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Changing Our Relationship to Stress

beth-circle-head By Beth Heller

In our last “stressful” post of the month, we’d like to address the elephant in the room. No matter how hard we try, we may never be able to eliminate all the stress in our lives. Yes, we can build stress-reducing elements, like urban parks and green space, into our living environments.  We can also emphasize relationships, like family and friends, to help us feel more connected and less alone.  And we can make nutrition choices that support better brain chemistry.  But at the end of the day, modern life still continues at a breakneck pace, with ever present bells and whistles of technology, smartphones, work and family drama.

So it’s true:  we cannot completely eliminate stress.  What we can do, however, is profoundly change the way we react to stress and one of the most powerful ways to do that is to learn to be still.  

Chances are that last sentence set your teeth on edge.  Our society hates to be still, and in fact, from the youngest age we’re taught to keep moving and be productive with our time.  However, the bald fact of it is that the pace of modern living has outstripped our ability to manage the overwhelming onslaught of activity and information we must manage.  In response to all sense input, our brains release a constant stream of neurochemicals that prompt our bodies to respond to this input, often in unhealthy ways.   From an evolutionary standpoint, this sort of quick response system made fantastic sense.  When our great-great-great-great ancestors were out foraging for berries and came across a sabertooth tiger, it made sense for their brains to release chemicals that helped them run or fight and not sit and mull the issue over.  But this scenario doesn’t work quite as well when we’re facing a challenging co-worker or reading a stressful email.  Put simply our basic biology is primed for a fight that our modern mode of living doesn’t require and the result is a huge amount of stress.

Regan Gurung, PhD., Professor of Human Development and Psychology at UWGB, recently tackled this question in a fantastic Ted Ex talk.  Gurung describes how our brains get stuck in knee-jerk reactions like stereotypes, negative emotional reactions and unhealthy habits because of this constant flood of neurochemicals. The good news is, Gurung continues, that despite the human brain’s tendency towards reactivity, our brains also have the unique (we think) ability to observe and discern.  And this is where chilling comes into play.  

“Chilling,” says Gurung using his approachable term for cultivating quiet, “or taking time away from stressors or situations, helps achieve psychological and physiological purposes. It calms the mind by reducing mental load and it stops the release of harm causing neurochemicals in our system allowing those already accumulated to dissipate.”

Gurung’s advice points to a very simple concept:  emotions are the body’s physical response to thoughts.  When we have a thought, our body experiences an emotion – fear, joy, craving, anger etc.  Emotions, by and large, drive action.  When we take time to chill, we begin to notice the waves of thoughts and their accompanying physical promptings of racing heart, muscle tension, munchies, warm fuzzies and nearly infinite variations on the above.  Learning to observe the thought and ride out the initial physical signals allows space for discernment and choice.  We begin to find space for appropriate reaction and response.  Sometimes that response may be the right response, but more often than not there’s the knee-jerk and then there’s a sense of proportion, an adjustment to how big a challenge or threat we’re facing.  Unfortunately, the adjustment often comes after the initial panic attack, angry word or binge eating of the cupcake has occurred.

So, what can we do?  We can learn to chill.  Take five minutes, three times a day, to close your eyes and just breathe.  There are good mindfulness apps, like Headspace and Insight Timer, that can help.  Practicing your ability to chill, to not react, shifts your response to the stress around you, making it feel more manageable and less threatening. 

Are you already using a technique to calm and center that works for you?  Please share it with us!  

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