We are introducing a new column this month called ‘The Thoughtful Mind’. Previously, we had the expertise of Dr. Geoffrey Soloway as the author of our Mindful Moments column. This new column will continue to explore mindfulness through the lens of a new guest contributor, Dr. Thara Vayali.
In our daily life, stress is elusive. It can be sudden, insidious, or it can be tolerated to a breaking point. Stress is a pressure or tension exerted against a material, psyche or syllable. It has no inherent value, but we often speak of being “stressed out” as a negative state. Is this pressure helping or harming us? How much is too much of a good thing?
“Adversity in immunological doses has its uses, more than that crushes”. – John Updike
The skill of recognizing the strengthening impact versus the destructive impact of stressors is where resiliency lies.
Stress makes the hair on our arms rise, because we anticipate an exciting interaction or because we fear being overpowered by a competitor. Both situations create a slight increase in our sympathetic nervous system (SNS), but one is delightful and the other is quite unpleasant.
Stress and the SNS go hand in hand. The SNS signals us to sweat, expands lung capacity, shunts blood to the muscles & away from efficacious metabolism; we are filled with an intense desire to move – or stay perfectly still until the time is right. This can happen during growth or fear.
In primatologist Robert Sapolsky’s research on animals and stress, he clarifies that animals generally experience stress in short spurts – usually in predator/prey interactions. How do animals react to these stress signals?
Remember The 4 F’s – Fight, Flight, Freeze & Fornicate.
An animal in the wild experiences a challenging stressor (like being chased by a predator), acts with one of the 4 F’s, and it is either dead or alive at the end of the stress. If the animal is still alive it moves on, all its SNS signals drop within 30 mins, and it is back to eating, digesting and playing. It doesn’t spend the rest of the day worrying about the next potential run-in, or searching for meaningful work. Most certainly, it doesn’t “stress-out”
Our human condition, as opposed to the luxurious predator/prey/play lifestyle, creates longer term stressors: We are made of minds that weave webs, emotions & goals that drive our actions, experiences of horrific events, as well as the fact that we exist within undeniable socio-economic stressors.
What makes us different from wild animals, is also a beautiful part of humanity: We choose goals, we feel passion, we become motivated, we stand up for what we believe in. Without a certain level of stress growth, of we would lose part of what makes us human.
We often experience positive stressors. Certain scary, overwhelming events, (ie; a big opportunity, major life change or waiting for results in a competition/career/exam), can be beneficial to our livelihoods and humanity. They teach us about self-assurance, inspiration, disappointment, decision & consequence, autonomy, mastery and purpose.
These stressors help us grow.
The way our bodies and minds react to unrelenting stress is very different than a standard life/death stressor, or positive stressor. We react initially with the 4 F’s but over time – via a different response mechanism – our immune systems malfunction, our vessels clog and become weak, we become inflamed (emotionally and physically), pain receptors start firing inappropriately, we become nervous, anxious & depressed.
This is not growth. This is unravelling.
We must be careful not to lumped the growth-oriented, life-enhancing, motivational stressors together with the damaging, exhausting, restrictive stressors. If we miss the distinction, we can mistake a challenge for a burden and react in ways that oppose our growth. We can take advantage of the challenges and manage the burdens so they are less harmful.
Growing Stress – that which moves us to act toward our goals, to take care of ourselves, deal with disappointment and find meaning.
Unravelling Stress – which pushes us to be short sighted, damage our bodies, to become jaded and feel worthless, When unravelling stressors burden our lives, we have an increased risk of developing chronic disease.
Both of these types of stress have different tools to help mitigate the detrimental effects of pressure and tension. By consciously changing your breath, your muscle tension, your eye focus you can shift your emotional reaction.
The key – before discovering tools for stress management – is to take an inventory of what kinds of stress you primarily experience and assess whether you are unravelling or growing.
A Resiliency Exercise : 5 minutes.
Step 1: Use an empty piece of paper. Strike a line down the middle. On one side write Challenge and on the other, Burden. Take an inventory of your stressors by assigning each to one of these categories. You may only have a few or many. You may have more on one side than the other. Stop after 2 minutes.
Step 2: Pick one challenge/burden, read it either out loud or silently, and become aware of your breath, your muscles, your jaw, your heart rate, your thoughts, your emotions – in that order. Notice if your body/mind reaction encourages you to pull away from, paralyze or engage with the given stressor. Ask yourself: Does my reaction allow for growth from this stressor? If not – can I imagine myself overcoming the challenge/burden?
Write down how your physical reaction would need to change if you were to feel growth from or overcome this stressor. Remember that this is not suppressing your stress response, it is restructuring your physical reaction.
Step 3: Repeat the challenge/burden and attempt to focus on shifting your physical response as you described in Step 2. Notice how your thoughts and emotions respond to the physical shift.
This exercise is two-fold. It allows you to observe the balance of growth to unravelling in your life, as well as to notice if your reactions are helping or hindering your resilience.
You can do this without paper or writing, and choose a different challenge/burden each day.
Thara Vayali is a Naturopathic Doctor & Yoga Teacher in Vancouver and is also a UBC alumnus. She is obsessed with intestinal and immune health, hormones, and pain-free bodies. She is the creator of Change Natural Medicine: Budget conscious, membership based health consulting.