Let’s face it, we’ve all got too much to do, too much information, too many screens and not enough time. Although the world’s changed, we’ve yet to fully adapt to the demands of this new era. Part of the challenge is that our bodies are still wired to react to the threats in the same way as when we were hunter-gatherers 60,000 years ago. This is the fight-or-flight reaction, which gets the body ready to deal with threatening situations. While this made sense facing a dangerous snake, we now experience many smaller, often intangible, challenges over the day as this same mechanism makes us experience stress. And stress in today’s world is increasing. According to a recent survey, around sixty-six percent of professional workers say that their levels of stress are higher than they were five years ago.
Of course, there’s positive stress that motivates us to get things done and negative stress, which damages our health and reduces our performance. When we become stressed, the sympathetic nervous system stimulates the adrenal glands to release adrenaline and the “stress hormone”, cortisol. Adrenaline increases our heart rate and blood pressure, while cortisol shuts down non-essential systems in the body, alters the immune system and affects our mood and emotions. Once the pressure or threat subsides, it can take between 20 to 60 minutes for the stress hormones to return the body to its normal level. If the stress is constant, the physical symptoms build up and remain in the body for much longer.
Stress affects the brain, body, and emotions. Physical symptoms can include low energy, insomnia, headaches, aches, pain, and tension, as well as a lowered immune system. Higher levels of cortisol interfere with memory and learning, which can make it difficult to concentrate and focus. Emotionally we may feel overwhelmed, agitated, anxious, depressed, angry, irritable and experience lower self-esteem.
Interestingly, the stress response can be triggered by both real and imagined threats. We interpret the world through our thoughts and feelings, which are not always reliable guides to reality. Our mind is so powerful that simply believing anxious thoughts is enough to trigger the symptoms of stress.
Another cause of stress is our tendency to react automatically, often out of unconscious habit. For instance, we skim-read an email that triggers fear and anger and then reinforces these feelings with emotionally-charged thoughts about who’s to blame.
There are a number of ways to work with stress. These include identifying what causes the stress in our lives and proactively working on reducing their impact. Some ways to reduce stress could include changing the way we prioritise and manage our workload, being more assertive about not taking on more work, taking exercise to work off tensions, and socializing.
Practising mindfulness also has a useful role to play. Awareness of our body, thoughts, and emotions allows us to notice the signs of stress earlier, as well as helping us observe how we interpret your experience. Once we have noticed the signs of stress, we can use mindfulness techniques to help release physical tension, settle mental agitation, allow negative emotions to dissolve and bring kindness and compassion to ourselves. By releasing tension and stress we’ll have the resources that allow a bit of space and flexibility to respond appropriately, rather than reacting automatically.
These techniques work when they are practised and experienced during challenging situations, which is not always easy. Over time they can make a real difference to our ability to manage stress and can bring greater stability, balance, and clarity into our lives.
m Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction has a useful saying, “You can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf”. You can stand in the sea, face the shore and brace yourself as the waves crash into you, or you can face the waves and gracefully float up and down with them as they emerge, rise and fall back into the ocean.
Find somewhere undisturbed and sit in a comfortable, dignified and upright posture, where you can remain alert and aware.
There are two guided practices for this session. You can close your eyes, or lower your gaze while the meditations play.
Play the first settling practice, then read through the session content, which you can print off if that helps.
Then play the second practice to gently explore how your body, emotions, and mind react to stress and use mindfulness techniques to reduce and release the symptoms of stress.
Suggested weekly practice
- Notice the early symptoms of stress and start working to reduce stress as soon as you can.
- Make sure you include some pleasant activity, like socialising with friends, that allows you to properly relax and let go during the week.
- Watch out for pushing back and resisting what arises in your experience and instead allow and accept what happens with openness and kindness.
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