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Everyone experiences stress from time to time, and while not all stress is bad, too much stress is unhealthy and upsets our day-to-day functioning.
How does stress affect you? Perhaps you have trouble staying focused and organised, or managing your emotions. Stress can cause you to behave in ways you normally never would.
Some people even feel anxious and guilty when they are stress free, like the world will collapse if they are not obsessively thinking and planning, or worry they’ll turn into a complacent blob if they let go even for one moment!
Others wear their stress as a badge of honour, as a way of saying “Look at me, my stress is proof I’m committed to my job. If you’re not stressed, you’re obviously not working hard enough!”
Stress is estimated to cost businesses and the economy trillions in absenteeism, low productivity, and healthcare costs. An estimated 1 million US workers are absent every day because of stress and 94% of American workers reported feeling stressed at work in 2019.
Stress is best defined as any experience where the demands on us out-strip our resources.
Often, we attribute stress to our circumstances. We buy into the view that freedom from stress will come from getting the ideal “stress free” circumstances. We think ‘if only the demands on us would reduce, then we’d be able to cope’, or ‘when I get what I want, then I’ll be happy and stress free.’
Do you obsess about an imaginary future when your life circumstances will be exactly right? Thinking the solution is ‘out there’ is a big part of the problem because stress has little to do with our circumstances and a lot to do with our mindset.
We know from Harvard researcher Shawn Achor that 90% of our happiness is dependent on our how our mind processes the world, so why not invest in the 90% and let go of the incessant ‘when then’ or ‘if only’ game (when I get the ideal circumstances, or if only that didn’t happen!).
While we may not be able to change our circumstances, we can change our response.
With so much on our plates, it’s easy to think if we just keep rushing, multitasking, sleeping less and working longer hours success is inevitable. But eventually these habits and behaviours backfire and make us less effective, dissatisfied, exhausted and heading for burnout.
Ironically, we might look successful from the outside, but inside feel a deep sense of lack, unhappiness, even desperation. This is not real success.
Have you bought into the myth that you cannot be calm, stress-free, and still achieve your goals? What if you could be stress free and still be highly focussed and effective?
What if you could have your cake and eat it too?
Because with mindfulness you can! Even under pressure, you can still be present, focused and calm. You can be stress free right now!
The more we mindfully calm and focus our mind, the more stress melts away, our performance improves, and we become more creative and innovative than ever.
Meditation is the key to learning how to calm and focus the mind under any circumstances, even challenging ones.
Meditation develops important qualities like calm, focus, self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and wisdom. As we develop these qualities for their own sake by meditating, the easier it is to sustain them during stressful periods of our life.
Everyone experiences stress from time to time. It’s normal. We’ve all lost sleep when something is troubling us.
Stress is a hardwired response to anything you perceive as a threat, whether that’s real - like being chased by an angry dog - or lying awake at 3am worrying about a job interview, work deadline, or your overdraft!
To our mind and body, they’re the same thing, supplying a surge of energy by activating our sympathetic nervous system to immediately release adrenaline and cortisol, preparing you to fight, flee or freeze.
Everybody knows a bit of stress can be just what we need to get into action, but according to the Yerkes-Dodson law, once our stress level becomes too high, our performance starts to decrease. And prolonged or chronic stress is particularly dangerous.
Chronic stress causes excess wear and tear on the body, called ‘allostatic load’, and increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. Our immune system becomes dysregulated, leaving us unable to fight infections and keep malignant cells in check. Sometimes our immune system even attacks itself.
Prolonged stress even affects us at the level of our DNA, shortening telomeres, making us age faster. It damages the brain, impairs working memory, and makes it harder to learn new things. In fact, stress compromises all the brain’s executive functions, interfering with concentration, problem-solving, decision-making, reasoning, urge and emotional control. Stress lowers our mood and makes it especially hard for us to stay in control of our emotions.
The good news is, that practising mindfulness plays a really important role in the prevention and management of stress. Mindfulness helps us access our sweet spot, when what we are doing feels challenging and engaging, but not overwhelming.
We’ve created a meditation for you to experiment with called ‘Manging Overwhelm’. Try out the 3-minute version during days when you notice you feel out of control and stressed.
Think of a time you felt stressed. Perhaps you were criticised at work, made redundant, or someone cut you off in traffic. You might have noticed your heart rate increase, your breathing change, face flush, hands shaking, sweaty palms, or a dry mouth? This is referred to as the ‘red zone’.
While today very few of us are running away from hungry lions, our busy lifestyles are regularly pushing us into the ‘red stress zone’ by activating our stress response and that’s harmful.
Even after the stressful event has passed, the mind can spend hours ruminating and worrying, refusing to let go of what happened. Without awareness of what our mind is up, we can unknowingly turn on our stress response (just by thinking) and stay in the ‘red zone’ far longer than is useful or necessary.
The human mind is biologically programmed to focus on anything even remotely risky, makes us prone to ruminate on things we wish had not happened and worry about things that might.
We have an inbuilt negativity bias because the brain’s number one job is to keep us safe. We are constantly scanning for risk and erring on the side of caution.
Consequently, untamed mind wandering is unwittingly bathing us in stress chemistry and keeping us in the red zone. We can be warm and safe in our comfortable beds, while stressed out of our minds, imagining all kinds of worst-case scenarios. This just shows how powerful the mind is!
While we are designed for brief spikes into the red zone, we are not meant to live there.
The quicker we interrupt mind states that sustain the red zone, the faster our body can return to the green zone, and our parasympathetic nervous system - responsible for rest, digest, and repair - can restore balance.
The green zone is a place of healthy equilibrium for the body and mind. It is our home base. In the green zone heart rate, breathing and blood pressure settles, muscular tension relaxes, and we feel enthusiastic, rested, and happy.
Mindfulness is a wonderful tool for helping us to return to the green zone, to let go of unhelpful thinking patterns, and to become more curious, focused, creative, and emotionally intelligent.
Mindfulness cultivates deeper self-awareness, so we get better at noticing when we are in the red zone and can move back into the green zone quicker.
The meditation ‘Accessing the Green Zone’ is designed to counterbalance mind wandering and mind states associated with the red zone. Relaxing the body and calming the mind allows us to access the green zone more often. You can try this meditation out for yourself by using this link.
Today many people are juggling work and home commitments while trying to squeeze in a bit of exercise and quality time with family and friends. We are busy! We rush, multitask, regularly take work home and spend too much time on our mobile phones.
Do you find yourself engaging in behaviours that you know are destructive, but you can’t seem to stop?
There is nothing quite so addictive as feeling like you are making progress (called the Progress Principle), which is why we are so often drawn to tasks like reducing our inbox count, whilst sacrificing relationships, self-care, and time for important strategic thinking.
A critical part of developing resilience is learning how to mindfully manage your attention, and take back control of your life, even amidst constant distractions and demands. And there has never been a more important time in human history to start than now.
While it’s so easy to get lost in the action-addicted, always-on lifestyle glorified in our culture, it's like a poison that slowly robs us of our wellbeing.
Aside from a regular meditation practice, there are plenty of things we can do, like turning off email pop-ups and app notifications, removing unnecessary technology from meetings, taking more breaks, and regularly getting up from our desks and moving.
However, if you already feeling overwhelmed then the last thing you need is another shopping list of tips. So, use the progress principle to your advantage and start by changing one thing.
Everyone perceives, experiences, and responds to challenging situations differently. What is stressful for one person may feel exciting to another, because much of what we think of as stressful, is determined by our mindset, not the situation itself.
It is our perception of stress as either negative or positive, which has the biggest impact on whether stress is harmful to our health.
While we often want to run away from or avoid stress, not all stress is bad, in fact stress is an opportunity for growth, and can propel us up another level.
If your stress has to do with performance, you can use it to boost your performance instead of resisting or arguing with it. It is possible to learn to manage stress and build resilience by changing it from “this is a bad thing”, to “this is expected, and just a natural part of the process. I can grow from this.”
The earlier you notice the physical sensations associated with feeling stress – your heart pounding, breathing faster, holding your breath, sweating, tension – the quicker you can interrupt the mind from spiralling out of control.
You can tell either yourself “Okay I’m feeling stressed right now…and oh this is terrible! I’m never going to blah blah blah…” or “Okay this is stress, it’s just my body getting ready to act; if I harness this it can help me do really well.”
By adopting a growth mindset and mindfully reappraising stress and accepting it as a natural part of life and growth, the mind learns not to panic. Even if the body is full of butterflies and feeling anxious, the mind can remain calm and clear.
Our innate negativity bias makes it easy for us to overlook life’s positive experiences and to overly focus on negative experiences, whether they be imagined or real. This habit of mind sustains chronic stress and depletes our resilience.
You become what you give your attention to. Neurons that fire together wire together. Scientists refer to it as EDN (Experience Dependent Neuroplasticity). And it works both ways. Focusing on the negative - on what is or could go wrong - reinforces those neural pathways because that’s what we’ve told our brain to look out for.
Whereas, when we make it a practice to purposely scan for things that make us feel safe, satisfied, connected, joyful, things to be grateful for - and stay with those positive emotions for longer than usual – we build them into our brain, and consequently we notice more.
With an emphasis on present moment awareness, mindfulness helps us stay with good experiences longer. We are literally rewiring our brain and building lasting resources that become a profoundly important aspect of building lasting resilience and wellbeing throughout life’s inevitable challenges.
Mindfulness focuses on growing emotional and mental resilience, so no matter what happens, things do not knock us off balance quite so easily, and if they do, we can get our equilibrium back quicker. It can even raise the bar on what we perceive as stressful.
Over time mindfulness cultivates a rock-solid inner calm and the clarity to see what is really going on, so we can respond purposely with poise and composure.
When it all boils down to it, mindfulness is the ultimate self-awareness tool. Mindfulness also supports the high-performance, stress free state of mind we need to achieve our highest goals. It’s no wonder some of the world’s most famous sports people and CEO’s have turned to mindfulness.
None of this is a quick fix though. Mindfulness trains us to work with our mind in the same way we work any ‘muscle’ to change it, through regular practice and repetition.
The Awakened Mind Stress and Resilience program is designed to help you develop important mindfulness-based skills for building resilience and overcoming stress.
The program includes specific mindfulness meditations for self-awareness, calm, positivity and focus.
There are practical tips, tools, and exercises for navigating and dealing with external distractions and for improving performance under pressure, plus a series of podcasts with Dr Rick Hanson – a world leading psychologist and best-selling author.
To be clear, we are not saying mindfulness is the only answer. Sleep, exercise, supportive relationships, having a sense of purpose, and a healthy diet all profoundly impact how well you manage stress and these all require attention.
However, the vast majority of stress is caused by our minds, which is why mindfulness is such a big deal. You can be getting the basics of good sleep, nutrition and exercise right and still be stressed out by an out-of-control mind!
Everything you need to do the program is housed on the Awakened Mind app and the program can also be done as a group.
To view the introductory animation in the Awakened Mind Stress and Resilience program which explains how it works click this link.
And remember, looking after your own health and wellbeing is not selfish. When you look after yourself you become a resource of goodness and stability for others.