In part one of this series, I introduced the concept of personal sustainability and shared how the stressors of modern life can make it difficult to maintain. We explored how stress in itself is not bad; it only becomes a problem when it’s chronic. We talked about the negative effects of chronic stress on our health, well-being, and professional performance. And we learned how we can avoid these effects by building sufficient periods of rest and regeneration into our lives.
Many of us experience chronic stress, yet have very little free time for the renewal activities I suggested in part 1. Fortunately, it is possible to reduce the amount of stress we experience. We can’t eliminate most of the stressors in our lives, but can learn how to be less affected by them.
When it comes to stress management, mindfulness excels. It is the most direct way to get our body to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and switch into our regenerative mode. For example, one of the world’s most well-known stress management programs, Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR), is rooted in this practice.
Perhaps the simplest way to define mindfulness is as a relaxed and aware presence. The good news is that our ability to achieve this state of mind is learnable. One ancient mind training practice to develop mindfulness is called Shamatha, from the Sanskrit. It means calm abiding. This practice is very simple; we focus on an object like our breath and redirect our attention whenever we get distracted. When we practice “calm abiding,” we train our capacity to intentionally focus our mind and to disengage from constant activity and reactivity. This helps our nervous system to switch into rest and digest mode.
Mindfulness is not a magic cure for stress. It requires regular practice. Fortunately, mindfulness can be practiced in short sessions. A few minutes a couple of times a day will enable you to make progress. And once you have established a basic practice, mindfulness will become a natural part of your life without requiring extra time beyond those regular sessions.
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To effectively use mindfulness to manage stress, we need to understand what happens in our body and nervous system when we get stressed. The theory is easy to understand, but the challenge is that most of our stress response is habitual and unconscious. And if we want to manage stress, we need to become aware of it.
Fortunately, mindfulness practice develops our awareness. Traditional meditation teachings explain how practicing “calm abiding” naturally leads to “clear seeing.” The principle is very simple: once the mind is calm, it becomes clear, just like a glass of muddy water becomes clear when you put it on a table and let it sit there for a while. The Sanskrit name for this state is called Vipassana. Training in mindfulness practice increases our awareness of what happens moment to moment in our body and nervous system. This is important, because the quicker we can notice the first signs of stress, the more successful we will become at regulating it.
The most important thing we need to understand about the human stress response is that it is based on two-million-year-old survival strategies. They successfully helped our ancestors survive when our main stress was being under physical threat in the wilderness. Today, most stressors are not physical threats; we get stressed when we feel attacked or criticized on social media; we feel threatened when there are conflicts and disagreements; we worry that our boss or coworkers don’t like us when we have a difficult conversation.
Unfortunately, our stress response has not yet adapted to the stressors we now encounter. In the face of even a minor stressor, like receiving a rude email, our body still reacts as if there is a tiger attacking us. We instinctively switch to fight-or-flight mode. This response has two major drawbacks.
First, fight-or-flight mode is not sustainable over long periods of time. It depletes our energy and takes a much heavier toll on our health than most of us realize. And secondly, it is not an effective way to deal with most of today’s challenges. It is obvious that a challenging email requires a different response than an attack from a tiger. Today, we will explore the first issue. The last part of this series will focus on how we can develop a more effective mindset and responses in intense and stressful situations.
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In order to understand why stress depletes our energy, let’s look at what happens in our body when our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) gets activated in response to a threat. Our nervous system responds in the most sensible way: it makes all resources available to the threat on hand. To do this, the SNS activates the hormone adrenaline, which we experience as an “adrenaline rush.” Our heartbeat accelerates, raising our blood pressure. We switch to rapid breathing to get more oxygen into our system. Our blood thickens to reduce blood loss in case we get wounded. The immune system gets ready to prevent infection of wounds.
Our stress response requires a lot of energy. To provide it, our body reduces many basic functions related to maintenance and repair, including the growth of new brain cells, which are vital to maintain optimal brain functioning and mental health. It even turns off digestion and provides energy from our reserves.
The stress response is designed for short periods of activation in response to physical threats. Constant stress, even if mild, will lead to chronic stress. Then it becomes a vicious cycle. The more our stress response is activated, the more sensitive we become. Our body starts to believe we live in a very dangerous world and lowers its threshold for stress activation.
If unaddressed, this vicious cycle will lead to physical burn out, emotional drain, and mental break down. The symptoms are prevalent: high blood pressure, adrenal fatigue, chronic hyperarousal, arrhythmia, sleep disorders, chronic headaches, back problems, anxiety, and so on.
Mindfulness helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which regulates hormones that switch us out of stress mode. They drop our blood pressure, slow down our pulse, calm our breathing. They reactivate our digestion, immune system, and the production of new brain cells. It is the best way to replenish the energy used during stress and to repair the wear and tear it causes.
I invite you to reflect on how you can make mindfulness practice part of your life. If you have already tried mindfulness, take some time today to practice. If not, try out a simple awareness of breath practice here. The Goleman Emotional Intelligence Coaching and Training Programs are a great way to learn how to practice mindfulness and apply it to manage stress.
Part three of this series will show you how developing Emotional Intelligence can help us recover more quickly from stress responses.
“The more our stress response is activated, the more sensitive we become.”