“You’re really only supposed to feel stressed in the five minutes right before you die. When you are being chased in the savanna by a wild animal, your stress response is supposed to save your life—it mobilizes your attention, muscles, and immune system to get you quickly out of danger. When animals escape, they come right out of fight-or-flight mode and into “rest-and-digest” mode, where the parasympathetic nervous system is working to replenish their resources.” Robert Sapolsky, “You’re really only supposed to feel stressed in the five minutes right before you die. When you are being chased in the savanna by a wild animal, your stress response is supposed to save your life—it mobilizes your attention, muscles, and immune system to get you quickly out of danger. When animals escape, they come right out of fight-or-flight mode and into “rest-and-digest” mode, where the parasympathetic nervous system is working to replenish their resources.” Stanford professor Robert Sapolsky
Today stress is a 24/7 experience, but that is not what it was meant to be. That stress response not only wears down your body, your health, and your energy, it also impacts things like your emotional intelligence and your decision making. When you’re stressed out, you are more likely to react than to respond. But not all stress is bad. Eustress, the stress you feel on a roller coaster is positive. The negative distress arises when you don’t like the feeling or the experience. Stress can be an invitation to pay attention and be more present. When we do, stress actually serves us.
A study at Harvard looked at people’s perception of stress and its impact on vascular constriction. They taught people that the stress response was helpful – pounding heart means getting you ready for action, breathing faster means more oxygen to the brain. Then they induced stress. The heart rate went up for everyone. Those who had been trained that stress was good had no vascular contraction. Their stress symptoms had the same profile as joy.
Another study followed 30,000 people for 8 years. The study asked: “How much stress did you have last year? “Do you believe that stress is harmful to your health?” And then they looked at who died.
- Those who believed stress was bad and had a lot of stress in prior year had a 43% risk of dying
- The lowest risk for anyone in the study were those with high stress but did not believe it was bad
We want to train our brains to remember that a faster heartbeat is getting us ready for action when we are feeling stressed. And that faster breathing is bringing more oxygen to our brains so we can think better. When we feel we are stressed, we want to see the positives instead of putting up our defenses up to protect ourselves.
What is negative about stress is contraction. Contraction comes from wanting and fearing. Wanting things to be different than they are. Fearing that something is wrong or something is wrong with me. Fearing that something is missing.
So how can mindfulness help with stress? With mindfulness we learn to notice our experience and feelings. And we learn to do so in a non-judgmental way. We allow reality to be as it is, we don’t try to resist or deny reality. This is how it is right now. Learning to accept reality is the key to lowering cortisol and systolic blood pressure according to a study by Emily Lindsay, research scientist in the Psychology Department at University of Pittsburgh. Her recent study adds to these results by monitoring participants daily, helping to show that acceptance makes a difference in everyday life and not just in the laboratory.
Lindsay theorizes that when people accept difficult experiences like stress, it allows the experiences to “run their course and dissipate,” while resisting them only makes them stronger. She says accepting stress helps people to stop focusing only on what’s wrong and to notice other feelings, sensations, and thoughts occurring at the same time, enabling them to see the “bigger picture.” When we are grieving, we can also see the good. When we are sad, we can still see joy. If we can open up to the good, the bad doesn’t seem quite so bad.
Calming yourself helps you also see the world differently. Stress makes us narrowly focused; we get fixated. When we’re calmer, our attention becomes broader. Studies have shown that we actually see more things when we are calm. So, when we get irritated, we don’t perform as well as when we are calm. When we see that we are stressed, we are less likely to get irritated about it. We are more likely to perform better because we step back and calm ourselves. We are more likely to be empathetic to the people around us and reach out to see if they need support.
Rather than just seeing the negative consequences of feeling stressed, mindfulness offers you the space to think differently about the stress itself. Observing how the increased pressure helps energize you has a positive effect on your body and mind.
Tools to Work with Stress
To shift your mindset around stress, tell yourself:
- Experiencing stress enhances my performance and productivity
- Experiencing stress improves my health and vitality and facilitates my learning and growth
- The effects of stress are positive and should be utilized
There are times your feel overwhelmed and ready to snap. That is the perfect time to take a SNAP break. Find a quiet place, then:
- Stop: Just step away from everything for a moment
- Notice your body sensations: Are your shoulders tense? Is your brow furrowed? Is your jaw tight? Is your breath shallow?
- Accept how it is in this moment: Accept how you are feeling, don’t stress yourself more by trying to change it.
- Pay attention to your breath: Simply noticing your breath as it comes and goes, without trying to change it. When your mind wanders to the stresses at hand, gently redirect your attention back to the breath.
You can do RAIN by meditating, journaling or just reflecting. Until you have practiced RAIN, you probably can’t do it in the heat of the moment. But you can reflect back on stressful situations and go through the RAIN process to help the stress dissipate. See Untangle Your Emotional Knots
- Recognize what is going on
- Allow these thoughts, feelings and sensations to simply be
- Investigate what is happening
- Non-identification and nurturing
Reflection: Using Stress to Your Benefit
Get in a comfortable position and close your eyes or lower your gaze. Take a few deep in breaths and out breaths to relax your body.
- Start by reflecting on a time when stress was helpful to you. Maybe it was a looming deadline that energized you to get things done. Maybe it was in a sports competition. Just picture that time in your mind.
- Where did you feel the stress in your body, this positive stress that helped you get things done? Increased heart rate? Faster breathing?
- What was the positive motivation behind the stress? What mattered to you?
- Think about how you used the energy from stress to take action aligned with your values and goals.
And when you are ready you can open