You’re stressed. But why are you stressed?
The answer comes down to your biology. That is to say, that you are stressed because of chemical changes in your brain.
And those chemical changes in your brain happen because of evolution. This is the fight or flight response, which in turn is what helped your ancestors to survive in the wild. It’s what helped them to avoid predators and to find their prey.
In the wild, the fight or flight response would have kicked in whenever we thought we were in danger. The brain would register danger and it would respond by releasing neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine via the sympathetic nervous system.
These then increase the heartrate, give us tunnel vision and focus and even enhance our senses. Our muscles contract and blood and oxygen are directed away from our digestion and immune system and towards our muscles and brain.
This is great when you’re running away from a lion or running after an antelope.
But it’s not so great when you’re in trouble with your boss. That’s because you can’t run away from your boss and you can’t fight them.
Moreover, you’re only running away from a lion for a few minutes at a time. Your debt is something that will stay there for weeks, months and years. And that means that your immune system and your digestion will always be suppressed. And your heartrate will always be bad. And this is terrible for your health.
So, what can you do about it? Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction.
What is Mindfulness?
One stress management technique that is becoming increasingly popular and has been shown by many studies to be highly effective, is mindfulness.
Mindfulness means that you are taking back conscious control of your mind and of your emotions rather than allowing your body to function according to outdated systems.
At the end of the day, your stress response is not meant to be triggered by long-term problems that aren’t immediately threatening to your health and safety. A little motivated eustress (positive stress) can be a useful thing, but there is no benefit to having heart palpitations when giving a best man speech.
The problem is that your body and mind think that you are in extreme danger. And that is happening because that’s what you’re telling it is happening. The way you are interpreting the events is telling your body that it is a serious problem and that you are in serious danger.
Instead, you need to tell your brain that you’re not in serious danger. And that’s where mindfulness based stress reduction comes in.
How Mindfulness Stress Reduction Works
Mindfulness based stress reduction is all about being more aware–more mindful–of your own thoughts and how you are reacting to events.
Very often, we will respond to some stressor–like owing money or having an argument with our partner–with anxiety and spiraling doubt.
We start to imagine the worst case scenarios: how we might end up divorced and homeless. How we might be thrown into prison and how everyone we know will judge us for being so careless with our money. For failing to bring home a decent living when everyone else manages.
When we’re giving speeches, we imagine stuttering and making fools of ourselves on stage. We imagine saying something awful by accident and being booed and hissed out of the door. Our friend, whose wedding we’re speaking at, tells us never to speak to them again.
This is human nature but it is also far from helpful or constructive. This is what triggers the fight or flight response and it is what makes our brain think we’re in danger.
The reality? We have forgotten what real danger is!
So, mindfulness based stress reduction begins by being more aware of these thoughts. By reflecting on what thoughts are making us stressed and then letting go of them. Because remember: in this scenario, they aren’t helping.
How do you do that though? How do you let go?
Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Tecniques
Try these mindfulness based stress reduction techniques to change your reaction to stressors.
One option that comes from CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) is called "thought challenging." This means that you challenge the reality of the thoughts and how likely they are to be accurate. Are you really likely to end up divorced? And haven’t you been in debt before and bounced back? Don’t you have ample savings? Wouldn’t your parents help you?
When you analyze these fears, you often realize they are largely irrational. Is it great to be in debt? No. Is it going to kill you? Also no.
Another option from CBT is called hypothesis testing. Here, you are testing your fears to actually see first-hand if they’re founded or not. So, in this case, you may actually purposefully stutter when giving a speech and see if people really laugh at you. You know what you’ll find? Most people are much more polite than that!
By using these techniques and others with the help of a cognitive behavioral therapist, you can engage in what is known as thought restructuring. You can change the way you think about your problems and eventually, you’ll be able to stay much calmer and keep things in perspective.
Another option is to try meditation. Meditation is a practice that simply involves taking conscious control over your thoughts and choosing not to let your mind wander. This is a form of brain training that ultimately helps you to become more disciplined in your thoughts and to be in charge of what you focus on. Studies show that meditation can drastically reduce anxiety and stress therefore and help you to stay cool and in command in all kinds of situations.
But you don’t even have to go that far. Sometimes it is just a matter of being able to put problems in a little mental box and to shut the lid. It’s about compartmentalizing and being able to turn off from work when you get home and turn off from debt worries when they aren’t important.
If you can do that, then you can find calm and rest in any situation and you will be more adept at handling any problem life throws at you.