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Stress & Mindfulness

Last time, we began talking about stress, its many implications, and a few things you can do to begin to unwind from your stress in order to prevent or minimize its effects on your health and well-being. Now, let’s tap more into some of the finer details of stress.

We have often heard about the fight-flight-freeze-fawn response in regards to stress. This is our nervous system’s built-in means of protecting us from things that could cause us harm. However, many stressors we face in this current day and age are not life-threatening nor harmful, yet our system often overreacts, leaving many of us stuck somewhere along this continuum for a multitude of reasons, where it can be difficult to return to homeostasis (our innate sense of balance) without intentional effort and patience.

When stress is high and the nervous system is triggered, our stress response causes adrenaline (and other stress hormones) to be released, and there will often be a cascade of other biochemical reactions that occur as well. The intensity of the stressor and how long it lasts will determine how long the hormonal cascade will last. However, if we don’t come to the end of a stress response and achieve resolution (return to baseline/feeling a sense of safety), the effects of stress remain ongoing, increasing over time, and therefore increasing the negative impacts on our health.

What this may mean to you:

  • Sleep may become difficult (“wired but tired”)

  • You may feel forgetful, irritable, lack concentration/motivation,

  • Weight may become difficult to shed as cravings increase and metabolism slows

  • Pain may increase as muscles are more tense and inflammatory chemicals are released

  • Digestion may slow down, leading to constipation/diarrhea, heartburn, or other issues

  • Immune response may decrease, leaving you more susceptible to colds and infections

  • Blood vessels may constrict, thereby increasing heart rate, risk for heart disease, and risk for diabetes, etc.

  • Breathing may become more rapid and shallow, often contributing to anxiety

  • Hormones may become imbalanced, creating a myriad of other symptoms including thyroid dysfunction, fatigue, moodiness, menstrual and/or fertility issues, low sex drive, and more

  • Thoughts may lose clarity and may lead to poor communication, questionable decision-making, poor self-esteem, self-doubt, and more

So, how can we decrease our odds of getting or staying stuck in a stress response? I provided several ideas last time, but let’s dive deeper into mindfulness.

How we perceive things will contribute significantly to how we respond. Labeling something as “good” or “bad” creates a certain physiological response. For example, The sound of a motorcycle “just is”—it is not positive or negative—yet I am guessing some will think of that sound as “good” (and may imagine themselves happily cruising down some beautiful road on a sunny summer day), and some will think of it as “bad” (and may get irritated just at the thought of that loud muffler that rumbles down the road as they are trying to sleep). It is the same situation but two very different emotional responses that will, in turn, elicit very different physiological responses. Both will impact health in very different ways. So if we can practice mindfulness and over time become more aware of our thoughts and inner voice as situations arise, we have an opportunity to alter how our bodies respond to various stressors.

Take another example of getting rear-ended. We can come out of that situation grateful that our health is intact (even though our car may not be), then attend to what needs to be done (getting our health checked out, making an appointment for the car repairs, etc.). OR we can ruminate on what a careless driver the other person was, how if our kids had not run us late this morning and we would not have been in the accident if it wasn’t for that, brooding on how it has ruined our entire week by messing up our schedule, etc.; in the process we will be driving up our heart rate, making us breathe more shallowly, increasing our pain and inflammation, and slowing digestion. Again the same situation, but two very different responses. Which of these responses do you think will allow us to ditch the stress response more quickly and return to homeostasis? Which do you think will have longer-lasting negative implications on our health and well-being? Do you see how the change in perspective can make a significant difference in the outcome?

Of course, it will not always be easy to shift perspective (especially in more intense life events, and especially in the moment), but if you can start to practice being more aware of your perceptions day to day and moment to moment, then over time it will become easier to begin to shift.

We must first build our “muscle” of awareness (of our thoughts/internal dialogue), which will eventually allow us to more easily accept situations we find ourselves in (even if we don’t like them), and more thoughtfully create actions that are more in alignment with who we choose to be and how we choose to show up in this world. In turn, as we lean into what is aligned for us, we will begin to experience less stress as we are no longer fighting the world and our experiences.The next time you find yourself in a stressful situation, provided it is not life-threatening, I encourage you to try the following:

  • Take note of how you instinctually react or want to react to the situation and what actions you may want to take

  • Take note of your thoughts & feelings about the stressful situation, without judging them as good or bad, writing them down if it feels helpful•

  • Pause and take 3 deep breaths, breathing deep into your belly and allowing your chest to expand

  • Take a few moments to be present with each feeling, one at a time, noticing what the feeling feels like in your body and where you feel it (for example, anger makes me feel hot in my face, tense in my shoulders, and shaky/jittery all over)—and stay with that feeling to the best of your ability until it eases or dissipates or holds less charge; repeat this process with all feelings that arise and be curious about the outcome

  • Now notice the thoughts that arose—are they more positive thoughts or more negative? Consider if it is even 0.000001% possible to shift any of the thoughts to the positive? (For example, in the instance of the motorcycle mentioned previously, even though I may not be a fan of that loud muffler, could I hear that sound and have a brief moment of gratitude that I am fortunate enough to have my sense of hearing?)

  • Return your awareness to the stressful situation now, and get curious if it holds the same charge as it did initially

  • Contemplate how you would like to proceed with the situation now; is it the same as your initial impulse or is it different?•

  • Finish with 3 more deep breaths and acknowledge yourself for taking this time and space to develop more awareness

If you feel inclined, I would love to know how this exercise was for you, if anything shifted or if you gained any insight, and how this will inform your life moving forward. Feel free to reach out to me privately to ask me questions or share your wisdom.

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