“It is not the potential stressor itself, but how you perceive it and how you handle it that will determine whether or not it will lead to stress.” – Dr Martin Seligman
None of us are immune to stress in some form or other in our lives. Whether it comes from an external source such as work life, relationships and financial challenges, or an internal stress such as negative thoughts, anxiety, self-doubt, etc, for each individual the experience can be very different. Unfortunately, there is nothing we can do to remove stress from life completely. We never know what is around the corner and we will never have control over this. We can however have some control over our reactions to stress as it arises.
As in the quote above, how we respond to our stress plays a huge part in how we are able to manage it. Whether dealing with a stressful situation or a stressful thought, how we process and react to it can have a big impact on how we behave in relation to it. Take driving your car, for example; you are late for work and someone cuts you up. There are two potential options here: the first is to react stressfully – negative thoughts towards the other driver crowd into your head, your heart starts beating faster and you may even find yourself getting hot with anger. Yet, the reaction doesn’t have to be that way. Whilst you can’t control what the driver did, you can control how you react; perhaps broadening your perspective beyond just yourself to see that the other driver may have been distracted, or that in the grand scheme of things it really doesn’t matter and you can begin to let the situation go. Driving was (and still is!!) my greatest lesson in practicing to pause and not allowing myself to get carried away with my emotional reactivity.
Read my tips below for dealing with stress and how mindfulness can help.
Recognising stress reactions
An event can be perceived as more stressful for one person than for another. This can be down to our own internal capacity to deal with stress, or perhaps lack of resources. If we perceive an event to be stressful – whether that is threatening to our wellbeing, or damaging to our life in some way – then we of course will be more likely to have a stress reaction. However, if we approach it differently by looking at it in a different light, it might not be as stressful. The first step is recognising that we are having a stress reaction, simply noticing what our physical stress reactions are (eg increased heartbeat, sweating, heat inside) and when they are triggered. We are the in a better position to pause and see what is actually going on more clearly.
Learning to respond rather than to react
The next step is a choice we have to make. Rather than engaging with anger, or upset, or however we would usually respond to a stressor, we have the choice to respond to the way we are feeling. Checking in with ourself and our reaction can enable us to look at the bigger picture. Do I need to get so wound up about this? Does this situation really warrant me reacting like this?
Often when we are faced with stress, our thoughts can fall into a downward spiral which can consume us completely. Either we try to justify our reaction or spin stories about the stressful situation; the thoughts can come in many shapes or forms, and before we know it we have been carried away on a thought train that has us in its grip. This is where mindfulness can really help, as it encourages us to stay present. It can be something as simple as being mindful of our breath, or the way we are sitting, or the sensations in our body. If our heart is beating really fast because we are stressed, we can try taking long, deep breaths to help regulate it. Once we do this, we may feel that we can jump off the thought train and come back to where we are right now.
On my 8 week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course I teach my students to practice STOP. This can be for as long or as short as you like. The principles are: S – stop and pause; T – take a breath or a moment; O – be open to observation (eg how do I feel, what can I see, what am I thinking, what can I hear); P – proceed (playfully, with possibility). The great thing about this is that you can do it on the go – at work, if you are walking, if you are on the train, if you are shopping. It really is that simple and allows you to anchor yourself in the present moment.
Finally, realising that reacting to a stressful situation with strong emotions can take up so much of your energy can really change the way you approach stress going forward. How much lighter do you feel if you don’t engage with the stress, or simply let the situation wash over you? Not engaging with the external stressor or internal stressor is key. If we don’t engage with negative thoughts, for example, and practice beginning to let them go, how much clearer do our minds feel? Why not try it for yourself and see.
To find out more about how mindfulness can help you, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the page on my upcoming courses here https://www.thebreatheacademy.co.uk/courses/#upcoming-courses.