’ve put in a full day, time is ticking. You wonder how much more you can accomplish before you start it all over again tomorrow, squeezing in food or sleep, or if you’re a parent too, the duties of raising a family. Your mind continues to race through to-do and “should-have” lists, as your shoulders tighten, and pressure in your neck and head increases. Your body screams, “STOP!”
So what do you do? Perhaps think, “This work will never get done! I just don’t have it in me to finish it all!” And then give up? Or ignore the tension in your neck, and continue to race forward, increasing your blood pressure, and compromising both your health and the quality of your work? Or reach for yet another cup of coffee or drink d’jour to get you through the night? What the experts in stress science suggest you do for healthy living is adopt a stress is helpful mindset accompanied by mindfulness.
A Stress Mindset?
Stress, the predictable part of life in this constantly changing world, can be harnessed to help you perform at your peak. Adopting the mindset that stress is helpful (not harmful) can build your resilience, and help you cope in healthier ways. In her book, The Upside of Stress, Dr. Kelly McGonigal shares evidence from the new Science of Stress that just holding this belief can change your relationship to stress and the outcomes. Ever hear of the Self-fulfilling prophecy, or placebo effect? There’s a similar thing going on here with mindset. Our beliefs shape our attitude, thoughts and then behaviors. And we tend to find what we are looking for, and act in accordance with our beliefs.
Now you may ask, “Why have a relationship with stress?” Because stress is a natural part of life, and the aspect that we have more control over than the stress itself is our response to it. Science shows stress can lead to many reactions besides the traditional fight and flight. Are you aware that we have access to the “challenge” and “tend and befriend” response that are also innate within us, which support health? By perceiving the “stress is helpful” mindset, we can identify what can be learned, look for the good in stress (perhaps a silver lining), and stop the auto-pilot of fight or flight response. By applying mindfulness we can pause, begin to see clearer, and intentionally choose our responses.
Applying Mindfulness to Stress
Jon Kabat-Zinn, grandfather of bringing mindfulness to the western world, and Founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Clinic and Program, as well as The Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts, shows how mindfulness (the ability to intentionally focus awareness on present moment experiences with non-judgmental and accepting attitudes) can support us living more engaged lives. Mindfulness allows us to perceive stress differently as we become aware of its effects on our minds and bodies. This awareness enables us to choose a response. In the MBSR course that I teach, we look at the circle of awareness as well as the stress reactivity cycle, and attend to where we may interrupt the conditioned fight or flight loop. One way to do this, as proposed by Elisha Goldstein and Bob Stahl in The MBSR Workbook, is to STOP:
Stopping and pausing whatever you are doing.
Taking a few deeper than normal breaths, to bring you back to the present moment away from your to-do’s and “should have” lists. Breathing this way nourishes and reconnects your mind and body, physiologically resetting the auto-pilot reaction cycle.
Observing what is going on inside and outside. Noticing the overstuffed inbox and overbooked calendar. Observing your thoughts (“I’ve got a lot of work to do here, will I make the deadline?”), noticing what you are feeling—exhausted, anxious, disconnected, and attending to how it is showing up in the body; a headache, your heart racing, and or pressure in your neck, shoulders, or even chest. Observing means taking note and allowing what is here to be here, and not trying to push it away or ignore it. You can then bring to mind your intention asking, “Where can I pause the auto-pilot reaction, what are the possible responses, and or what do I need in this moment?”
Proceeding to do the next thing that supports filling that need; take a walk or brief nap, connect with others (like our children or friends for a hug, or engage with a pet), or rise to the challenge reducing distractions, and managing time, boundaries and expectations more realistically.
We can influence our own well-being greatly, and relating to stress differently is one answer. The first thing to do to increase your stress awareness is to try on this mindset: simply thinking about how stress can be helpful, and what can be learned? And then STOP: bringing mindfulness to your moments, supporting healthy responses, and increasing your overall well-being.
Kelly McGonigal and Jon Kabat-Zinn go further to include additional steps, which I cover in the MBSR class I teach, and in the retreats I organize. Additionally, I include this kind of information in my coaching sessions… all in the name of well-being. Check out the rest of this site to gain more information, and you will see how YOU can go from STRESSED to BLESSED.