Mind Your Stress

Mind Your Stress

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Say Goodbye to Stress

 

Mind Your Stress

 

Introduction

Since you’re reading a book about how to reduce stress, I assume you’ve decided it’s time to get serious about managing your own stress level. To help you in this worthwhile pursuit, all of the other chapters in this book include numerous proactive steps you can take to help relieve tension and anxiety. However, in this chapter, I advocate doing nothing.

Yes, that’s right. Do Nothing. Sit there, close your eyes and let your mind go blank. Be like Eve Legato and mesmerize yourself with flowing water. Get off the daily merry-go-round for just a few minutes. Proof is mounting that clearing away mental clutter and letting go of your emotions can have a profoundly positive effect on your wellbeing. We are just beginning to understand how the mind and body influence each other and how shaping that relationship with activities like meditation, spirituality and positive thinking can help manage stress. The more science discovers, the more we realize what a valuable complement to your other stress reduction efforts these practices can be.

 

Ohm Ohm Good

When you think of meditation, it may conjure up images of monks sitting cross-legged on a mountaintop, chanting their way to spiritual enlightenment. The average person doesn’t need to practice this style of meditation. The literal meaning of the word meditation is awareness. So whatever you do to achieve awareness can be considered meditation. It can indeed be sitting cross-legged on a mountaintop but it can also take the form of a contemplative yoga class, a relaxation DVD or simply finding a moment to concentrate on your breath.

Meditation can be anything you do for the purpose of slowing down the constant chatter in your head. One common technique involves concentrating on a single point of focus to direct your thoughts away from negative thinking. If the mind wanders, you gently lead it back to its focus. You might, for instance, repeat a single word that has some special meaning to you or chant a soothing sound such as “ohm.” Some people prefer to have an object, color or the rhythm of their own breath as a focal point.

In certain meditation practices, the goal is to sweep bad thoughts from the mind to create an empty space that can be filled with peace and serenity or with positive and productive thoughts. In other meditation practices, the emphasis is on mindfulness. This is the commitment to stay in the moment without passing judgment. With a mindful practice, you don’t attempt to send negative thoughts away; instead, you quietly watch them flow through your mind like a bubbling stream. The mindful experience is sometimes described as “being, not doing,” because it is about observation, not reaction. Similar to the concept of radical acceptance which I discussed in Chapter 6, the purpose is to witness the here and now and accept it for what it is.

Whatever the emphasis, studies find meditation can have remarkable benefits. It appears to boost the immune system, enhance sleep quality, increase self-awareness and self-control, reduce anxiety and depressive symptoms — I could fill an entire book listing all its health advantages. And you benefit from the first moment you close your eyes and breathe deeply. An immediate response is a reduction of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, as well as the release of happiness hormones like serotonin which causes your heart rate to slow, blood pressure to drop and tension to melt away. Imaging studies show structural changes to the areas of the brain associated with fear, emotion, self-control and focus after as little as 11 hours of meditation training. When you meditate consistently over a long period of time, the research also suggests you can make significant improvements in how you perceive and manage stress that is reflected in both structural brain changes and in your behavior.

Since most of us can’t get away for a three-month retreat, the really good news is that even a few minutes of meditation a day can make a difference. I’ve had people tell me they’ve tried meditation but gave it up because they couldn’t stop their thoughts from racing even for a few breaths. If you feel that way, keep trying. Meditation has been shown to help with stress whether you are “good at it” or not. If you revisit the practice consistently, you will get better at it over time.

If you aren’t a meditator, you may want to try for short periods of time — five or ten minutes to start. Of course like anything else, the more you do it, the more you get out of it. Regular meditators tell me that every little bit helps. You can learn some techniques by attending a formal meditation or yoga class but if you’d prefer to “Ohm alone” there are dozens of other resources for learning the basics. For instance, numerous websites offer step-by-step guides and there are many high quality (and free!) how-to podcasts and YouTube videos.

 

Adding Spirituality

Deep religious beliefs have been long associated with lower rates of heart disease, stroke, metabolic disorders, autoimmune disease and mental health issues. For example, a University of Toronto study recently found that believing in a higher power can help block anxiety when under stress. This connection between spirituality and health comes as no surprise to those who have strong faith.

Why does belief in an almighty deity lead to health benefits? It’s not entirely known. Skeptics point to flaws in the studies and surveys — for instance, the fact that religious people may simply lead less risky lifestyles than non-believers, or that very sick people are unable to attend religious services. Other critics chalk up the benefit to a placebo effect: If you trust that faith and prayer can heal you, then they will help you heal despite conferring no medical benefit. All of these criticisms are countered by a slew of recent work that accounts for these factors yet still finds religion has a protective effect in currently healthy people. And that’s good news.

Whatever it can or can’t do for other aspects of your health, it seems abundantly true that religious faith creates a more stress resistant physiological profile. Two factors that help people see their lives as less stressful are: 1) faith, which seems to promote an increased sense of purpose, and 2) belief in giving control to a higher power who in turn watches over you. Plus, the positive emotions associated with such belief shift thinking to be more positive overall. When your inner voice is more optimistic you’re better prepared to look on the bright side and steer clear of emotional distress.

 

Attitude Is Everything

So, whether you arrive there by religion, therapy or by keeping a gratitude journal like Jane McBride Choate, positive thinking is one of the most powerful weapons you have in the fight against stress. As a psychologist, this is a topic that is very near and dear to my heart. I’ve seen how very harmful negative, anxious and depressive thinking can be. It keeps the flight-or-fight mechanisms of the body turned on far too often and for far too long and this has a way of wearing down your mental and physical defenses.

Optimism defeats stress. In the first place, believing everything will turn out fine at least opens you up to the possibility everything will work out for the better, something negative thinking doesn’t even allow you to consider. According to research, optimism seems to help the body repair the stress related damage at the cellular level, seems to reduce inflammation and seems to lower levels of stress hormones. It might also dampen nervous system activity. So, instead of enduring a constant flight-or-fight feeling, you get a chance to experience the opposite “rest-and-digest” state of mind.

Not everyone is a born optimist of course. But as I’ve mentioned throughout these pages, there are numerous ways you can shift the tone of your thinking. (Meditation, for example!) Even the darkest thinkers are capable of calling up positive thoughts once in a while and if it helps motivate you, studies show the worst pessimists have the most to gain by trying to change their outlook on life. The more negative you are to begin with, the better positive thinking will work on reducing your stress levels.

A good place to start is with yourself. High “self enhancers” — those who perceive themselves more kindly than others do — have more advantageous cardiovascular responses to stress, bounce back faster from bad luck, and have lower baseline levels of cortisol than people who don’t give themselves a break. Something as simple as jotting down a few self-affirmative statements can make an immediate difference. Changing your thinking is not only an excellent way to manage stress, research has confirmed again and again the power of healthy thinking. For now, you can focus on your thinking and see if you can reduce stress by adopting a more positive worldview.

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