How great would it be if we could all reduce the amount of stress in our lives, especially after the last year! Very few of us would say no to less stress yet do we know what that means. Many of us understand how stress develops in our life and what we may need to change, others hope for some relief from headaches and shoulder pain. No matter how we each experience it stress effects every part of us, our mind and body. Stress is a state of hyper-arousal where we are on alert, our adrenaline is going, and we feel we need to be protected.
Effects of Stress
When our bodies experience heightened levels of awareness we release adrenaline this increases our heart rate, respiration and causes our muscles to tighten altering our blood flow. While this can help with completing certain tasks and providing protection from danger, it may not be beneficial in the present situation.
You may feel your mind racing or be unable to relax and feel anxious and unable to focus. Anger, irritability and unpredictable behaviour are all symptoms followed by insomnia, a reduction in pain tolerance, and hyper-vigilance.
Practising mindfulness can help transition your mind and body into a state of well-being leaving you feeling calm, rested and peaceful.
Can mindfulness help with stress management?
Regularly we find ourselves in situations that can trigger stressful reactions yet there are several ways we can see and respond to what is happening. Mindfulness gives us more options.
Paying Attention to the Present Keeps Us Safe
Paying attention to what is happening in the current moment it is the mindful practice that allows us to manage the fast paced, repetitive, and negative thinking often leading to stress. It allows us, to understand and manage our behaviour.
For instance, you may not receive an immediate reply to an important text you sent your loved one. So, you start to worry that something has happened and think of all the ways they may be in trouble or hurt.
Instead, it is possible to change your reaction by deciding to pay attention to what is going on in the moment. Instead of imagining the worst and becoming lost in your thoughts and concerns, you could decide to recognise your need for a reply and your growing concern. However, you don’t react to or build on those thoughts, but instead go back to what you were doing.
Paying attention to a situation as it occurs is not natural for most people. Usually, we tend to react to events, creating explanations and scenarios—often leading to stress. Paying attention enables us to develop more of a realistic picture of what is going on.
An openness to whatever may happen is another aspect of mindfulness. In the example, you could accept a lack of response to your text may be due to many reasons. You might become instead curious as to whether your loved one perceived the text and it’s meaning in the same way as you did.
Mindfulness has a positive impact on our mental wellbeing, paying attention with an open attitude leads to a decrease in repetitive thinking and avoidance strategies, both of which underlie anxiety. An open attitude allows for greater acceptance of the situation, improved ability to cope with challenging issues, and a decrease in reactive and repetitive negative thinking.
- New connections to experiences are created from Mindfulness.
Experts believe, the main mindful practices of intention, attention, and attitude lead to a fundamental change in our mental view called “reperceiving.”
Reperceiving makes it possible to disconnect from thoughts, emotions, and feelings as they come up, and just be present with them instead of allowing them to control us. We realise that the “concerns and negative thinking is unlike me” making it possible to see the reality in the situation.
As this becomes our new way of perceiving events, our belief in our ability to cope increases, and we don’t become stressed as easily.
Mindfulness Changes the Brain
Research evidence supports that practicing mindfulness changes the structure and function of parts of the brain associated with emotional control.
Benefits of Mindfulness for the Brain
The amygdala is the part of the brain associated with the threat response. This is smaller in meditators, while the prefrontal cortex, the section of the brain associated with thoughtful responses is larger. These changes indicate that mindfulness reduces reactive, fearful responses that increase stress.
Regulation of Emotions
The hippocampus is the part of the brain that is believed to be connected to the regulation of emotion. This area of the brain also shows changes after mindfulness practice.
Participants showed an increase in the density of grey matter in the hippocampus, after an MBSR course, which may also be an indication of improved emotional regulation and a perceived reduction in stress.
Neuroimaging research also shows a growth of connections in the brain areas involved in attention, self-awareness, emotional control and processing.
How to Practice Mindfulness in Stressful Events
STOP is an easy way to practice being mindful in stressful events. If you realise something has made you feel like reacting, follow the steps below:
Take a breath.
Observe: what are you thinking about? What are you feeling throughout your body? What are other possibilities to the situation?
Proceed, looking at all the possibilities.
It helps to be kind to yourself during this practice, accepting your thoughts and feelings as they arise. Use your curiosity to explore the situation in a new way with an openness to new possibilities.
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