By Guest Contributor on May 6, 2014
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.
Thriving Faculty is a regular column highlighting individual or collective Faculty who exemplify integration of health and wellbeing into their classrooms, research, departments and/or communities. Thriving Faculty not only support others health and wellbeing, but also make a commitment to their own self-care. This column highlights both the personal and professional stories of Thriving Faculty with the intention to inspire the integration of wellbeing into life as faculty.
Read an interview with Professor Michael Lee.
Q. Based on your experiences, please describe the relationship between student mental health, and wellbeing and learning?
I like looking at wellness from a bio-psychosocial-spiritual perspective; which is a holistic way of looking at a person. To thrive, one needs to attend to all four aspects of one’s life. It is like a four-legged stool, which means lacking one will lead to imbalance, or even tipping over. Mental wellness is one of the essential factors that leads to thriving, including academic excellence. Likewise, in order to excel in learning, one needs to attend to all four aspects of life, hence mental wellness is essential.
I come across many students who invested their energy and time in certain aspects of their life, may it be attending to academic attainments, relationships, physical activities, etc., and neglected the importance of balance of all aspects. We all know the importance of a balanced diet. Likewise, a balanced life that also attends to mental wellness is important for a healthy living.
Q. What are central challenges you face in your role as Faculty?
Like students, I am often faced with too many things to do with limited time and resources. This is one of the challenges that we all face, like it or not, in this fast-paced world. Knowledge and information are growing exponentially, and we all are bombarded with pressing time lines. It is very easy for us to fall into the trap of racing with the fast pace world. Attending to the bio-psychosocial-spiritual aspects of life is a challenge that I face, especially when I am racing in a fast-paced world, or when I am doing certain things that I am very passionate about.
Q. What strategies do you use to support student mental health and wellbeing in the classroom/lab?
The best way to promote student mental health is to start from creating a healthy learning environment. Competition among students is contagious. Though competitions foster quality improvement, too much competitions result in excessive stress that is not helpful in creating a healthy learning environment. To me, learning is not all about how many “A”s you got, it is about how you can be a learning agent for the rest of your life, so that you can be a creative problem-solver. Hence, I always tell my students not to focus too much on how you score in your exam or in your assignment, but be reflective, and know how you can use what you learned to build new knowledge. To be a clever consumer, we look for merchandise that meets our needs. Likewise, to be a clever knowledge consumer, we make it clear that we are going after knowledge and intellect, not on having higher marks then the one sitting next to us.
I also tell my students to look at the classroom as an oasis of resources. In a class of 50 students, there are 49 other bright brains that can help you to learn the knowledge better and to understand the concept clearer. See your prof as the one whom you can identify as a mentor, not the one who is mean and holding back each and every mark in your exam. Look around to identify resources, not barriers.
Q. What strategies do you use in your own life, that help you thrive as Faculty?
To be mindful of your goals is like having a GPS that will help navigate and not be distracted by what is happening around you.
Know your capacity and maximize your strengths. You don’t have to do everything, but do things that you are good at. Build capacity. There are many resources around us that we are not aware of. Think about our environment as full of resources. Leverage these resources in order to help us to get to where we need to get to.
Q. Are they any specific initiatives and/or research you are involved in that promote health, mental health and wellbeing?
I worked with a group of students to bring mental health awareness on campus. The Mental Health Awareness Club is a student-led initiative, with the mandate to bring mental health awareness on campus; and to eliminate stigma on mental illness with the hope to create a healthier campus. Students from various disciplines, different faculties and various backgrounds work together to promote campus mental health awareness through various events and programs. One project that we started last year is a campus-wide mental health needs assessment. Using participatory action research approach, we invited students to tell us about their perspectives on stresses on campus, and identify ways to address these stresses. In addition to knowing more about students’ perspective about stress, this project helped participants to know more about stress issues on campus and supported them to develop strategies to build resilience against stresses. This year, the Club is rolling out another needs assessment to look at mental health stigma, and how stigma impacts on student life. Through these participatory research activities, we hope we can draw campus attention to mental health and mental illness issues and to enable our community to develop strategies to address these concerns. Our ultimate goal is to help the community to built capacity in creating a healthy learning environment for our future generations.
Q. In your role as faculty, please describe your experience balancing work-life commitments? Is there a metaphor that depicts this relationship?
I mentioned a four- legged stool. It is important for me to attend to all four aspects of my life, including not only my physical and psychological wellbeing; but also attend to my social and spiritual needs.
One of my mottos is “know your strengths, build your capacities.”
Michael Lee is the Senior Instructor with the Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, as well as the Curriculum Coordinator for the Master of Occupational Therapy program. In addition to teaching, learning with his students and promoting mental health on campus, he enjoys his time with the family and having quite time to refresh.
Nominate a Thriving Faculty
Do you know a UBC faculty member who thrives? We’d like to know! Please send your nominations to firstname.lastname@example.org, and let us know why this person is a champion of wellbeing both inside and outside of the classroom.