Training Your Mind: Managing Stress
Why manage stress?
We all have experienced stress in different forms throughout our lives. Sometimes as a passing thought and sometimes as an all-consuming and debilitating war raging inside our mind day in and day out. This war which exists completely inside our mind takes away our ability to think rationally. When stressed, all of our decisions are based on disproportionately inflated stressors or stressful events; completely emotional rather than rational. We end up making some of the worst decisions in life when we are stressed.
On top of this, chronic stress can have long term physiological and emotional impact on our body. Research has connected chronic stress to heart disease, diabetes, depression, anxiety and many other diseases.
I come from a family with a history of high blood pressure and heart disease that starts early in life, usually in their 30s. Well, I consider 30s to be early in life! Yes, I know I’m old (in my daughter’s words, “I am not just old, I am ancient!”). In my 30s, on top of the chronic heartburn, I also had unexplained itching in my feet that went on for a long time, as well as severe headaches that were caused by fluctuations in blood pressure.
Two scientifically proven approaches of regular exercise and diet change to include more vegetables, fruits, proteins helped get my symptoms of blood pressure fluctuations and headaches under control. But, my need as a “perfectionist” to find the root cause and resolve the actual issue wasn’t satisfied. Today, even though I realize how much stress I have put myself under with my perfectionist attitude over the years, I am still grateful that my misplaced pride pushed me to look deeper; to restart my regular Reflection Practice and eventually start regular mindful meditation practice.
Over the years through my journey, I have realized the importance of finding simple ways to manage stress that work well. Anything too complicated is difficult to sustain long term. To find simple effective solutions, we need to understand the root cause; accept our individuality and figure out what works best for ourselves long-term.
Our mind is the biggest contributor to our stress!
The biggest contributor to our stress, is our mind, not other people or events. Our mind interprets events or people in a certain way. Depending on the unconscious training our minds have received, that interpretation could be positive, neutral or negative. The same event can be interpreted quite differently by different people based on their own conscious or unconscious biases.
Let’s look at an example. A few years ago, I was in a work conference call with participants from different countries. Someone from an Asian country said to me “I will get this data to you in a while.” As soon as I heard that, I got really upset. My thoughts went from, they are lazy to they don’t respect my time to they don’t respect me. Years of reflection training helped me not to react in that moment but take a mental step back and think rationally. I knew the person was a dedicated member of the team; which meant his/her interpretation of that phrase was, “I will get this data to you in a little bit”. They weren’t lazy or didn’t disrespect me; they just didn’t realize what “in a while” in American culture means.
Once we start observing, we can see countless examples of such events and our mind’s stress inducing automatic responses to the events.
Understanding and accepting the reasons for stress without judgment can bring clarity to our mind. This clarity can help us determine our priorities and respond to change rather than reacting to it. Once we start responding to a stressor (any event or change that causes stress), it becomes just another event in life rather than something that causes anxiety. Sounds so promising! How do we go about getting there?
Recognizing stressors non-judgmentally
We all are different people with different personalities, different circumstances and different fears. This means that our stressors are different from others. In this journey of training our minds to manage stress and anxiety, the most important step is to recognize our stressors without judgement; without categorizing them as big or small, less important or more important, without comparing them with others.
Let’s accept the fact that we are all humans and all human beings have their own fears. Any change or event that invokes these fears can be a potential stressor. If we didn’t have any fear, we would all be the Saints, the Gurus, the Buddha! Let’s not expect ourselves to be perfect and never be stressed. Let’s also not compare our stress with someone else’s stress. Let us be kind to ourselves and not judge ourselves or our stressors.
Responding instead of Reacting to Stressors
Once we accept that we are human and it is normal to have stressors, it frees up our mind to start the work of observing our automatic reactions to the stressors. For instance, how our mind interprets the stressor at the time of the event, and how it keeps reliving different versions of it over and over. It’s sometimes fascinating and sometimes terrifying to see the power of our mind.
To help with this process, I recommend that you try to remember and write down the exact words that were spoken and the exact sequence of events. Be honest and write it down truthfully. While writing this down you will realize that sometimes you will remember exactly what happened and sometimes you won’t. If you don’t remember the exact words or events, it is okay. One of the points of this exercise is to recognize that, it is possible that what you remember may not be exactly what happened. So no matter what you remember or don’t remember, it’s all okay. It is an exercise to understand how our mind works.
Now take a step back and think about why those words or sequence of events are stressful for you. This is where your regular Reflection Practice will come in handy. With reflection practice you have already started down the path of actively pausing and reflecting on events. This exercise will help you understand the events that happened and discover why it is stressful for you. This clarity of mind will help you respond rather than react. As you continue to consciously practice this, it will become a new norm for your mind and will continue to increase your ability to respond in all situations. This will eventually reduce the number of events that actually become stressors for you.
Stop and Breathe!
Anytime this practice becomes overwhelming or you are too stressed, stop and breathe.
- Take a few deep breaths in and out.
- Close your eyes.
- Straighten your spine and focus just on your breath, inhale and exhale.
- Start paying attention to any part of your body that is tense and try to actively relax your muscles in that part.
- Relax your shoulders, your legs, your jaw muscles.
Just a few minutes of mindful breathing can help you refocus. Here are some great mindful breathing exercises you can try.
The process of recognizing the reasons for your stressors and your fears is a journey. While you are on this journey, you can also get some relief by doing small things that matter to you. Like, taking 10 minutes from your busy schedule to walk outside or cleaning out one shelf from your closet or listening to music or calling a friend you have been meaning to call. These small acts of loving kindness to yourself along with the daily reflection practice will help you manage your stress and will help you on your journey of training your mind!