Stress Management

We’ve all heard that prolonged stress negatively impacts our health, but stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Dr. Hans Selye, one of the pioneers of stress management, said that stress can be “the spice of life or the kiss of death.” He labeled negative stress distress and positive stress eustress. If we choose to ride a rollercoaster, or to scale a cliff, or watch a horror movie, we’re choosing to experience stress. Stress is an unavoidable fact of life, and a stress-free life would be an uneventful life – boring. Sexual excitement is a form of stress, and we all enjoy an adrenaline rush from time to time, especially if we chose the stimulus that triggered it.

Our autonomic nervous system, which regulates automatic behaviors, has two branches: sympathetic and parasympathetic. Both are involved what Dr. Selye called the “fight or flight” response. Activation of the sympathetic response gears us up, preparing us to fight or flee, whether or not we’re in danger. Heartbeat and breathing instantly become more rapid,  delivering more oxygenated blood to the brain and the extremities. Blood pressure and blood sugar rise, muscles tense in anticipation of action, and you may experience a jolt of adrenaline. After the event or situation that triggered the sympathetic response is past, the parasympathetic branch kicks in, reversing the fight or flight response and allowing us to “rest and digest.” We’re told not to go swimming right after eating a meal, because our blood flow has been re-directed from our extremities to our gut, increasing the possibility of a muscle cramp.

The fight or flight response evolved to help our ancestors to avoid being eaten and to hunt dangerous prey. If you’re a soldier in a combat zone, or a cop, or a firefighter, you may experience it on a regular basis. But although only a few of us in modern society frequently face physical peril – other than heavy traffic – we respond to perceived existential threats, even if we’re not actually in immediate danger. Combinations of financial, social and environmental stressors (How am I going to pay the rent? Is my wife being unfaithful?) can result in a high level of distress, sometimes manifesting as anxiety.

Anxiety is similar to fear, although the causes might be multiple and may not be immediate physical threats. A person having an anxiety  attack may experience their fight or flight response as paralyzing. Once you’ve had one, your fear of having another one becomes yet another stressor in your life. If you only occasionally have fight or flight reactions, stress may not be a significant factor in your health. But if you have them frequently, your health may be affected. But frequent fight or flight reactions aren’t the only stress-related threat. Chronic overstress – having more on your plate than you can handle – can kill.

Stress management doesn’t mean eliminating stress. It means controlling the amount of stress in your everyday life and, where possible, eliminating stressors. There are both physical and mental aspects to stress management. But first you need to identify the sources of stress in your life, your triggers for stress reactions, and how stress affects you.

If you need to practice stress management, start with an inventory of your stress factors: job security and satisfaction, finances, safety, residential issues, and personal relationships. Think of how you might be able to reduce unwanted stress in each area. It may mean some tough choices. Then list the kinds of situations and events that tend to trigger stress reactions. Being aware of your stress triggers may help you to prepare for them or learn ways to avoid them. Become more aware of how you typically respond to stress triggers and overstress. Do you somaticize (physicalize) it into headaches or bellyaches or backaches? Do you stay angry or depressed? Do you worry excessively? Anxiety has many faces , including free-floating (generalized) anxiety, panic attacks, and phobias – including social phobias. After doing this analysis of the role of stress in your life, you’re ready to look at physical and mental stress management techniques.

Physical stress management techniques include breath control, learning to relax your muscles, meditation, self-hypnosis, yoga, exercise, good nutrition, and adequate sleep. Avoid self-medicating with alcohol or other drugs. If you’ve listed rapid breathing as a stress symptom, you can learn to slow your breathing when you’re under stress. This helps to bring the fight or flight response under your control. There are many techniques for relaxing tense muscles, and relaxing the body tends to simultaneously relax the mind. I used to teach clients a method of focusing on the sensations in each of the muscle groups of the body in turn, tensing and relaxing each muscle group until they became aware that they could relax them at will by focusing on the changing sensations. It’s a form of mindfulness.

Learning time management or anger management might be part of your stress management plan. The best single mental stress management I’m aware of – besides meditation, which calms both body and mind – is rational thinking. (I’ve previously published several posts on rational thinking as a learnable skill.) Any stressful situation can be made more stressful by the way we think about it, and the effects of stressors in our lives can be minimized by thinking about them rationally. Failing to achieve something you wanted to achieve doesn’t make you “a Failure.”  Telling yourself that you’ll never get over a loss can be a stress-inducing self-fulfilling prophesy. Thinking that they “can’t stand” something has never helped anyone to cope with distress.

Some stressors can be minimized or overcome, others can be tolerated until circumstances change, by developing coping skills. We can all learn to manage our stress to some degree, if we understand it for what it is and make a conscious effort to control its effect on our lives. Coming up with your own personalized stress management plan and implementing it can help you to become more resilient in times of adversity, and might add years to your life.

 

Mindfulness and meditation

Mindfulness has become a buzzword, not only in psychotherapy, but in the mass media. Mindfulness is when you “stop and smell the roses.” Some people are making a lot of money marketing mindfulness training, but learning to practice it costs nothing beyond an investment of your time. An age-old Asian aphorism is that the mind is like a drunken monkey bitten by a scorpion. One of the benefits of this time investment is learning to tame your monkey mind.

Fritz Perls said that past and future are fictions: our lives are spent exclusively in the here-and-now. Buddhism teaches that all suffering arises from attachments, and in that regard it correlates to cognitive behavioral therapy. Self-talk is like a constant mental radio broadcast that most people don’t know how to turn off, as much as they might wish to sometimes. In my career I’ve had many clients who lived their lives in thrall to their frequent or constant irrational thoughts. Learning meditation gives you a way to turn off the mental radio at will.

Mindfulness is a kind of meditation that’s always available to us. It doesn’t require silence, or sitting in the lotus position, or chanting, or concentrating on a mandala, or doing yoga breathing – although all of these practices are valid methods  for learning to meditate.  Mindfulness simply means getting out of your head and being fully present in the here-and-now, the only time there is, without letting your mind wander and without making judgments.

Before I specifically get into mindfulness further, I’ll first share my understanding of meditation in general. I learned to meditate in grad school, and found that there are many methods for learning to stay in a meditative state of consciousness, some of which I listed above. I’ve experienced two distinct levels of meditation. I started out with what I call single-pointed meditation, which means learning to focus on a single thing – a candle flame in a darkened room, a mantra (chant), focusing on your breathing to the exclusion of all other thought. Unrelated thoughts will inevitably intrude, but with practice you can learn to ignore them, let them go, and return your focus to the single point. At first it’s a balancing act, like walking a mental tightrope. When you first realize that you’ve achieved a meditative state, you think “I’m meditating!”, but the instant you think that, you’re not – you’re thinking again. With sufficient practice you can lengthen the time you stay in the meditative state, and develop confidence in your ability to meditate whenever you choose to.

Once I’d learned to stay focused on one thing exclusively, without letting my mind wander to other things, I was able to move on to a new level of meditation – pure awareness. I learned that it’s possible to be awake and aware, without being aware of any thing. Learning to suspend object-consciousness and judgement is a liberation. You can tame your monkey mind, turn off the mental radio. The silence is golden. It’s a distinct state of consciousness that teaches you what thinking cannot teach. It calms the body and the mind.

Mindfulness is a kind of single-pointed meditative state. You can be mindful while performing a task, taking a walk, taking a bath, having a conversation, doing Tai Chi, or standing in a crowd. You can be mindful of your self-talk. Mindfulness means staying focused on your here-and-now experience, to the exclusion of extraneous thoughts and without making judgments like good/bad, beautiful/ugly, or right/wrong.

Many times in public I’ve played a mindful game with myself, a game that teaches me things about my ordinary (non-mindful) consciousness and my monkey  mind. Normally when I’m in public, people-watching, I’m constantly categorizing and judging and speculating about all the people I see: whether or not I find them attractive, whether they’re fat or thin, graceful or clumsy, whether  they seem smart or dumb, likeable or unlikeable, etc.  Sometimes when I catch myself making these instant evaluations, I decide to play “the Buddha game.” I mindfully suspend my monkey mind and imagine that everybody I see is a Buddha – perfect, God in disguise. Just as I believe that meditation has changed my ordinary consciousness over time, I believe that playing the Buddha game has helped me to be less judgmental and more compassionate.

Mindfulness training is at the core of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), a highly effective therapy developed by Dr. Marsha Linehan to treat people who meet the diagnostic criteria for Borderline Personality Disorder. While she was devising the core strategies of DBT, Dr. Linehan studied meditation with a Catholic priest in a contemplative order and with a zen master. The people for whom DBT was designed tend to be extremely judgmental (of themselves and others) and emotionally volatile. Dr. Linehan became convinced that practicing mindfulness would help them to find balance in their deeply conflicted lives. Having co-led DBT skills training groups and seeing first-hand the effectiveness of mindfulness training, I believe that it’s beneficial for mentally ill people with other diagnoses, too. But as I’ve said many times, you don’t have to be sick to get better. Mindfulness is a learnable practice that can improve your life, if you invest some time in it.