These are trying times. We are living through the worst recession since the Great Depression. You probably know someone who has lost their job or lost their house. It's easy for each of us to experience stress and anxiety. So first, perhaps you should appreciate that stress is actually a complex experience. The term itself was coined by Dr. Hans Selye in the 1950's as part of a study of animals that were injured or placed under extreme conditions. Stress is complex because it can have causes that are both external and internal. But how you approach these challenges can have a big impact on the level of stress you experience.
Understanding the Mechanics of Stress It's helpful and empowering when you understand how stress arises in your body and mind. Your body has a built in negative bias for danger and pain. Parts of your brain and nervous system are easily triggered by perceived signs of danger or threat, real or imagined. This means that you can easily be aroused and flooded by this state of hyper-vigilance and it will take some time, perhaps 30 or 40 minutes, before this state has dissipated within yourself.
An occasional arousal state like this is natural, but if you are in this state much of the time, it's unhealthy and you need to take steps to manage and regulate this. Mindful awareness can help you short-circuit the time you are flooded by grounding your awareness in your body. There is a lot of wisdom in your body. Unfortunately, our culture is increasingly fragmented and disembodied, so this kind of wisdom is seldom acknowledged or honored.
The Power of Mindfulness There are many reason why mindful awareness can help you overcome stress or work more effectively with worry, anxiety or anger. First, let's start with a definition. Mindfulness is an intentional, embodied awareness that is without judgement. Mindfulness meditation strengthens a hub of awareness within yourself that allows you to watch your thoughts, emotions and experiences instead of totally identifying with them. This allows you to notice how these experiences arise in yourself. So for instance, if you are caught up in some very harsh and negative inner critical voice, mindfulness can help you notice how you are doing this. If you are constantly worrying about the future, mindfulness can help you observe how your mind is anticipating the worst case scenarios. There is great power in this kind of reflective awareness because you can learn to drop these negative inner voices altogether. And that can greatly facilitate a change in your disposition, attitude and stress level.
Regulating Your Autonomic Nervous System Your autonomic nervous system consists of two parts, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nerves. These two large nervous systems work together. When one is active the other is not. The sympathetic nervous system helps you get aroused and activated. Working together with the thalamus, the pituitary and the adrenals in your brain it produces many of the chemicals in the body that lead to stress. So if this part of your nervous system is constantly aroused, you will be in a state of reactivity much of the time. Fortunately, your body also has what's called the parasympathetic nervous system which helps calm and cool down this arousal. So to regulate stress you want to active the parasympathetic nervous system in your body. So how do you do this? You begin by bringing your awareness to your breathing, and in particular, your out breath.
Your breathing is connected to these two nervous systems. Your in breath helps to stimulate the sympathetic nervous system. This makes sense, because when your body is preparing for a fight-flight reaction, it needs more oxygen to pump into muscles. When people are caught up in a state of anxiety, they often hyper-ventilate. The quality of their breathing becomes short and quick, and they often talk very rapidly without pausing. Because their attention is focused on the in-breath, they actually heighten, increase and aggravate the anxiety they are experiencing.
Your out-breath is connected to your para-sympathetic nervous system. So when you focus on a long, slow outbreath, you are lighting up your sympathetic nervous system. So taking some long, slow out-breathes can help you calm down, cooling the fires of the reactive part of your nervous system. Your lips are also connected to your parasympathetic nervous system so if you touch your fingers to your lips, you are helping to soothe and calm yourself down.
Keeping Yourself Company Increasingly I see people coming to our Zen Life & Meditation Center who are experiencing a kind of free-floating anxiety that has no clear object. The most effective practice I know for addressing this is the practice of loving-kindness, in which you learn how to attune with yourself in a way that is kind, gentle and loving.
Many people think meditation is just a technique, but it is so much more than that. Meditation is a way you learn to be with yourself and slow down. But many people are afraid to be still or to be alone with themselves in this way. So I teach people to work with their resistance, because I think this is the key to learning to be more mindful. Mindfulness is a shift of awareness that requires no effort. In fact, effort gets in the way. Once you know what this awareness is like, you can generate the intention to make this shift in yourself quite simply and easily. And that is the nature of mindful awareness.
So I encourage you to take up a daily practice of mindfulness meditation. Think of it as a kind of brain fitness. You are strengthening parts of your brain that will help you integrate many of your experiences. And when you strengthen this hub of awareness in yourself you will have greater resilience and stability in the face of change and uncertainty.
May you be happy. May you be free of stress, worry, anxiety and anger. May you be free of danger. May you be at ease and at peace with yourself and all things.
by Robert Althouse