Over the past year, the number one workshop topic requested has been, by far, Stress and Anxiety Reduction. We did one again yesterday and at the beginning, had participants respond on Mentimeter what their current stress level is on a scale of one to ten. The majority were at an 8, 9 or 10.
The 2nd Mentimeter question was, what’s your top stressor? The top ranked answers were health, work, finances and life.
This long-term sustained state of stress and anxiety is actually more dangerous to our health than COVID-19 over time. This virus will pass, but the stress-patterns we’re creating may not. Medical research varies, but it is estimated that 60 to 90% of illness and disease is stress-related. Stress interferes with our physical functioning and bodily processes. Stress is linked to high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and heart disease. Consider that about 655,000 Americans die from heart disease each year alone. That's 1 in every 4 deaths. While COVID-19 may surpass that number over its two-year run, heart disease will continue to take that whopping number of people every year, year after year.
Pretty much anything can cause stress and not all stress is negative. Getting married or going to college can create stress, but it’s hopefully positive stress – excitement over the new change. What marks the difference between negative and positive stress? Largely our perception of the situation and our response to it. And that’s where we’re massively struggling these days.
The human body doesn’t discriminate between a big stress or a small one. Regardless of significance, stress affects the body in predictable ways. A typical stress reaction, which most of us experience dozens of times each day under normal circumstances, begins with a cascade of 1,400 biochemical events in the body. If these reactions are left unchecked, we age prematurely, our cognitive function is impaired, our energy is drained, and we are robbed of our effectiveness and clarity.
Of course, we’re not living under “normal” circumstances. For many, instead of experiencing stress dozens of times a day, we’re remaining in a constant state of stress. While there are no studies out yet about how this is impacting us, I think it’s safe to say it’s not going to be good.
One interesting observation I’ve noticed in recent workshops is that some people start out thinking they aren’t stressed, but as we progress through several activities, discover that they are. How is this possible? It’s because we can be physiologically experiencing stress, yet mentally numb to it because we’ve become so accustomed to it. One participant said yesterday that she thought she felt pretty good, but then realized her body isn’t well, indicating that there is some kind of stress going on. Many of us have become so adapted to the daily pressures, irritations and annoyances of life that it starts to seem normal. Yet the small stresses accumulate quickly and we may not realize how much they’re impairing our mental and emotional clarity and our overall health until it shows up as a bad decision, an overreaction or an unwanted diagnosis of illness or disease. It’s comparable to the frog placed in warm water. As the temperature slowly increases, the frog keeps adapting. Until the water reaches the boiling point, and it’s too late.
Many people deal with stress by enduring it all day or week, and then waiting until later to recover by spending the evenings or weekends exercising, meditating, doing yoga, drinking alcohol, zoning out in front of the television, eating comfort foods or any number of relaxing activities. But when we ignore our own inner balance throughout the day, our bodies have already activated the stress response and it’s our health that suffers.
It’s much better to manage stress by dealing with it the moment we feel it come up. We can change the body’s response to stress by changing our thought processes. When we consider our circumstances, much of our stress is self-induced. It starts with worry. We begin to worry about something, like our health, work, finances or life, and trigger that stress cocktail cascade that sends our bodies into over-drive. What if instead we changed that pattern?
I recognize that we have big problems all around us, like the virus, job losses, climate change and more. I have family in Texas and they’ve been without power in freezing temperatures for days now. I feel terrible for my mom, who is trapped in a freezing apartment with burst pipes and no heat. But worrying about her isn’t going to help her or me. I’m certainly thinking of ways I might be able to help, but under the circumstances, can’t come up with a thing so far, so all I can do is check in, let her know I’ll do anything she can think of that will help, and pray for her safety.
Many, many people are facing various challenges right now. And many events are causing major stress, like the situation in Texas, being hospitalized with the virus or other diseases, being out of work or facing homelessness. I’m not in any way saying someone should not feel stressed if they are dealing with a stressful situation. The distinction here is a stressful event versus worrying about a stressful event.
Worrying only increases our stress, so a useful exercise to start calming this down is to write down your top three worries in life right now. They don’t have to be big, like worrying about catching the virus or not having power in sub-zero temperatures. Remember, the brain doesn’t distinguish between big or small stressors. Maybe you’re worried about when you’ll be able to get vaccinated. Maybe you’re worried about meeting a deadline. Worry is worry – the process in the mind and body is the same.
After you’ve written down your top three stressors, write down how worrying helps you solve the current problems. Does it make you more calm and focused? Does it help you make better decisions? Are you actually addressing the issues during your worry time?
Every moment of our lives, we are cultivating a state of mind, body and heart through our thoughts and actions. Through this cultivation, we become habituated and accustomed to these states. What kind of physical, emotional and mental state are you cultivating while you are engaged in worry? Do you want to cultivate more or less of this state in your life?
Try to find one good reason to hold onto these thoughts that are causing you to worry. Really think about this question. Try to find one good reason. For example, you might come up with something like, “If I did not worry, I would not care.” Then ask yourself, “while I am worrying, am I actually achieving my one good reason? In this case, that would translate to “While I am worrying, do I actually demonstrate care?” The answer is probably no.
The next question to ask yourself is, can you find any reasons to let go of these thoughts? Hopefully by this point, you can see that letting the worry go is of the most benefit to you. Take the Texas crisis right now. Worrying about whether the electricity will be on or off doesn’t make you any warmer. Taking action, like finding every blanket in the house, determining which room is the warmest and reaching out to let others know you’re having a problem could help. Worrying prevents us from thinking clearly because it increases stress, so deal with the actual stress without adding that second layer.
I had a workshop participant once that insisted that they had to worry because that’s what kept the issue in the forefront of their mind. In other words, they were afraid they would forget about it if they didn’t worry. I’d suggest that adding it to a calendar as a task would be much more effective and definitely healthier than continuously worrying about it. But it’s the worrying that causes these types of muddled decisions because we can’t think clearly when we’re stressed.
As for the workshop participant that had convinced herself that she wasn’t stressed by checking in mentally but then recognizing that her body was not doing well, this state of being is called incoherence. When our mind, body and heart are aligned, we are in coherence, meaning that we are cognitively sharp, emotionally calm and we feel and think with enhanced clarity. The brain, heart and nervous system are working in harmony and this facilitates our cognitive functioning. We are actually operating at peak performance mentally, emotionally and physically. When we are in a state of incoherence, the opposite occurs.
Worrying pulls us out of coherence. The mind makes up sometimes wildly stressful stories about what may or may not happen. Unfortunately, we forget that these are just thoughts, which may or may not mean anything. An excellent meditation for learning to observe our thoughts as just thoughts is the Sounds and Thoughts meditation. I came across this meditation in a book by Mark Williams and Danny Penman called Mindfulness, An Eight Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World.
This meditation helps us to discover that we can relate to unsettling thoughts in the same way that we relate to sounds. Our thoughts can be compared to a radio that’s been left on in the background. We can listen, or observe, but we need not elaborate on what we receive or act on what we feel.
We don’t usually feel the need to think or behave in a way that a voice on a radio tells us to, so why should we blindly assume that our thoughts portray a precisely accurate picture of the world?
Our thoughts are thoughts. They are our servants. No matter how loud they shout, they are not our master, giving orders that have to be obeyed. This realization gives us immense freedom. It provides the space to make more skillful decisions – decisions that can be made with our mind when it’s in full awareness. If you’d like to try this 5 minute meditation, visit our YouTube channel for a guided version.
I talked last week about the importance of paying attention to our mental health because of the length of time we’re enduring constant anxiety and uncertainty. I firmly believe that without our mental health, we can’t sustain physical health. The two are intertwined and we can use either to enhance the other. Worrying has an enormous impact on our mental health which results in decreased physical health. Physical health has a direct impact on our mental health. So start with either one. We need to aim for coherence where mind, body and heart are aligned and working in harmony. Don’t wait until the evening or the weekend to try to de-stress. Do it throughout the day by being aware of what’s happening in your mind and in your body. It could take as little as 5 minutes to pause and address whatever’s coming up for you. The important factor here is to act as soon as you feel stress rising. Stop and take several deep breaths, practice a short meditation, do the cognitive exercise we covered earlier and write it all down, or simply step outside and notice the beauty around you. Do this each time stress starts to take over, right in the moment. This will decrease your overall stress level and support you in making better decisions about your life and your health.
We don’t need to be victims of our own emotions and thoughts. We can control how we respond to stress and we can become more sensitive to stressful situations and how they are affecting us before we suffer physical, mental or emotional damage.
As Bobby McFerrin’s song reminds us, Don’t Worry, Be Happy.
Until next time. Have a wonderful week and remember to be mindful.
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