The Stress Response
Let's hop onto a time machine for a minute and travel back to the time of our ancestors - a time without smartphones or Starbucks. We were just surviving in the wild, foraging for food every day.
One day as you are looking for food in the jungle, you come face to face with a tiger. What happens within your mind and body at that moment? Perhaps your heart starts to race, your blood rushes to your arms and legs, and you feel your muscles tense up. Basically, your mind has perceived the tiger to be a stress - a (very dangerous) threat to your survival, and your body's sympathetic nervous system has been activated, triggering a fight, flight or freeze response in the body - to either fight off the tiger, run away, or become immobilized when we think fighting or fleeing is not possible.
Now let's time travel back to the present. In the modern world, it is highly unlikely that we will cross paths with a tiger. But we do get that email from the boss, that business presentation we need to give to the client, that child who refuses to cooperate, or the spouse who won't communicate. These are our modern tigers that the mind still perceives as threats to our survival, and the mind and body have been evolutionarily conditioned to activate the same stress responses of fight, flight, and freeze.
Think about some of the reactions you have had in response to a stressful situation: perhaps you shouted back or slammed the door in a fit of anger, or bulldozed your way through; maybe your first instinct was to hide, run away from the situation, or call it quits; or perhaps you chose to withdraw and remain silent, or you stood on the spot feeling helpless and dazed, not knowing what to do.
Because our mind is very efficient in warning us of stressors that could potentially threaten our survival, the stress response gets triggered so fast and out of our conscious awareness, and usually before we know it, we have already reacted in a way that isn't usually the best response for the situation. You may have experienced the unpleasantness of reacting to the stress, such as being overcome with emotions or overwhelmed by the negative thoughts in your head; or you might have regretted your actions and on hindsight felt you shouldn't have behaved in that way. You might also feel out of control.
What many of us don't realize is that our stress response can trigger even more stress in the mind and body, thus developing a habitual pattern in the brain over time. We might find ourselves on autopilot reacting to similar stressful situations in the same way, over and over again! This is when stress becomes chronic and can cause serious problems to the mind and body, such as high blood pressure, insomnia, immune and digestive disorders, maladaptive coping behaviours like eating disorders or addictions, as well as anxiety and depression.
So, how does mindfulness come into the picture?
In mindfulness training, we are learning to be non-judgmentally aware of our present and inner experience, and in this kind of mindfulness practice, non-judgmental awareness is key to stress management and reduction.
With mindful awareness, we are able to take a pause and stay with the stress, without automatically reacting to it or pushing it away. This pause that we train the mind to take allows us to break the automatic pattern of negative reactions and behaviours, and from here we can recognise that we do have the choice to make a better response that isn't as detrimental to our health and well-being.
For example, when a stressful situation arrives, the mindful brain is aware that our muscles are tensed. Instead of automatically reacting to the stress (e.g. arguing back in anger), we have the ability to take a pause, rest with the tension in the body, and come back to our breathing. We then take some time to offer a better response (e.g. explaining or reasoning with calmness, or offer a listening ear), thus effectively changing our relationship with stress.
Interested in training the mind and changing your relationship with stress? Read more about our 8-Week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program, on which many positive research outcomes are based.
) Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness; by Jon Kabat-Zinn (2013)