Mindfulness, Teflon & Velcro
Understanding more about our own Stress Response is a key part of the 8 Week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Course.
What causes stress? Our brains do. Our Stress Response is activated by the amygdala which sits in the oldest part of our brains and has evolved to do an amazing job of keeping us safe by detecting threats to our safety and triggering a whole host of neurological and physical reactions which instantly cause us to either Fight, Flee, or Freeze (play dead so the predator leaves you alone) in the face of present danger.
This system is designed to be activated for short, sharp bursts and then de-activate again so that we can go back to “Rest and Digest” mode – calm, peaceful, and feeling safe. The problem for us seems to be that in 21st century life our amygdala is interpreting all kinds of things as threats on a fairly constant basis – emails, late trains, difficult conversations at work, company restructures, social media, the news, the school run etc. and over time it becomes over stimulated and too easily activated and we move in to a state of constant or chronic stress (easily angered because we are in “Fight mode”; avoiding problems or issues with unhelpful and sometimes toxic habits because we want to escape or “Flee”, or just shutting down our emotions and energy levels in “Freeze”). And in addition the Stress Response also floods our bodies with hormones and chemicals which are not healthy to have present for long periods of time.
To summarise; in short sharp bursts stress protects us from harm and can help us perform. Long term stress makes us jittery, unfocussed and prone to irritability, anxiety, and anger. 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.
None of this is our fault. 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”.
In the 8 week Mindfulness Based Reduction Course we learn how to use meditation practices to help lower our stress levels and restore balance. We practice becoming aware in the present moment of what physical sensations, emotional sensations and thoughts are around for us at the moment we experience stress. With kindness towards ourselves and a sense of acceptance. And we start to move away from the perception that Stress is “out there” – something which happens to us – and is actually about our own responses to the inevitable challenges of life.
With Mindfulness we may find we can make that Velcro just a little less sticky…..