When life serves up a generous helping of the unexpected, it’s not uncommon to have a stress response. A habit of looking for something to do or fix, or someone to blame, or to possibly grow numb or collapse in the face of challenge. These stress responses do not necessarily lead to positive lasting solutions – for individuals, family units, communities or corporations. It can help to understand how our nervous systems are wired to respond to stressors and how we can harness our neural circuitry to navigate change with a measure of grace and good humor.
Stress Response is Hard Wired into Our Nervous System
We are living in perhaps the most overwhelming distracted place and time in the history of humanity. On a daily basis we face numerous stressors – work demands, family responsibilities, health challenges, and global anxieties. Our bodies are wired for stress response. There is strong evolutionary value to this. Back in the days when our survival depended on fleeing or fighting the saber tooth tiger, our stress response served us well and allowed us to live to see another day. Our stressors have changed a lot since then, but our biology has not. Thus we can experience a similar all-hands-on-deck biological mobilization for action in reaction to the difficult e-mail we receive from the boss. And the mind doesn’t actually know the difference between the real and the imagined, so even anticipating or thinking about the possibility of getting a difficult e-mail can elicit a stress response. And in our modern times when most of our stressors don’t require a physical response, we don’t have the same physiological discharge that comes from running to escape a predator. Hence, our body often bears the burden of these stressors – with disrupted sleep or digestion, high blood pressure, distractibility, chronic tension and pain – sending out warning signals that we are out of balance.
We Spend Too Much Time in a Stress Response State
The word “stress” is commonly used in our everyday conversation to describe things in the external world that impact us. More accurately, a “stressor is anything in the outside world that knocks you out of homeostatic balance, and the stress response is what your body does to re-establish homeostasis” (Sapolsky, 2004). Most of us spend a lot more time living in a state of stress (“fight or flight”) rather than in balance (“rest and digest”). Chronically living in this activated state hinders physical and emotional health, as well as cognitive function, creativity and productivity.
Turning Off the Stress Response
So what can we do about this? Most of us probably know the feeling of walking around with a “mind full” of worries. We end up living life in our minds rather than seeing what is actually in front of us. The reality is, we are not ever going to be able to eliminate all potential stressors from our life “out there.” But we can begin to transform our relationship with stressors within our own mind and heart.
One of the tools that supports the capacity to return to homeostasis, to balance, is mindfulness. Mindfulness is paying attention on purpose to the present moment without judgment. Ron Siegel described mindfulness as being similar to the act of taking a photograph – we focus the lens (paying attention on purpose) and direct it at something interesting (the present moment) – all the while holding the camera gently (without judgment).
Mindfulness focuses your attention and energy where you can be most empowered, in the present moment, and within your own mind. While much of the time you can’t change the external world, you can change how you interact with stressors and how much they impact you. You can begin to be with one moment at a time. You can learn to not hang your happiness on things going your way. And that can change everything. Thus it is possible to be “mindful” – to be present with what is – whether sunny or rainy, with a blister on your foot, or after a fight with your teenager as you are angrily out walking the dog. Individuals and organizations don’t have to wait for the perfect conditions to be present, connected or productive. Rather you can begin to shift how you see and meet the conditions of any situation.
Mindfulness allows us to see clearly what is unfolding right now. And when we tune into what is really happening, we increase the possibility of skillfully responding to what needs to happen right now. Join us next month as we build on this knowledge of the nervous system with an exploration of how to capitalize on neural plasticity to cultivate the good.
Jean Leonard, Ph.D, RYT is a licensed psychologist and registered yoga teacher with 19 years clinical experience. Dr. Leonard is the Coordinator of Health and Wellness Services in the Pursuits Coaching and Wellness Network. She is inspired by the resiliency of the human spirit and is honored to accompany clients on their healing journeys through individual therapy, yoga, and mindfulness coaching and classes. Areas of expertise include Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR), brainspotting, work-life balance, burnout recovery, transitions, grief and loss, women’s issues, trauma, health challenges, yoga for cancer survivors.