As published in Yoga Magazine, February 2011
Life is hard. I hear that a lot and more often than not, I agree. The life that most of us have come to know is a modern day balancing act of go go go and do do do. We work long hours, often staring at screens or hurrying from one intense meeting to the next. Day after day, week after week, the body starts to gradually rebel with its offerings of musculoskeletal pain, elevated heart rate, and splitting headaches. The mind grows weary and agitated. The breath becomes shallow, constricted, and ultimately, neglected. And yet even if we know we are stressed, and overwhelmed, we do little to change the root of the dysfunctional ways we respond to stress. Perhaps we find ways to temporarily relieve our condition. More often than not, we end up caught in the same dreadful stress patterns, convincing in their assumptions that this is just the way it is and we need to slog our way though it. When stress is left unattended, it manifests as involuntary stress responses in the body and mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. If you feel trapped and oppressed by stress and stressful conditions, there is a good chance there is something revolutionary you may not have tried yet: Make stress your friend.
Transforming your responses to stress is do-able for you, right now, regardless of the stressor or symptom of stress. Using a simple three-step process, you will learn how to befriend stress, access it in the body, and take appropriate actions to create balance and ease. Before we get started, there are a few things you need to know about stress that will help you begin.
Need to Know
The term stress is derived from the Latin stringere, to draw tight, which is an excellent frame of reference for what happens to us mentally and physically when we are in its grasp. There are two kinds of stress: eustress and distress.
Eustress is stress or activity without negative consequences on the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Imagine the stimulating effort needed to give a talk in front of a small group of people. Distress has destructive consequences on the nervous system, especially with extended or repeated exposure.
The barometer for our stress is always the ANS, which is divided into two parts: sympathetic and parasympathetic. Sympathetic (SNS) is known as the fight-or-flight response and is thought to evolve from our need to escape large predators. The heart beats faster, pupils dilate, blood is drawn away from the stomach and extremities, and stimulating hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are released. Extreme activation of the SNS creates the conditions for many harmful symptoms of stress like hypertension, anxiety and ulcers. Parasympathetic (PNS) is known as the rest and digest response and brings the body back to its restful state by reducing the release of stress hormones and heart rate, and redirecting blood to stomach and extremities. The PNS is the reason we feel calmer after intense exercise or after eating.
There are two categories of stress triggers that stimulate various stress responses: external and internal. External stress triggers are specific events, circumstances, or relationships in your life that cause an activation of stress responses in the nervous system. This could include work life, social life, family life, illness/physical conditions, and the myriad tasks and responsibilities we take on or are required of us. Internal stress triggers are specific thoughts and feelings that mimic the same stress responses in the nervous system. Both triggers can carry the same weight in its impact on the ANS. Therefore, a real or imagined event can impact the nervous system the very same way. Thinking about traffic and imagining being in traffic can easily replicate the bodily symptoms of actually being in traffic. Understanding what is triggering our stress is critical in shifting our dysfunctional and unsatisfying responses to stress. Making a list of external and internal stress triggers is an extremely practical and helpful action step towards this cause.
Now that you have a basic understanding of how stress works, you are ready for three steps that will transform how you respond to stress in your life. Like anything new, it may take time to grow comfortable with this mind/body approach. So take a deep breath NOW, and stay open to exploring these three steps that will help you uncover the peace and ease already within you.
Meet and Greet
The first step to transform your stress responses is the crucial act of befriending stress. When we meet a person, we might greet them in many ways. Perhaps we greet them in a personal manner that communicates openness, care, and friendliness. Or we might greet them in a closed manner that communicates avoidance, indifference, or even judgment. Meeting a symptom of stress is no different. Yet as humans, we tend to gravitate towards what is pleasant and push away what is unpleasant. So it is natural that we would greet the unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and sensations of stress with aversion, contraction, and judgment. In the world of stress responses though, this closed greeting exacerbates harmful symptoms of stress. Tension increases in both the body and mind, further activating the SNS. When the stress trigger has expired, this tension continues to cause a disturbance in our ability to rest. Even though it may seem counter-intuitive to some, meeting our stress in the mind and body and greeting it with acceptance and friendliness communicates a harmonious relationship. When we are in harmony with our inner and outer environment, we create the right conditions for a restful mind and body.
This critical first step is to remove any and all conflict with our present experience, despite our preferences for things to be different. Bring your attention inside. Take a quick inventory of your thoughts, feelings, and sensations. These will be the objects to meet and greet. Name the worried thoughts, the fear and frustration, and the knot in the pit of your belly or chest, for example. Acknowledge the temporary life of these forms and allow them space to be here. An inner monologue may sound something like this, “This is what is here right now. I see you and welcome you.” You will find the right words that work for you. Since what is happening is already happening, the sooner you recognize and accept its presence, the sooner its grasp can be released. When you struggle with the content of your experience, it is no longer free to arise and pass away naturally as do all of our thoughts, sensations, and feelings.
This idea is well defined in the Buddhist practice of mindfulness, where we acknowledge what is, without judgment. It is said that mindfulness is like a clear mirror reflecting the present moment just as it is. Jack Kornfield, founder and teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, speaks about the practice of bowing to your present experience. The act of bowing is often seen as a sign of respect and honor. This can also serve as a visual cue for you as you compassionately take inventory of your stress. Remember that even though it may seem counter-intuitive to respect and befriend experiences you do not enjoy, this is exactly what is being asked of you. This will take time to practice. Know this. Do not judge how well you are doing. Simply meet and greet your experience as you would a friend, inviting all parts of your experience to be here.
After meeting and greeting our stress with a friendly awareness, the next step to transforming your stress responses invites you to dive into the realm of sensation in the body. Make a direct link with your most immediate and obvious sensation in your body. Even if it is painful or uncomfortable, make your best efforts to stay with it. Let yourself breathe and relax with the sensations. Feel the breath in your belly and soften its hard edges. It is important here to let go of any agenda to get rid of the sensations or fix something. They will dissolve on their own as you relax more and more with your direct link into the body. Observe how the particular sensations change on their own. Note the changes in pressure, temperature, movement, and tone (pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral). Let yourself align with the neutral act of observing or witnessing. When you begin to space out or get hijacked by the beliefs and stories in the mind, just return to this awareness of sensation in the body. Notice again if you have started to contract around the sensations. See if there are any muscles that are gripping that can be softened. Is the breath being held? If you forget to relax, you will likely get overwhelmed and retrigger a dysfunctional stress response.
Attention can be placed on one area or can move around to several areas as the tension starts to dissolve. If the sensation is very subtle, it may be difficult to maintain the link. With practice, you will become more sensitive to subtleties in the body.
Just as an open hearted and friendly quality was needed in step one, step two demands the development of objectivity and relaxation. Even when sensations are sharp and painful, you can learn to sit in the fire of this experience with dignity, spaciousness, and ease. You are learning a crucial skill that will change how you respond to the presence of stress in your body. Take it slow and be patient. How long you take at this stage will vary. Once you feel yourself begin to relax and become more embodied, it may be time to transition to step three. Take as much time as you need or can here. Even a minute can have a powerful impact on your relationship with your stress.
The final step asks you what the appropriate actions would be for you to help transform your stress response. Once you have greeted your experience and relaxed with it in the body, the right conditions have been created to listen within. Notice if an internal voice is guiding you towards a particular action to take. Trust that even if you are unable to rid yourself completely of stress in the moment, there is an action that will help you take care of yourself as you continue onward through your day. Perhaps you need to remove yourself from a stressful situation for a while, take a walk, focus on your breath as you work, call a friend, etc. Setting a short-term goal, making a list, or other organizing efforts can also be effective ways of addressing the stressful situation in a new way. Eventually, creating a long-term stress relief plan will be necessary. Most importantly, know your stress triggers and establish a new relationship with them as you continue to apply the attitudes of friendliness and objectivity you have cultivated.
One especially important action can be to reframe a difficult thought that is perpetuating your stress. Take note of the thought that seems to trigger your stress. Notice how it may be filled with overgeneralizations, exaggerations, or restrictions. Dispute this irrational thought with one that bears more truth. For example, say I keep thinking, “Why is everything always so hard for me?” A more rational and accurate response would be “There are times when some things come easy. This might not be one of them but I can do my best right now and see how it turns out.” When we extinguish the power of these dysfunctional and stress-inducing thoughts with more rational, logical, and compassionate thinking, we free ourselves from the destructive path of thinking. Notice how it feels to move forward with thinking that more accurately represents the situation at hand. More details on how to practice this can be found in The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook (for Depression or for Anxiety) or The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook.
This process is about cultivating compassionate awareness, harmonious relationships, and trusting the wisdom you have within you. You are so much more than your stressful thoughts, feelings, and sensations. So why limit yourself to this superficial lens of viewing the world. Open yourself to yourself in a kind embodied way. The only way out of stress is to move through it. This is not magic but a deeper way of relating with our present experience. Over time, this process will become more internalized and will take less time. In the beginning, you may have to “try it on” for a while and even though it may feel clunky, you are beginning a new way of responding to your stress that will have great benefit. But don’t believe me. Try it out and see for yourself. If you find benefit, then you have found an effective path in revolutionizing your responses to stress.