How Mindfulness can Change Your Stress Response

Mindfulness is re-training the mind to respond in a different way and this is something we all need to learn as stress affects us all.

Psychologists used to say that the most common causes of stress were major life events such as: the loss of a job, major financial problems, marriage break down, moving house and so on. Today, those events can still cause stress but something really simple can trigger a stress response because we have been hardwired to feel stress by the way we live our lives.

In 1969, 36 per cent of women reported being stressed. In 2009 that figure has more than doubled to 75 per cent. In 1969 washing machines and TVs were just becoming affordable, now the are considered standard items along with dishwashers, microwaves, mobile phones, tablets and computers, adding to the cost of living. Household debt is now four times more than it was in 1988. And in 1969 the average person slept an average of eight hours. In 2009 30% of people get less than seven hours of sleep a night.

Now some interesting research has shown that individuals exposed to stress on a regular basis may build resilience, but people living a more affluent life may not have developed the same coping skills and may be more susceptible.

The stress response

There are differing opinions as to what causes stress today and the information age is definitely a factor. Change is no longer something that happens once in a while, it is a regular occurrence and the speed at which we are expected to learn new skills is greater than ever before.

Positive thinking alone is not enough to change the stress response

Hans Selye divided our stress response into three different stages: alarm, resistance and exhaustion. We don’t always experience all three stages. During the alarm stage your nervous system goes into fight or flight mode. If the stress doesn’t end you move on to the next stage of resistance where your body tries to get your nervous system back to normal as hormones released during this stressful period can damage your cells, the more stress you have experienced your body will automatically move into the exhaustion stage. The problem for many of us is that our stress response never really switches off and our bodies are constantly being bombarded with stress hormones.

Positive thinking alone will not change your stress response. We need to change the way we act.

Relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises work in the moment. Meditation helps to change our response to stress, but that takes time. The most effective technique to use at any time is mindfulness, and it can be done anywhere.

Mini-Mindfulness exercise

As soon as you notice yourself reacting step out of automatic pilot.

  • Pause.
  • Breathe deeply.
  • In your mind see yourself stepping out of your emotions.
  • Focus on your breathing. Breathe in to the count of four, breathe out to the count of four.
  • Observe how your body responds to your breathing.
  • Observe the world around you. Take note of colours and patterns, shapes and sizes. Do all of this without judgement.
  • Continue to do this for a few minutes, then return to what you were doing previously.

Mindfulness is the practice of observing yourself, your emotions and the way you respond. It is standing outside yourself and being the observer, not the judge.

Mindfulness is re-training the mind to respond in a different way.

Practice is what we do when we need to learn a new skill. When you learn to drive a car, play a sport, or learn to paint you do it repeatedly until you feel you have mastered the skill. Mindfulness is much the same. For it to become an automatic response you need to practice being mindful in different situations, on a daily basis.

You could see this practice as one more thing you have to do, so change the way you think about it, link it to something pleasurable, such as enjoying a cup of coffee. Practice being mindful while drinking coffee, savour every sip, really taste and feel the coffee on your tongue, the feeling of relaxation. Step outside your body and observe yourself drinking coffee. It’s an easy way to establish a positive habit and once you find you do this on a regular basis, you can then add another mindful practice into your daily life, such as being mindful when walking.

Don’t let the simplicity of mindfulness fool you, simple changes can lead to a defining moment, one you will most likely miss if you react. Every time you are present in this moment you reinforce an automatic response that will benefit you for years to come.