(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.
Recently, I had the opportunity to take a small group of uniquely inspired ladies on a retreat at the Keys Creek Lavender Farm, out in the country setting of Valley Center– which is about 30 miles from San Diego, CA. In this space known for growing, healing and well-being, we spent the day focusing on and celebrating “The Self”. We weren’t cultivating conceit, self-righteousness or self-absorption. What we were doing was finally giving ourselves permission to treat us the way we treat others in life… with love, kindness and compassion. Spending time to focus on ourselves is not commonly encouraged in our western culture, where to get ahead (and sometimes just to make ends meet) we work the extra hours doing as much as we can, in addition to taking care of those around us, and responding to their needs– be it our significant others, children, parents, pets, etc…. As women of the 21st century, we are conditioned to do it all: juggling work, family and home life. We rinse and repeat these conditions all the time. Given that there are only 24 hours in a day, sometimes we run out of time to do it all, and find ourselves stressed out, burned out and most of all– out of balance.
It’s All About the Selfie Retreat allowed these women to regain balance and well-being, and give themselves the care they need. They had the opportunity to slow down and experience life focusing on the present moment. They asked themselves questions like “Who am I?” and “What do I need?” They did this through various reflective exercises, mindful meditations and intentional activities that supported savoring the moment and experiences. They participated in strengths finding, walking meditation, mindful yoga, mindful eating (nourishing themselves with purpose), sending loving-kindness to their loved ones, themselves and the world, and mindful self-talk—applying self-compassion techniques to cultivate both positive emotion and to use as coping tools when things don’t go as planned.
There’s not enough time and space to describe the full retreat in one post, so I’ve broken the day down into a few posts with this being installation #1. By the way, The Selfie Retreat is a staple service of BeingMerry.com, and is scheduled to happen at least once per calendar quarter. For this post, I’d like to focus on the mindful walking meditations that promoted self-love, self-care and gratitude.
Mindful Walking Meditation
We held a few different perspectives during our walking meditation, where we either focused or opened our awareness intentionally as we moved through nature, from a vintage barn setting where the ceiling was covered with bunches of drying lavender, to the labyrinth space where a magnificent crystal sits at the center. We initially focused our awareness on the sensations of walking – noticing the sensations in our leg muscles moving us through this space, the functioning of our joints supporting our bones, and our feet touching the ground and propelling us forward. We also focused our attention on our breathing—the intake of air at our nostrils, the releasing of stress in our exhale, the rising and falling of our chests or abdomens, and the opening of our hearts as we took in all of these sensations. We were aware of feeling of gratitude inside ourselves, for the ability to walk, breathe and exist without too much difficulty in those moments.
Our focus of awareness shifted once we reached the rock-lined labyrinth. These structures are unlike mazes as they have only one starting and ending point, which are one in the same. Labyrinths have been used throughout history in many cultures and over many centuries as a symbol of one’s spiritual journey, among other things. As we slowly walked through the labyrinth, we contemplated our life’s own journey, accepting all that we have gone through that has led us here to this moment. Sometimes the difficult times we experience are hard to accept, however, if we reframe those times and look for the silver linings (the lessons we learned as a result of those hard times), we see that without both the good and the bad times, we would not be exactly where we are today.
We ended our walk with an open awareness meditation, sensing and savoring our surroundings. In this type of meditation, we are encouraged to notice everything around us employing as many senses as we can. We notice the strength and temperature of both the breeze and the sun on our skin, as well as the aroma of the sweet lavender and fresh outdoors, and finally the songs of the birds chirping nearby and the sound of feet shuffle along the dirt path. Looking at the trees we pass, we notice the texture of the bark and the shape and color of the leaves with all their gradients. We are aware of our feet on the dirt path, and realize that many before us have walked this way as well. We may feel a sense of common humanity—being a part of something much bigger than ourselves. We feel a sense of awe and gratitude for life itself—all around us, and the ability to be a part of it. We realize that we are so very blessed.
How will you take time for yourself today? Trying going for a walk in nature.
But don’t take my word for it… try a walking meditation for yourself. Focus your awareness on your bodily sensations, or open it up to nature and the world, noticing all her splendid details. Try one perspective and then the other. Explore which twist of mindful walking resonates with you. There are other things you can think about (or sense) on a mindful walk (in each step “you arrive”, in each step “you are home”—Thich Nhat Hahn encourages this perspective). The main point is that you focus your awareness, or open it up. When you find your mind wandering, as it will during meditations, just bring it back kindly to the object of your focus or intention. This kind of slowing down, and focusing or opening does not only change your body (giving it a break from the crazy running around many of us do), but also your brain (rewiring the stress response) and spirit (responding with awe and offering gratitude) as well. Try it as your-SELFIE just may thank you for it!