It’s that time of year again.
For some people, the end of each year is filled with excitement as they prepare for parties, family gatherings, giving and receiving gifts, fireworks and perhaps even travel. For others, it can be a time of stress, over-indulgence and even loneliness.
One thing is for sure, if you live in a modern western country, you will have a hard time escaping the hype.
Whatever your response to it, it’s important to be aware of how it is for you. That might sound obvious, but it’s not really. You may be going through the motions of parties, gatherings and gift giving because that’s what’s always been expected of you. It’s helpful to acknowledge if it’s a choice, a habit or another’s expectation.
If it’s a choice, bring conscious awareness to whatever challenges you face and how you might not only survive the stress, but thrive during this time.
Stress happens when the benefits of what we’re doing are outweighed by the challenges. The body responds to stress with the fight-flight response. This is because we’ve evolved to move towards aggressive behaviour (fight) or self-preservation (flight) when we perceive a threat to our survival. Importantly, the threat may be real or imaginary and will still illicit the same response. The man who cut you off in the traffic may have not seen you, or may have been deliberately aggressive, but your response will probably not take into account his intentions. Instead you may feel like your survival was put at risk and your physical response will reflect this.
This stress response is normal, but is supposed to be short-lived. In the jungle or on the savannah, when a threat appeared you would either survive or not, but either way it would usually end pretty quickly. The body produces powerful hormones during the fight-flight response, hormones that were only ever designed as a short-term solution, hormones that can damage the body if they’re sustained.
Our 21st century lives are filled with stressful situations and we’ve not yet de-evolved this over-reactivity. Sustained stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are toxic to the body and contribute to the high levels of cardio-vascular disease, cancer and depression that plagues western society.
Mindfulness training is one way to learn to manage stress, reduce reactivity and calm the anxious over-thinking mind.
Mindfulness is more than just being present. It’s a particular way of being present: without narratives or judgments and with kindness – kindness for yourself as well as for others. This means recognising and letting go of the stories that tie you to the past or have you wishing for a particular future.
The only thing you can ever be completely sure of is whatever is happening in this moment. If you can bring awareness to that experience without wishing it were different, without clinging to it, trying to change it or pushing it away you will reduce your own suffering. More suffering comes from how we interpret an event than from the event itself. So mindfulness is the skill that allows you to recognise this unhelpful mindset and let it go.
1. Choose a stressful situation, eg, traffic jam, queue at the supermarket, unhelpful shop assistant.
2. Next time you’re in that situation, bring awareness to what’s happening in your body, eg your heart rate, the pace of your breathing, clenching your teeth or your fists, anything else. Make a conscious note of this.
3. Take a long, slow, deep breath and exhale slowly and deliberately. This engages the body’s natural relaxation response. Once is usually enough if you do it slowly.
4. Move your attention away from the tension in your body to the soles of your feet. Whether they’re resting on the brake in the car or standing on solid ground, notice what it feels like to place your attention on just one safe spot in your body.
5. When your inner dialogue raises the usual narrative (this may sound like “it shouldn’t be like this” or “if only…”), note this as just a thought, just neurons firing in the brain, not actual reality. Never push these thoughts away, just note them as thoughts and make a conscious decision not to get carried away with them. They’ll pass if you don’t give them your attention.
6. At this point you may notice that your heart rate and respiration is slowing down, your jaw and fists are unclenching and you’re feeling calmer. If not, just continue the process till you do.
The more you practice this, the better you’ll get at it and the faster you’ll bounce back from stressful situations.
Remember, if you’ve been “practicing” stress, anxiety and reactivity for the past 20+ years, you won’t unlearn the behaviour in 5 mins. But with practice you can retrain your brain to make more skilful responses to challenges.