4 Facts about Stress and a Strategy
You thrive on Stress, right? Wrong. Turns out human beings are designed for short, sharp bursts of it, not the daily drip, drip drip of the modern day variety. So here’s what you need to know about stress, plus a quick guide to putting in place your own strategy for lowering your stress levels
1. Our brain is like Velcro for Negative Experiences
We are hardwired to notice threats and negative situations immediately and strongly. This “negativity bias” is and always has been very good at keeping us safe (spotting the tiger in the forest before it eats us) but not great at fostering happiness, calm and contentment. As Neuropsychologist and Meditation teacher Rick Hanson memorably puts it “Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones”. Having a Mindfulness meditation practice teaches us how to notice, savour and soak up the positive – with a beneficial nervous system shift when we do
2. We Are the Descendants of Nervous Monkeys
The negativity bias along with our “fight or flight” response kept our ancestors safe from all those sabre tooth tigers luring behind the trees. Or as one theory has it, we are all the descendants of nervous monkeys. Because the not-noticing, chilled-out ones got eaten. The problem is that in the 21st Century our “fight or flight” mechanism – the sympathetic nervous system which is triggered when we feel under threat– is being activated several times a day by emails, meetings, traffic jams, news stories, company restructures, broken down trains, tube travel, the school run, Heathrow airport, etc. etc. We are not designed to spend a large proportion of our life with the sympathetic nervous system in activation mode.
3. When Good Stress Turns Bad
Stress in short sharp bursts protects us from harm and helps us perform. Long term stress makes us jittery, unfocussed and prone to irritability, anxiety, anger and posting sarcastic blog comments. And it can make us very ill, because long term stress is toxic to us. In order to come back in to balance we need to activate our parasympathetic nervous system – the so-called “rest and digest” mode, more frequently.
4. Shit Happens
No-one can completely avoid or “control” stressful experiences. Or to put it another way “Shit Happens.” Having more choice around how we respond (rather than hair-trigger react) to life’s challenges makes a huge difference. Mindfulness practice is about working with the challenges, discomforts and even pain of life from a new perspective and bringing an attitude of patience, kindness and curiosity to ourselves and our own experience. Leaning towards, not running away from or trying to push away what we perceive as negative.
5. Need some Strategies for Dealing with Stress?
Developing your own Mindfulness practice is one recommendation naturally, but here are some other things you can start doing NOW:
- Make a list of all the things you do to help reduce your levels of stress.
- Mark all of them either :
- “H” for Helpful (e.g. listening to music, going for a walk, exercise, yoga, meditation, gardening, painting, playing music, doing something creative, something which gives you a sense of mastery, being in nature etc etc ) or
- “U” for unhelpful (e.g. excessive drinking, over eating, working longer hours, over thinking, negative self-talk, worrying, binge-watching mindless TV, aimlessly scrolling through your Twitter feed, compulsively checking emails or social media, shopping for stuff you don’t need, etc etc )
- Work out how you can incorporate something from the Helpful column in to your daily routine for at least 20 mins a day, every day. Don’t have time? Take it out of the “U” column!
- And then keep taking it……