At 26 I thought I had it all, a successful career, an “amazing” boyfriend, a great apartment, friends, vacations, and the ability to meet any deadlines thrown at me. I was the go-to person at work, and in my personal life. Always the one to say yes to overtime, to take work home, and always the one to spend 4 hours on the phone helping solve my friends’ problems. I felt accomplished, and proud of my ability to please other people. Feeling stressed was a kind of badge of honor I happily displayed.
This was my life, until I felt the sensation of several hard thumps in my chest. The unfamiliar feeling left me in a panic. I drove myself to the emergency room. I was experiencing difficulty breathing, and dizziness. As I raced into the emergency room, I tell the nurse, “Heart Attack, I’m having a Heart Attack”. They rushed me into a room, took my vitals and then left me to myself for an hour. When the doctor finally came in he says, “Your vitals are fine, you’re 30 pounds over-weight, but really too young to be having a heart attack. Your body is responding to stress.”
Stress was how I measured myself as a productive person. I equated relaxation with laziness and learned to function under maximum stress on a daily basis. What I didn’t realize at the time was that there are real biological consequences to constantly experiencing unmanaged stress. Weight gain, insomnia and upset stomach were the symptoms I experienced. My mind’s default response was to tolerate the physical discomfort caused by stress and, since I didn’t tend to those symptoms, other parts of my body reacted to the stress–my heart.
Luckily there are ways for us to manage our stress levels. Notice I said manage, and not get rid of. As long as we are living human beings, we will inevitably have stress. Our brain and body are constantly taking in information and deciding on the level of “danger” we are about to experience. Based on that decision our body and brain will respond physiologically to that “danger”–this determines the stress level we experience. This means that we can minimize our stress level by creating new habits of the mind. Through being present and aware of the happenings in our bodies and we can catch the message of “danger” before it overtakes our thoughts and bodily responses. You can spend as much or as little time as you can afford on the 4 steps below:
- Know that you are stressed and accept that stress is part of being alive.
- Unravel the sensation of stress in your body and mind by using the tool of Mindfulness. Find a quiet place and bring your focus to your breath. Noticing the inhaling and exhaling sensation. Allow your emotions, and thoughts to arise and without judgment shift your awareness to them and be curious. When you feel a sense that your mind and body is settling, open your eyes and take a moment to complete this sentence. “I am stressed because_______”. This will give you the space to understand the source of your stress.
- Decide that you can find relief from your stress. Making a decision takes away confusion and allows you to open yourself to solutions.
- This last stage I call it Active Mindfulness. Stress will come and go, but one way to minimize stressful experiences is to actively bring mindfulness to your daily life. This can be as simple as remembering to focus on your breathing for 30 seconds throughout the day, or you can remember to eat slowly, noticing your food, how it tastes and smells. You can even include mindfulness into your work by making a conscious decision to radically accept your task, where you are along the process, and bring complete awareness to how you are doing your work (this is what many athletes refer to as the “zone”)