The following questions are answered by members of the Mindfulness Initiative Team. Please keep in mind that mindfulness techniques are meant to be used in conjunction with, not as a substitution for, services offered by trained health professionals.
I'm always stressed out. How can I make the stress go away?
It might surprise you to learn that stress is good for us! A little stress, that is. Stress is something that we need and use in order to keep ourselves safe, alert and productive. Stress can be defined as the activation of our body and mind in response to meaningful stimulus in our environment. When something occurs that needs our attention, our stress response tells us to listen up and take care. For example, a healthy level of stressful activation will remind us to look both ways when we cross the street, or watch out for spelling errors when we're writing a paper.
Too much stress is a different story. Too much stress is what happens when (1) we are overly activated by the stimulus that surrounds us, and (2) when we have too few ways of responding effectively to whatever that stimulation might be. In these cases-too much stress with no resolution or release--our stress levels tend to build and intensify. This can lead to chronic stress, which is not helpful to us at all.
So, instead of looking at stress as something to get rid of, we can look at stress as something to manage. We need a little stress to stay healthy, but we don't want so much that we get sick. We want to balance the stress we experience daily with daily ways of relieving that stress. Fortunately, there are lots of ways to do this. Some ways of managing stress are solution-focused, meaning getting to the heart of the stress inducing problem and fixing it. But when a problem can't be readily fixed, and there are many problems like that, we can reduce the impact of chronic stress with good self care.
Simply put, self care is learning to manage the basic fundamentals of life. If you are able to maintain a healthy balanced diet, exercise regularly, and get sufficient sleep, you will feel more able to handle the stressors of daily living. Self care also includes treating yourself well emotionally-this can mean many things, but a few examples might be taking the time to have fun, engaging in affirmative self-talk, monitoring negative self-talk, and using mindful relaxation techniques. Additionally, good self care may involve engaging the support of other people, or perhaps utilizing a range of professional counseling services. At Counseling and Wellness Services, we have many services in addition to individual and group therapy that qualify as good self care. With our Group Counseling and Toolkits, we teach students basics techniques for relaxing the body and the mind. Drop by and check it out!
Mindfulness is a term that refers to many things, and a term that can be defined in many ways. Essentially, mindfulness means drawing one's attention to the present moment or experience, whatever that may be. By being aware and attuned to the present moment, with your thoughts, your sensations and your emotions, you can better tune out all the extra stimulation in your life that may be increasing your stress levels.
We all know that present-day life can be stressful. Does it make much sense to add stress by worrying about past problems and future concerns as well? Otherwise stated, it doesn't do anyone much good to worry about a conversation that took place last week when taking a walk today. Simply focusing on the experience of walking, how it feels and what it's like, can carve out an oasis of calm and control in an otherwise busy existence.
Mindfulness is a way of being in charge of all the action that goes on in your head. Music sounds better when there is a special arrangement of instruments and voices-it sounds like noise when there are hundreds of voices and instruments competing to be heard. Being mindful is like being the conductor of your very own symphony in your psyche-you get to tune out some instruments, while allowing others the chance to harmonize.
Mindfulness can also be used increase attunement to one's body, giving us a chance to ease tension there before it gets out of hand. To illustrate this, squeeze your fist together for 15 seconds. No, really...go ahead and do it.
What happened to your breathing while you were squeezing your fist closed? Did you notice that your breath stopped, or at least constricted? When we hold tension in our body, whether it's our shoulders, our legs or our hands, our breath tends to constrict. Conversely, when we hold tension in our body, our breath follows suit. By mindfully bringing your awareness to the places you're feeling tense, and taking a few deep breaths while releasing that tension, we can reduce the wear and tear of chronic stress upon our bodies, and maintain a greater sense of calm throughout the day.
Breathe, breathe, breathe... slowly and deeply. Inhale and exhale.
Breathing slowly and regularly is the cue our mind gives our body that all is okay, that we can relax and be calm. Breathing and anxiety work together in a sort-of feedback loop: When we are cued that something is threatening in our world, whether it's a person, a task, or an experience, we tend to breathe more quickly to gear up to deal with that stressor head-on, or instead, to run away as fast as possible. This reaction is called the fight-or-flight response. Our rapid breathing further cues our heart rate and blood pressure to rise, and our thoughts can become panicked and anxious. When we take a few deep breaths, in and out, even in the face of a stressful event, we slow down our bodies' stress response. By slowing down our fight-or-flight reaction, we can think and respond more clearly, and reduce the build up of stress throughout the day.
Why practice yoga?
After seeing images of people standing on their heads or twisting themselves into human pretzels, you may have decided that your inability to touch your toes means that yoga is not for you. You have probably also heard about yoga's rising popularity as both an excellent form of exercise and stress management, leaving you feeling a tad bit left out. But, it's never too late to catch up!
There are a multitude of psychological and physical benefits to the regular practice of yoga. Yoga is thought of as the union between mind and body through the coordination of breath and movement. By using one's focused attention to regulate the breath in combination with gentle movements, the body is able to release tension, allowing one to feel more relaxed and energized. Studies demonstrate that because yoga encourages relaxation, breathing and a focus on present moment, there is a shifting from the activation of the sympathetic nervous system (flight or fight response) to the parasympathetic nervous system (relaxation response). This shift can lead to a sense of calm in addition to decreased heart rate, blood pressure and increased blood flow. Yoga is also an excellent way to cultivate self-acceptance. As you move through the poses, you may notice that one day you feel happy and relaxed while the next you feel more stressed out or tense. You may also find that your body will behave differently from one practice session to the next, feeling tight one day while feeling more flexible at another time. The practice is an opportunity to notice where we are (physically and emotionally) in this moment without judgment or making any effort to change what's happening but rather being present with whatever comes into our field of awareness.
There are a wide range of yoga practices all of which include 3 components:
- Asana (postures or movements)
- Pranayama (breath work)
- Meditation (focused attention)
Asana focuses on positioning the body in postures that encourage stretching of the muscles where energy can become blocked. In combination with pranayama, focused deep breathing, the result is a toned body with optimal energy flow, creating a sense of health and well-being. Additionally performing asana also acts as a form of meditation. Engaging in various poses requires concentration, leading one to put thoughts or worries about the past or future aside, giving the brain a well-deserved rest.
At times the body can exhibit emotional distress such as anxiety and depression. We do yoga as an attempt to utilize the body to assist in clearing the mind. Yoga is an opportunity to practice being present without judgment and striving, aspects that are often lost when we find ourselves anxious and depressed.