When we think of the word “stress,” it is often in the negative: the epidemic of stress and anxiety, the physical symptoms of chronic stress, etc. But stress can actually be a positive thing for those who respond to it with skill.
The body’s response to stress – pounding heartbeat, rapid breathing, narrowed vision, and a jolt of adrenaline – is an evolutionary adaptation designed to mobilize us to action.
When you have a client deadline, an exam the next day, or a ski race to win, this physiological response can give you the energy and focus to excel.
Unfortunately, much of the time the conditioned patterns in our mind impact how we interpret the events in our lives. The meaning we assign to deadlines, exams, and other people’s behaviors ends up inhibiting our ability to perform.
As a human, your neurobiology is designed to react quickly, rather than thoughtfully respond; to feel stress, rather than balance; and to hear your inner critic, rather than encouraging words of possibility.
Because you are built for survival, your brain’s alarm system is scanning for threats and triggering the “fight-flight-freeze” stress response to escape potential danger. Sometimes the dangers are real, but most of the time they pose no immediate threat. Yet we get triggered throughout the day by a comment, a surprise decision, an angry text, and by the way we relate to our responsibilities and to the people around us.
We have minds that are wandering, scanning, and getting distracted. These characteristics of our evolutionary biology are magnified exponentially by smartphones, laptops, and the Internet.
We are connected more than ever in a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Given these challenges, it’s no surprise people are turning to mindfulness to find greater calm, focus, and ease in what Time magazine calls “The Mindful Revolution.”
Mindfulness is simply the practice of learning to focus your attention on the present moment, observing your thoughts and feelings without judging them. Meditation is a range of mental training exercises designed to develop skills, strengthen the mind, and produce immediate states and long-term outcomes. Meditation is to mindfulness as exercise is to fitness.
The benefits of mindful meditation are well documented. It has been shown to help us increase focus and attention, regulate emotions, reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, and increase overall health and well-being. Meditation quiets the voice in the head and shifts how you experience the moments in your day. It’s about detaching from the internal chatter and observing what’s happening in your mind and body with a wider, kinder perspective.
Here Are 3 Mindfulness Keys to Turn Stress to Your Advantage:
- Change how you interpret your body’s signals: How we interpret the events in our lives has a lot to do with how stressful we feel. What if we interpreted the body’s signals as giving us energy, power, and drive to succeed? The next time you feel stress coming on, consider that those feelings are mobilizing you for action.
- Choose a different perspective: Our mindsets drive how we interpret stress. As we become more mindful, we are able to witness our thoughts and see when we are creating an internal conversation that fuels a negative narrative. When you do that, you can view stressful events as temporary and as opportunities to grow, and see yourself as empowered to take action rather than as a victim of circumstance.
- Train with the Body Scan meditation: A core mindfulness meditation practice is called the Body Scan. Sit quietly and systematically direct attention from one body part to the next, starting at the top of the head and moving to the feet (or vice versa). This strengthens the insula, the part of the brain associated with our capacity for interoception (a lesser-known sense that helps us understand and feel what’s going on inside our body). This capacity is at the heart of being aware, empathetic, and emotionally agile.
By practicing mindfulness, you get to be intentional in shaping your brain, instead of unwittingly wiring your brain through the influence of cultural norms and old habits. As you learn to shift the body’s response to stress, you create space to calm the mind and body and experience greater self-compassion when times get tough. I call this space of calm, like the serenity you find deep below the choppy surface of the waves, the deep blue, and is why I named my company PurposeBlue.
Clients often ask me what is the minimum amount of daily practice needed to start seeing a payoff. Although everyone is different, remember that just one breath can help ease your racing mind in the midst of stress. In general, many people see benefits from 10 minutes a day after just a few weeks.
What matters is what is important to you. You can shift your state with mindful breathing in the moment, and you can turn that state into a trait of equanimity over time. The more you put into your practice, the more resilient you will become in the face of stress.