You Can Count On Stress, and Mindfulness

Stress is inevitable and sometimes unrelenting. It ranges from mild to toxic, and from helpful to harmful. We’ve all experienced the full spectrum of stress, from being motivated to immobilized, and we know that much of how it effects us is determined by how we respond to it.

This is REALLY good news, because it means we have agency. We can’t stop stress, but we can choose how it will impact us. Just like we can learn to surf a wave or to simply get out of the way, we can learn to manage and reduce stress.

Mindfulness has been studied and taught as a method for stress reduction for over thirty years, and the results are promising. Just as we can count on stress recurring in our lives, we can learn to count on mindfulness as a way to respond to stressful situations and to cope with the feelings and effects of stress.

The first step is to notice that you’re stressed. This may sound like an oversimplification, but we all have moments when stress sneaks up on us. Occasionally, stress gets the better of me and I loose my cool. And it’s usually my kids who put me over the edge.

Afterwards, I feel terrible. I should know better, I think. Fact is, what I know isn’t of consequence in those moments. What makes the difference is how I feel. If I haven’t attended to myself and stress has accumulated, like a glass that’s been filled to the rim, then all it takes is one small thing–one more drop–to cause an overflow.

Sometimes, I don’t realize how full the glass is until I’m in a moment of overflow.

Before deepening my mindfulness practice, these moments were more common. Over the last several years as I’ve become more mindful, they’ve become less and less frequent. I’m grateful for the skillful means to manage stress as it’s helping me set a better example for my children, though I still have much to learn.

One practice that I return to for stress reduction, is heartbreathing.

Once you have taken the first step and identified that you’re feeling stress, the next step is to attend to it. Name it. This is stress. I feel stressed. Then, make a choice to manage it. I’m going to take a few moments to breath and reduce this feeling of stress.

Try this: Heartbreathing

Heartbreathing is a technique developed and taught by the HeartMath Institute. 

  1. Find a comfortable place to sit or stand. Silence is preferable, but not necessary.
  2. Close your eyes, or find a gazing point.
  3. Take several normal breaths, noticing where the breath is in your body. Try to breathe all way into your belly, and then to push the breath all the way out on the exhale.
  4. Now, notice the area around the heart. The front, the back, and each side.
  5. Continue normal breathing. Just noticing.
  6. On an in-breath, imagine that you can breath directly through the chest wall and into the heart. Practice a few of these breaths, imagining that you can breathe directly in and out of the heart. This is called heartbreathing.
  7. Next, notice the sensations around the heart. How does the area around your heart feel?
  8. Return to normal breathing.

When you’re done, notice how you feel. You’re likely to feel at least a little bit more relaxed but, if not, that’s okay. I once suggested some breathing exercises to a family member new to mindfulness and, after trying them, she reported with frustration that she, “just can’t breathe!”I assured her that she could learn to breathe in this new way with practice.

In fact, the only way any of us benefit from mindfulness is through practice, which is also the only way anyone learns to surf a wave, or to cope better with the inevitable stressors of life. The reward for our commitment to practice are moments of calm and ease. I wish you many of both.


Negativity Bias

Our brains are wired to protect us from harm. Early humans needed to detect and avoid threats such at predatory animals in order to survive and the primitive part of our brain, often referred to as the lizard brain, helped us do just that. This early survival skill  is what we now call the negativity bias, a tendency to see and react to our environment as though it is a threat.

We can thank the bias for our proliferation as a species. We can also attribute our high stress levels and general unhappiness as a species to the bias. Modern humans perceive everyday occurrences, such as misunderstandings and crowded places, as threats thereby kicking the bias into action.

When it’s activated we are in the reactive flight, fight, or freeze mode rather than in a state of presence and calm. I think we can all agree that more presence and calm in our lives will lead to better relationships and increased happiness and well-being.

Here’s a great resource for confronting and dealing with the negativity bias: