I was in a conference room with two hundred people.
A microphone was making its way towards me. Each person had to share their greatest fear. We had to be honest and as unscripted as possible. As the microphone came closer I began to feel my heart pounding and my throat began to tighten. It became harder to swallow. I felt heat as my cheeks began to flush. My hands were sweating and my mind went blank. I'd never felt more self conscious and I was convinced that everyone could see how nervous I was.
If you've ever felt any of these things, you know what stress feels like in your body.
Having awareness and bringing attention to these physical sensations can be disconcerting. It's why we favour distraction to take our mind off what we're feeling and what's going on in the body. Our instinct is to turn away from unpleasant sensations by ignoring them or trying to control them in unhealthy ways.
And therein lies the problem.
Much of the time we turn away from stress and it's impact on our physical and mental health.
We don't bring enough awareness to it. We ignore it. This leads to reactivity instead of response. The ripple effect is vast and we often pay high consequences with our health (research shows that stress compromises our immune system and resistance to infection and can lead to illness, anxiety and disease).
The tricky thing is that stress is necessary and a natural part of life.
When faced with danger our brainstem triggers a fight, flight or freeze response and a release of hormones elevates our heart rate, blood pressure and energy levels. In short bursts, it can be beneficial.
Sustained over longer periods stress becomes a problem.
Did you know we are under increasing pressure to get more done in less time and because of this we now experience multiple points of stress every day?
As a result, our fight-flight response system is switched on much more of the time, which is why stress has been labeled the number one health epidemic of the twenty first century by the World Health Organization.
When you experience stress in your day, what do you do?
Do you turn towards your stress and bring awareness to how you feel in your body, your racing thoughts and emotions? Or, do you find yourself swept up in the heat of the moment and allow reactivity to drive to the situation?
I know I've often fallen into the latter camp.
We can spend years experiencing episodes of reactivity and seemingly keep it at bay with unhealthy coping strategies...such as comfort foods, alcohol and medications.
Sooner or later though it catches up with us.
When we turn towards stress we begin to change our relationship to it and eventually we are able to apply more equanimity to challenging situations.
Here are four mindful ways to turn towards stress and manage its impact.
1) When your buttons are pushed and you notice an impulse to try and control the situation or do the opposite and avoid it... as best you can, redirect your attention to the body and the breath.
2) Bring awareness to what's actually going on in a stressful situation. As soon as you do this, you've already changed things significantly. It means you are more fully aware of what you are feeling in that difficult situation. This is a major step towards more skillful management of emotion and your ability to stay calm in stressful situations.
3) Bring your attention to your face, shoulders, chest or stomach. Is your jaw clenched? Are your shoulders hunched? Is your heart beating faster? Do you feel knots in your stomach? Pay attention to whatever you feel at that moment.
4) Try using labels to describe what you're feeling. Say to yourself, "I'm feeling angry." "This is a stressful situation." "Now is a time to tune into my body and my breathing."
It takes a lot of practice to catch stress reactions as they are happening. The more we turn towards stress and cultivate awareness of our thoughts, emotions and what's going on in our body, the more skillful we become at managing stress and the quicker we recover from its impact.
The most important first step is having awareness.
(Image Copyright: cigdem/Shutterstock)