By understanding your physiology, you can improve your ability to tolerate stress and thrive despite challenges.
Stress is your body’s response to a perceived threat or challenge from your environment.
This response is either amplified or abbreviated depending on four factors:
The last post detailed strategies to architect your lives to reduce avoidable stress and give yourself adequate time to recover from your pre-existing stress load.
This post will review some techniques that can help you change your perception and mindset - to alter your perception of the stressor and immediately mitigate the response.
Meditation and mindfulness
Mindfulness exercises your innate ability to be fully present in the moment, simply observing thoughts, feelings and sensations as you become aware of them. This awareness is non-judgmental - you explicitly try not to interpret what you are sensing.
One common mindfulness exercise is to sit quietly, with your eyes closed, breathing slowly through your nose, observing your breath as you inhale and exhale slowly.
While it sounds easy, it is challenging not to judge or interpret or follow all the other thoughts and sensations that come into your mind.
The key to the exercise is to simply recognize when your mind has wandered and return the focus to the breath.
A common misconception of mindfulness meditation is that the goal is to stop your thoughts - this is impossible.
A helpful analogy is to think of yourself sitting on the platform at a train station. The trains that enter and leave the station are your thoughts, feelings and sensations. The goal is to simply sit there and watch the trains come and go. You cannot stop the trains; they will keep coming; your job is to watch them go without getting on any of them.
Of course, what happens in practice is that you get on the train, and off you go down several stops.
For example, you are sitting quietly, observing your breath when you notice a sensation in your stomach. Now you get on the train. “I’m hungry...where do I want to have lunch… there is that cool cafe down the street where I went with Paul...Paul seems distracted these days...I wonder if he is upset with me...I have been really stressed and short with people the past month…” Your train of thought takes you far away from your focus on your breath.
Here is the key - your job is simply to get off the train and return to the platform - resuming your focus on breathing in and breathing out.
It is this ability to return to the awareness of the moment that can become your super-power.
Like so many healthy lifestyle behaviours, mindfulness meditation is pretty simple but very difficult. It takes practice.
Fully developed, your ability to stay in the moment will reduce stress by changing your perception of threats. Most often, it is not the particular event that is stressful; it is our interpretation: the runaway train of thoughts that causes most of the stress.
Getting started with mindfulness meditation is easy - start with this exercise that combines mindfulness with a light set of yoga stretches: Nighttime Yoga & Mindfulness Practice.
Another practice you can develop to change your perception of stress builds on the nature of your interpretations. Byron Katie, has come up with a simple exercise she calls “The Four Questions”.
The next time you have a stressful event - ask yourself these questions:
Then “turn it around” what other interpretations are there of what just happened - how do they make you feel.
For example, let’s say you have a friend named Paul and you think he has lied to you.
Are you sure?
Could Paul just be mistaken, are you sure that he has lied?
How do you feel? “Betrayed, hurt - why do my friends always lie to me... they are jealous of me, they don’t respect me…”
“I would feel so much better if I didn’t feel this way. I am a good friend.”
Now turn it around, tell yourself another story about the same situation:
“Paul was telling a white lie to save my feelings..he is a good friend who was looking out for me...I am fortunate to have friends that are sensitive to my feelings.”
The simplicity and accessibility of the “Four Questions” technique makes it very powerful. Doing this once or twice, helps you to realize in the moment when you are jumping on the train.
Most of our stress comes from the story we tell ourselves about the event - not the actual event.
Like mindfulness, the “Four Questions” becomes a useful tool in your stress tolerance toolkit to avoid magnifying stress with runaway thoughts.
In our next post, we will turn to the role of mindset to help with stress tolerance.
Dr. Brendan Byrne