If you’ve ever experienced excessive stress (and who hasn’t?), you’ll be familiar with many of its symptoms; the tight muscles, tiredness, irritability, aches and pains, sense of overwhelm and the inability to switch off. Stress just doesn’t feel good and we don’t like it. The problem is, our aversive reaction to stress and the situations which trigger stress, creates a ‘self-seeding’ cycle of stress which actually increases the stress. Here’s what happens:
When we are stressed, our usual automatic reaction is to resist it. This resistance creates even more stress, leading in turn to more resistance and more stress. The whole cycle is fully automated and happens below our level of awareness, but the result is completely contrary to our subconscious good intentions – it creates more stress, not less.
As this self-seeding cycle of stress is maintained so efficiently by our automatic pilot, to break the cycle we must switch our autopilot off. We do this by becoming consciously aware of both our inner experience (thoughts, emotions, impulses and bodily sensations) and our outer experience (what is happening around us) without evaluating what we find. This has immediate benefits. With conscious awareness we are no longer entangled with our experience, which enables us to observe what’s happening from a new perspective. And by not evaluating our experience we cannot be led by our automatic, non-questioned beliefs and assumptions. The difficult thoughts and feelings are still there, we have not disconnected from them, but now that we can observe them non-judgmentally our automatic, habitual reactions are no longer in the driving seat and we can choose our response based on what is most helpful to our wellbeing.
The low stress option
From a mindfulness perspective, the low stress option is to accept our present moment experience just as it is. After all, fighting against something which is already here is an unproductive struggle. Acceptance doesn’t mean that we necessarily like what is here for us, and neither does it mean passive resignation. Acceptance is merely a sensible acknowledgement that life is fluid and freedom from stress lies in creating a different relationship with our experiences. From a position of acceptance and conscious observation, we are better placed to consider how best to respond to both the experience of stress and its trigger/s, allowing us to break the self-seeding cycle of stress and make choices based on clarity and new possibilities.
© Michelle Drapeau, 2018
I run private, 1:1 programmes specifically for people struggling with stress and anxiety: Shine for Wellbeing, a 6 week programme of mindfulness-based therapeutic coaching, and Better Living, a 5 week introduction to mindfulness. I also run group courses, workshops and seminars. I am based in Buckinghamshire, just 15 minutes from Milton Keynes, Buckingham and Aylesbury.