Presence and Mindfulness: an antidote to stress

In our previous posts, we looked at the impact stress has on us and some strategies for deactivating stress triggers. This week we will focus on presence and mindfulness as additional tools to overcome the impact of stress on our bodies and in our lives. 

What is ‘Presence and Mindfulness’?

Presence is simply making a conscious effort to be present in the current moment. When we are present in the moment, we set aside planning (thinking about the future) and analysis (evaluating the past) and focus on the here and now. We bring our awareness to what is happening right now.

Mindfulness is the awareness. The conscious noticing of feelings and physical sensations. It is also the detached observation of our reaction to those feelings and sensations.

“Mindfulness is the art of bringing your awareness into the present moment and an effective tool for changing your level of stress in the right now,” says Emily Greenberg. “Counting your breaths, visualizing, imagining a waterfall, or listening to guided audio are all versions of mindfulness.” (Stress Less Accomplish More, pg4)

The Mayo Clinic calls mindfulness a type of meditation in which you focus on being intensely aware of what you’re sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment. “Practicing mindfulness involves breathing methods, guided imagery, and other practices to relax the body and mind and 

help reduce stress.”

They go on to say, “Spending too much time planning, problem-solving, daydreaming, or thinking negative or random thoughts can be draining. It can also make you more likely to experience stress, anxiety, and symptoms of depression. Practicing mindfulness exercises can help you direct your attention away from this kind of thinking. 

Dr. Melanie Greenberg, in The Stress-Proof Brain (p57), calls mindfulness a ‘brain skill’ that “can have far-reaching beneficial effects, not only transforming brain neurons but improving immunity, health, life, and relationship satisfaction.

Calm your emotions

Taking the time to be present and mindful has direct benefits on emotional health. When we make the effort to mentally push ‘pause’, we give our bodies time to process the effects of an emotion. Dr. Joan Rosenberg, in 90 Seconds to a Life You Love, says it takes about 90 seconds for the physical effects of an emotional reaction to move through our bodies. Consciously observing those effects and waiting for them to pass gives our mind the opportunity to think about what we are feeling. This conscious awareness often has a calming effect and allows us to respond from a balanced, thoughtful perspective.

Make wiser choices

When feeling stress, “riding the wave” of the emotions we are feeling with mindful awareness helps us make wiser choices about how we react. In a recent conversation, a friend said something that initially irritated me, triggering a feeling of anger and defensiveness. But instead of preparing a rebuttal, I took the time to notice how the comment made me feel. I noticed tension in my stomach and how shallow my breath had become. I noticed I was angry about what had been said. All the while they continued to talk and in the intervening seconds I noticed that the original comment was not headed in the direction I thought. In the moments that passed between noticing my irritation and waiting for that reaction to pass, the tension in my body also eased. I was able to respond with a simple and calm acknowledgment, rather than the defensive rebuttal that initially sprang into my brain.

Feel more in control

Presence and mindfulness also give you the tools to feel more in control of your responses. While we cannot control emotions, when we are practicing presence and being mindful we can more deliberately choose how we react to the emotions that we feel. We can’t stop our amygdala from responding to the things that our senses notice. Our senses constantly scan our environment, providing important information that keeps us safe and away from danger. The hormones released by the amygdala will trigger sensations that provide info

rmation to the conscious part of our brain. Practicing mindfulness allows us to engage this conscious part of the brain when choosing our reactions to what we are sensing and feeling.

Achieve personal and psychological growth

Dr. Leah Lagos subtitled her book Heart Breath Mind: Train your Heart to Conquer Stress and Achieve Success. T

he breath practices she teaches have an effect on heart rate variability. She says, “a body in rest-and-digest mode, with high heart rate variability, produces a more ordered and stable heart pattern, sending input to the brain that facilitates cognitive functioning and reinforces positive feelings as well as emotional regulation.” 

Other advocates of mindfulness and mediation also extol the virtues of meditation for not only reducing anxiety but improving our ability to reach our personal and professional goals.

Says Dr. Richard Davidson, “by sitting and mindfully breathing for ten minutes a day, in as little as eight weeks you strengthen the part of the prefrontal cortex involved in generating positive feelings and diminish the part that generates negative ones.”

As this new year begins and resolutions are made, resolve to incorporate a daily practice of presence and mindfulness as an antidote to the impact of stress on mind and body.

Deactivating Stress Triggers

This is Part Two of our three-part series on stress and mindfulness. 

In our last post, we looked at the impact stress has on our minds and bodies. We talked about the overabundance of chemicals produced by our body in response to stress. We identified the impact of those excess chemicals on our physical, mental, and emotional health. 

A woman sitting on the ground is silhouetted by the setting sun. In this post, we will look at ways to help our minds and bodies manage by deactivating those stress triggers and minimizing those impacts. 

Says Dr. Leah Lagos, in her book Heart Breath Mind. “In order to learn how to let go of stress, it’s advantageous to have a basic understanding of how it works in the body,” 

“When we detect a change in the environment that commands our attention, our body releases a precisely choreographed cascade of hormones designed to prepare us for a reaction. Our breathing and heart rate quicken, we may feel our muscles tense in preparation to fight or flee. Our body is shifting from a sympathetic-dominant state in order to prepare us for survival.”

The human stress response was well-developed eons ago when early man navigated in a wilderness of wild beasts. The problem today isn’t that our bodies react, but that usually what we are reacting to isn’t a saber tooth tiger about to pounce. 

Handling this disconnect, between the most primitive part of our brain, the amygdala, and the modern-day events that stimulate the amygdala’s ‘fight or flight’ response, requires some intervention.

Melanie Greenberg, in The Stress-Proof Brain, says, “Having a stress-proof brain means being able to slow things down, ground yourself, and overcome feelings of anxiety and helplessness that may have their roots in past, difficult experiences. It means being CEO of your own brain rather than letting your amygdala be in charge.” (p210) 

Stress experts like Drs. Greenberg and Lagos offer the following strategies for mindfully handling our responses to the emotions triggered by stress.

Still life of a bottle of olive oil surrounded by two red tomatoes, a sprig of green rosemary and a garlic bulb.Diet and Exercise

Being “CEO” of your brain begins with taking care of it and the rest of your body. Eating healthy foods, walking, and making sure you are moving and using your muscles in a healthy way all support an environment for optimum mental and physical health. Feeling tense? Take a brisk walk to boost endorphins and help your body regulate those stress hormones. Plan your meals and eat them on a regular schedule. This will help make sure you are eating fresh fruit, whole grains, and proteins – all helpful in stress-proofing your brain. It’s also helpful to be aware of foods that trigger overeating. For example, sugary foods can cause blood sugars to spike, then crash, leading to overeating.

Slow down, Positive thinking

When we are overwhelmed, our tendency is to shift into overdrive. But the acceleration adds to our anxiety, as we try to handle the stress and also the anxiety about the stress. To avoid stressing about stress, downshift instead of accelerating. Take a few moments to slow down and regroup. Allow your body to process your current emotion before taking action. Using the power of positive thinking can also help lower our anxiety, since pessimistic thoughts are more likely to cause anxiety. Try replacing self-defeating negative thoughts with more positive – or even more neutral – alternatives. When you find yourself thinking self-defeating thoughts like, “I never get this right,” try changing that thought to, “This time I didn’t get this right, but next time I will.”

Calming your amygdala

Another strategy for handling difficult emotions is to practice calming the amygdala with deep belly breathing and regular mindfulness meditation. 

Michigan Medicine, at the University of Michigan, offers these instructions for mindful belly breathing:

  1. Sit or lie flat in a comfortable position.
  2. Put one hand on your belly just below your ribs and the other hand on your chest.
  3. Take a deep breath in through your nose, and let your belly push your hand out. Your chest should not move.
  4. Breathe out through pursed lips as if you were whistling. Feel the hand on your belly go in, and use it to push all the air out.
  5. Do this breathing 3 to 10 times. Take your time with each breath.
  6. Notice how you feel at the end of the exercise.

Breath awareness 

Mindful breathing exercises can also help disrupt the ‘fight or flight’ response of the amygdala. Emily Fletcher, in Stress Less, Accomplish More, recommends the 2x Breath. Breathe in through your nose to the count of 2 and out through your mouth to the count of 4. Repeat a few times. (While walking if you feel really overloaded.) When you are calmer, find a comfortable chair and continue mindful breathing for a few more minutes, extending inhales to the count of 3 and then 4, with exhales twice as long. 

Dr. Leah Lagos, in her book Heart Breath Mind, encourages a twice-daily practice of 20 minutes of mindful breathing. She recommends heart rate monitors to track the benefits of these daily breathing exercises.

Presence and Mindfulness

Overriding the primitive reactions of our amygdala takes awareness. By slowing down we give ourselves the opportunity to experience our feelings without reacting to them mindlessly. By using simple techniques such as breath awareness and deep breathing, we help our bodies balance the chemical responses to stress. By bringing conscious awareness to the physical effects of our reactions to stressful events, we ground ourselves, keeping fear-based responses at bay, making us better able to respond with curiosity and creativity. 

Our amygdala, that most primitive part of our brain, engages without conscious thought. Finding ways to engage the more evolved parts of our brain when handling stress allows us to make conscious choices about our reactions. Next time we will delve more deeply into using presence and mindfulness as an antidote to stress.

Stress and Mindfulness

Today we begin a 3-part series on stress.  In this series we will begin by looking at the impact stress has on our well being – physically, mentally, and emotionally. Then we’ll take a look at some tried and true methods for deactivating stress triggers. Finally, we will delve more deeply into presence and mindfulness as antidotes to stress.

What is “stress”?

We hear and talk a lot about stress. But what exactly is “stress”? Emily Fletcher, in her book Stress Less, Accomplish More, says stress is not a thing, it’s a reaction. She describes stress as the negative impact of the demands made on us by our personal and professional responsibilities. (p45)

Stress is not the responsibilities themselves, but is a reaction to the demands those responsibilities put on us. Ms. Fletcher asserts, “And that is what stress is: your reaction to the stuff, not the stuff itself.”

That’s good news when we’re feeling overwhelmed.  In our next post we’ll look at ways to manage our reactions and reduce the negative impact. But first, let’s look at how our feelings of overwhelm impact us.

The impact of stress

When we are stressed, our bodies produce a variety of chemicals that affect us physically, mentally, and emotionally. These include cortisol, epinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin. These chemicals are both beneficial and problematic.  In the right quantities, these chemicals coursing through our bodies help us. Serotonin, for example, helps aid digestion, heal wounds, and regulate anxiety. But excess serotonin can lead to diarrhea, headaches, and confusion. 

The American Institute of Stress lists 50 common signs and symptoms of stress. Among them: weight gain, overreaction to petty annoyances, difficulty making decisions, depression, insomnia, and difficulty concentrating.

We may have trouble sleeping, experience headaches, overeat, or have neck or back pain. Stress also affects us mentally.  We may find it difficult to concentrate, hard to make a decision, or find ourselves less productive at work.  Emotionally, we may feel increased anxiety, worry more, feel frustrated or angry more often, and approach others with hostility. Depression and mood swings are also telltale signs of the effects of stress on us emotionally.

Statistics on the impact of stress

Stress takes a toll on all aspects of our life. At work, stress leads to distraction, feelings of isolation, absenteeism, and fear of job loss. At home, stress affects our relationships with our families and roommates, diminishes our enjoyment of everyday pleasures, and can lead to depression and addiction.

According to a study by the Mental Health Institute, 81% of respondents said workplace stress affects their relationships with friends and family. 53% of respondents missed 6 or more days of work a month due to workplace stress. 63% of respondents reported that their workplace stress resulted in a significant impact on their mental and behavioral health. 

Benefits of understanding the impact of stress

 

Understanding the impact of stress is the first step to minimizing those impacts. Recognizing the demands that are causing our stress responses, then taking action to change our response can have lasting benefits  and lead to a decrease in the negative impact on our brains, bodies, and mental health.

The good news is we can tame the beast. Each of us carries within us the ability to change how we respond.

We all have demands made on us by our personal and professional responsibilities. But we also have the tools available to manage those demands and lessen the impact of stressors. 

In our next post we will look at ways to deactivate our stress triggers – action we can take to reduce the impact of a chronic stress response. If stress is the reaction to the stuff of our lives, altering how we react can go a long way to reducing the negative impacts of stress. We will look at increasing cognitive flexibility, the power of positive thinking, and the impact of diet and lifestyle on our stress levels.  Until then, when your body is telling you it’s all too much, stop a minute and take a few slow, deep breaths.

The Benefits of Gratitude

November is National Gratitude Month and what better time to think about being thankful than the weeks leading up to our national holiday of Thanksgiving? Even in a year as crazy as 2020, the mental-health benefits of gratitude are there for the taking.

Being grateful takes little time and no money, but can enhance mental health, improve sleep, contribute to better physical health, and enrich social connections. Amy Morin, in a recent Forbes article, shares 7 scientifically proven benefits of gratitude: improved physical health, improved psychological health, better relationships, enhanced empathy, better sleep, improved self-esteem, and increased mental strength.

With so many good reasons to be grateful, here are some time-proven ways to increase your gratitude quotient, not just during the Thanksgiving holiday, but all year long.

                        “Gratitude is a powerful catalyst for happiness. It’s the spark that lights a fire of joy in your soul.” 

 -Amy Collette, author of the Gratitude Connection

Slow down

When we are in a hurry, our bodies respond by increasing the production of stress chemicals to help us keep up. These chemicals, which stimulate our ‘fight or flight’ response, increase anxiety. It’s hard to be grateful when we’re anxious. Slowing down, just enough to reduce the anxious response in our bodies, opens the door for gratitude. Reducing stress hormones also improves our physical and mental health. Win, win!

Be mindful

Like slowing down, being mindful helps us be more consciously aware of our environment, those people and things around us. When we pause and notice, we create space for gratitude. Our gratitude doesn’t have to dwell on just big and wonderful things. Noticing our small daily successes and being grateful for them brings the same benefits as celebrating big wins. Opportunities for gratitude can also encompass lessons learned in coping with difficulties. Have you learned new things, or gained new coping skills, through a hard situation? Celebrate that growth with gratitude.

Appreciate the little things

Like gratitude found in personal growth, there is gratitude to be found in the every day as well. Yesterday the rain let up just as I left the house to walk the dog. The next downpour held off until after I was back inside. Finding gratitude in that small win improved my mood for the rest of the afternoon. When we take time to notice the little things in our life that we have to be thankful for, it helps develop a practice of gratitude that contributes to our well being.

Look for happiness

Sometimes we have to work a little harder to find gratitude and happiness. Not feeling particularly happy about our social isolation? Me either. But over these last few months, I’ve spent some time with a hobby that had been packed away for lack of time. I am happy to have the knitting needles back in my hands. And for that I am grateful. Happiness in one area can spill over and help us feel gratitude in other areas of our life. Have you picked up a new hobby this year?

There has been a lot to be anxious about this year. Acknowledging our anxiety is important to our mental health. Acknowledging our emotional responses to all of the hard things we are experiencing builds resilience and improves mental health. On the other side of that emotion, gratitude can help balance the scales. 

When we are faced with a day where it feels like everything has gone wrong, taking a little time to also acknowledge what’s gone right – even if it’s the tiniest of moments – can help us feel just a tiny bit happier. 

Lynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own. She loves writing on parenting and early childhood education. You can learn more about her at www.lynnebrownwriting.com.

Honoring the rhythms of nature

Did you notice the trees? When we started quarantine none of the trees had leaves.  We knew Spring was coming, but in the Willamette Valley, we were still in the grip of winter.  Today when I walked the dog early in the morning I noticed every single tree has fully leafed out.  

While we’ve been sheltering in place, on hold, waiting for businesses and workplaces to reopen,  nature has been moving forward.  

There’s a rhythm to the cycle of nature that we can take a cue from.  The ebb and flow, of night and day and seasons, have long had an impact on our bodies and our health.  Our bodies rely on rhythm – our breathing, heartbeat, and our sleep/wake cycle, the Circadian rhythm, are all part of being alive. 

Recognizing the natural rhythms of the day and the year and leaning into them can have beneficial effects on health and well-being.  

Before electrical lighting lengthened our days, societies lived within the cycle of sunrise and sunset.

“Morning and evening are especially significant times for resetting our inner clocks. Awakening gradually with the sun, which stimulates the hormone serotonin, allows our body to peacefully resolve its sleep cycles and prepare us for the day. If we are in tune, our heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and cortisol (a hormone that defends against stress) level increase before we wake up. In the evening, these functions should decrease, while darkness triggers increased production of the sleep-inducing hormones melatonin and prolactin,” says Carol Venolia in Mother Earth Living.

Yet, our busy lives cause many people to be cut off from the natural rhythms of nature and their bodies. “They no longer get up with the sun, and they may stay up until the wee hours of the morning. Their pace of life is such that it is inconsequential whether it is night or day or winter or summer. The phases of the moon go unnoticed,” notes SlowMovement.com.

Disrupted circadian rhythm can make you feel out of sorts and can make it harder to pay attention. Hopefully, this season at home has opened space and opportunity for being more in tune with nature and its rhythms. 

Says Megan Roop at mindbodygreen.com, “Nature will quiet your mind, open your heart and invite ease into your body. You’ll feel the living connection with life all around you, giving you the capacity to open up to something that’s much bigger than yourself. Through nature, you’ll transform, awaken, and heal, and even get a boost in creativity, health, and quality of life.”

As hard as these last couple of months working and schooling from home have been, in some respects life has slowed down.  It has given us an opportunity to become more aware of the rhythms of nature and our own body clocks in a way that our busy hurrying about does not.  And it has given us the opportunity to walk more, and watch the trees bloom and hear the birds sing. 

Have you found your family becoming more in tune with the cycle of nature during our season of sheltering at home?

Lynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own. She loves writing on parenting and early childhood education. You can learn more about her at: www.lynnebrownwriting.com.

Feeling anxious? Try Mindfulness

It’s been a wild month. We are all learning so many new things. What it’s like to be together 24/7 with no end in sight. What adding ‘working from home’ and ‘schooling at home’ does to family life. Exactly how many steps it takes to walk around the block, which we’ve counted as these walks are now happening multiple times a day.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had many moments when I haven’t handled it well. I’m worried and stressed, frustrated and depressed. I have been delighting in the Zoom visits I’ve had with family and friends. But when the ‘meeting’ comes to an end, the weight of our social distancing crushes me. After one family call, I lost it and cried for nearly an hour. This is all so, so hard.

I was telling a friend about my rough week and she pointed me to an article that identified what I was feeling: grief. Says David Kessler, co-founder of grief.com, “We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realize things will be different. Just as going to the airport is forever different from how it was before 9/11, things will change and this is the point at which they changed. The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.” 

It helped to have a name for the weight I am bearing. But what helped more was his advice for dealing with these feelings. 

Presence and mindfulness

“To calm yourself, you want to come into the present. There’s a computer, a chair, a picture of the dog, an old rug, and a coffee mug. It’s that simple. Breathe. Realize that in the present moment, nothing you’ve anticipated has happened. In this moment, you’re okay. You have food. You are not sick. Use your senses and think about what they feel. The desk is hard. The blanket is soft. I can feel the breath coming into my nose. This really will work to dampen some of that pain,” says Kessler.

“Presence” is the practice of being present in the current moment, focusing thoughts on what is happening today, instead of thinking anxious thoughts about the future or dwelling on regrets about the past.

Focusing on the present – this immediate moment I am living – help reduce my anxiety. I took a deep breath and reminded myself that right now we are all ok. We are healthy, the sun is shining, the kids aren’t bickering. In this moment I am ‘ok’.

Being deliberate about noticing our present circumstances is often referred to as mindfulness. 

Mindfulness is the practice of being intentional – aware of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment. Focus thoughts on that awareness, without judgment. Turning our thoughts to what we feel at the present moment, helps us turn away from thoughts about the past and anxiety about the future.

On my bleakest day so far, choosing to focus on just that day helped me move forward. I spent the rest of that day focused just on ‘today’. The next day I felt much better and the day after that, even better.

I know I’ll have hard days again on this roller coaster we are all riding. But remembering to come into the present moment and mindfully accept all the feelings – good and bad – will help on the rough days.

Let it go

When it gets hard, Kessler has one other bit of helpful advice: Think about how to let go of what you can’t control. “What your neighbor is doing is out of your control. What is in your control is staying six feet away from them and washing your hands. Focus on that.”

Lynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own. You can learn more about her at www.lynnebrownwriting.com.