Are You Making These Mistakes That Make Anxiety Worse?

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1) You Avoid Anxiety Triggers

Oftentimes an event, a person or a thought triggers your anxiety.

Many times your anxiety has no trigger.

This mistake is only matters when your anxiety has a trigger.

Once you know the trigger for your anxiety, your mind remembers the trigger and makes you avoid it next time.

Of course, the experience of anxiety is awful and you don’t want to go through that.

But every time you shun the trigger, your mind reinforces the negative relationship to the trigger. The circuits in your mind that remember “this stuff is bad, I hate it and I don’t want to face it” becomes stronger, because you avoided the trigger.

Take an example. Let’s say you have a fear of spiders. When you spot a spider you may scream and go crazy.

And if you or someone else zaps and kills the spider, or removes it, as soon as they can, you shore up the idea in your mind that spiders are bad, scary and to be avoided. You will continue to fear.

Have you heard of ‘Extinguishing through exposure’ or ‘desensitization’? When you avoid you make yourself more sensitive to the trigger.

Challenge: When the trigger is present you blow up so fast that you totally forget not to avoid it.

How to overcome the challenge: You can only do this slowly. Next time you try to stay with the trigger a bit longer. If it takes you a while to take the next step, that is okay.

You may take two steps forward and one step back and that is okay. The path is going to be crooked.

2) You wait for anxiety to be over before engaging in positive emotions

Anxiety can be overwhelming. You may feel depressed and become a naysayer.

You may feel like not doing anything. You may feel like being left alone.

That is normal and expected. But here is the thing, you don’t have to fully recover from your anxiety in order to do something good or feel something good.

Even when you are having anxiety, if you can express positive emotions it helps reduce the anxiety.

Take an example.

While you are having an anxiety attack, even if you don’t feel like if you write an entry in gratitude journal it can help.

While having an anxiety attack, if you can help out someone in the need by doing a small favor it can boost your self-image and help reduce anxiety.

Your friends are going for a fun trip and if your anxiety strikes right when it is time to leave for the trip. You may feel like not going. You may fear that your blues will mess up the trip for everyone.

And yes may muck up the trip for everyone. But taking the trip is more likely to flip your anxious mood, even if you start unwillingly.

Challenge: When having an anxiety attack, it can be hard for you to do anything positive.

How to overcome challenge: Even if you feel phony trying to have fun, do something good or show gratitude because inside you are still anxious it is worth a try.

Remind yourself the purpose of trying positive emotions is to actually get relief from anxiety.

3) You take deep breaths when you feel anxious

This is a big one.

It is almost a common wisdom that when you feel anxious first thing you do is to take deep breaths. You’ve been told many times, “breath” or “don’t forget to breath”.

While you have to continue to breathe, deep breathing actually hurts anxiety. This may surprise you but when you are feeling anxious it is more helpful if you slow down your breathing. Doing exactly opposite of what you think you should do.

When you take a deep breath you flush out Carbon Dioxide (CO2) from the body and now there is less of it. This causes the blood vessels to shrink because CO2 relaxes and expands the vessels. Shrunk blood vessels make you feel tightening in the chest and makes your symptoms of anxiety worse.

Challenge: You may not believe in this advice. It can be hard for you to change the habit of deep breathing.

How to overcome the challenge: Educate yourself. Research the effects of deep breathing on anxiety. Study Buteyko breathing method. Remind yourself even when you don’t have anxiety attack to not breath deep. Try to patiently unlearn the deep breathing habits.

Have you made any of these mistakes?

Do you disagree?

Let me know in the comments.

 

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3 Quick Ways People Are Using to Calm Anxiety & Panic

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Drop into the Sense of Touch

You are quite distracting yourself here. When you feel anxious, three things are happening.

  1. You experience a bad feeling
  2. Thoughts are churning in your head
  3. Sensations are present your body

Thoughts and feelings lock you in. “I just want this to stop” “why is this happening again” “I can’t breath” “why is my heart racing so fast”, “oh my god I’m going to have a heart attack”.

And normally you are fully caught up in these thoughts. They tend to be negative.

As long as you remain with these thoughts, they will hurt you. And you will continue to feel bad.

You experience the icky feeling and you want it to go away, because it is hard to carry on.

If somehow you can get out of this loop of thinking and feeling and pay attention to something else that’s without the “charge”, you may find a break.

And that’s exactly what you are trying to do by dropping into the sense of touch. You direct your awareness away from thought and to the sense of touch.

Try following steps. You do it slowly and at your pace.

  1. Start with your left foot. Become aware of the sensations of touch or contact in your left foot. It could be the sole or back of the heel or some other part of your feet.
  2. Move your attention to the right foot and become aware of sensations of pressure or touch present in your right foot.
  3. Move to your lower legs/calves. If you are wearing pants, do you feel the touch of the clothes? As much as you can, don’t visualize but directly feel the sensations.
  4. Move to your upper legs, feel the touch of the cloth. If you can’t feel anything move on to the next step.
  5. Move to the waist and belly, again feel whatever is touching the belly. If you can’t feel anything place your right hand on your belly and feel the touch of your palm.
  6. Move up to the chest. Either feel the touch of the cloth or move your right hand over the chest and feel it.
  7. You can place both your palms on your face and feel the touch of your palms on your face.

Repeat all steps if you need to as many times you want.

Challenge: You may not be able to focus on the sense of touch so much. As you may not be used to feel that so much. You might easily pulled back to the thoughts and feeling in your head.

How to over come the challenge: Remind yourself to give the sense of touch a try. When you find yourself back into thoughts, gently go back to the sensations. Even when you are not anxious remind yourself you will drop into the sense of touch the next time anxiety strikes.

Quick Walk, Jog Or Run (Do Physical Activity)

Anxiety or panic attack is truly a fight or flight response. Your body is preparing to fly or fight.

The best natural course and the best resolution for a fight or flight response is to actually fight or run.

While actually fighting is not so decent, you can run or jog. Perhaps not literally from he situation but if you can run, jog or walk it will help your body stop the fight or flight reaction.

Run, brisk walk, jog, treadmill or weights are all good choices.

Start the activity right when you start feeling anxiety.

Challenge: You will be completely caught up in worry and will not feel like (motivated) to do the activity.

How to over come the challenge: Remind yourself that it is truly a fight or flight reaction and you need to fly or fight. Even when you are not anxious remind yourself you will walk/jog/run next time anxiety strikes.

Positive Self Talk about What You Should Do

There is more scientific evidence that self talk rewires your brain and reduces anxiety and stress.

As soon as you start feeling anxious start telling yourself,
“it is okay”,
“this shall pass too”.

Use 2nd person (‘You’ or your name) voice in self talk, it was found more effective than 1st person voice in scientific trials.

Use,

“John this is alright.”
“Kathy you will be fine”
“Sally you overcame many such attacks in the past, you will be okay.”

Positive self-talk is more effective. Self-talk about what you should do and NOT what you should not do.

Challenge: You may not feel like. You may feel it is fake.

How to overcome challenge: It is okay if you feel fake. It is okay if you feel you are doing it for sake of doing it. You have to repeatedly practice. Even when you are not anxious remind yourself you will do self talk next time anxiety strikes.

If you suffer from anxiety or panic attacks, what is your biggest challenges? Post it in the comment below.

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Benefits of Meditation without Meditating?

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A regular formal meditation habit will greatly increase your chances of experiencing the benefits.

In your day and age, it might be a tall order to make additional time to meditate.

There is a joke, trying to reduce stress using meditation can be stressful in the beginning. Because you have to make time to meditate regularly.

And many times, your inability to make time for things is the very reason you are stressed out and seeking help.

So what do you do? Here’s where informal meditation or mindfulness practices can help.

I’ll explain one such practice today. It’s called STOP.

You can say it’s a momentary meditation. And you can try it as many times you remember during the day.

STOP is an acronym and stands for Stop, Take a deep breath, Observe and Proceed.

The whole practice doesn’t take more than 6 seconds.

Try it when you are feeling rushed or frenetic!

  • S: Stop, Take a break. It’s a mental break.
    • Stop and recall, you will take a few moments out of the busy­ness to check­-in to the present moment.
    • You can stop physically, but you don’t have to.
  • T: Take a deep breath.
    • A quick short inhalation and a slow long exhalation.
    • Inhalation excites vagus nerve and increases heart rate and blood pressure.
    • Exhalation relaxes vagus nerve, which decreases heart rate and blood pressure.
    • Optimize the breath for the most relaxation by short inhalation & long exhalation.
  • O: Observe something intentionally for a moment or two.
    • Pay attention to or observe a physical sensation in the present moment.
    • One option is to pay attention to or observe the sensation of touch you feel at the bottom of your feet if you are standing up or sitting in a chair.
    • You can also pay attention to the tension in the shoulders, clenching of the fists or any other sensation that you can notice.
    • If all else fails, just observe the breath for a moment.
  • P: Proceed.
    • Proceed or go back to where you were before you started this exercise.

The whole thing doesn’t take more than 6 seconds.

So, let’s try it.

Stop, check-in the present moment. Where is your mind?

Take a deep breath. Relatively shorter inhalation and relatively longer exhalation.

Observe something intentionally. Anything.

Proceed.

Let me know in the comment what did you observe? Or if the exercise didn’t make sense, let me know that.

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What If I Can’t Accept?

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If you try to learn more about mindfulness and meditation you may come across an overarching theme. A theme of acceptance.

Just Accept?

You are expected to accept your circumstances.

One of the popular definition of mindfulness according to Bishop et al. is:

“A kind of nonelaborative, nonjudgmental, present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, or sensation that arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is.

You may also have heard of a term ‘radical acceptance’. It points to the notion of cultivating acceptance of what is normally not accepted or hard to accept.

Some of you may raise a question. Is that practical?

What if I am experiencing tremendous suffering? Perhaps a terminal illness, chronic pain, death of a loved one, an abusive relationship, or an abusive boss or colleague.

Should I just accept my circumstances and continue to suffer?

The simple answer to this question is “No”.

But then why the emphasis on acceptance in the first place? Because things are not always simple in life.

We need to dig deeper.

Accept What You Cannot Influence

Acceptance is predicated on discernment or wisdom. There are situations and circumstances that you can influence and there are the ones you cannot.

For example, you cannot influence following situations.

  • Something that has already happened in the past.
  • What others say.
  • Natural forces, e.g. aging.

The real question is, can you accept what is beyond you? As you can see it implies you need to be able to discern what it is that you can influence and what is beyond you.

For an untrained mind sometimes it is very difficult to accept something that happened in the past. It can be extremely difficult for you to accept aging or chronic illness nonchalantly.

The acceptance as invited by mindfulness, and yes it actually is just an invitation and not an imposition, is coming to terms with reality as it is. It is an invitation to not resist the reality predicated by wisdom.

It is okay to inquire, “why can’t things be different?”.  Pose the question an investigate.

It is quite possible for things to be different sometimes. Sometimes you can chose to behave differently in a situation!

Other times, things cannot really be different. It is futile to resist the law of gravity.

It is only wisdom to work with the gravity. Just like that the whole notion of acceptance is an invitation to inquire into the nature of reality.

Not as it may appear on surface but deep down, how do things really work? And once you comprehend that reality, how you can align yourself with that reality rather than fighting against it.

Designed by Evolution

The real cause of the dilemma is evolution.

The sole objective of evolution is to maximize the survival and the passing of the genes. And I keep repeating this notion that evolution doesn’t care about your happiness or peace of mind.

The objective of evolution is at odds with the behavior of acceptance that mindfulness advocates. Evolution has designed your emotional(limbic) brain to be specifically non-accepting when it comes to aging, disease or anything that jeopardizes your well-being.

For an untrained mind, no amount of reasoning will help easily accept certain situations like, the death of a loved one or terminal illness. That is the reality.

But this is not inevitable. The mind can be trained to accept what is otherwise not acceptable.

Your Brain and Hence Mind Is Plastic

The mind can be trained to come to terms with reality where the circumstances are beyond you, e.g. the death of a loved one or terminal illness.

The emotional brain can trained and mellowed down such that it doesn’t hijack you so badly.

The teachings of mindfulness and meditation charts a path of mind training. This path begins by becoming a scientist of your own mind and curiously studying how your mind works.

Roughly this path is comprised of formal and informal practices of meditation along with a lot of inquiry and investigation to help train the mind.

And once you start with this training you may realize that no matter how much you train, you may still have instances of experience when you are unable to accept reality.

In that moment you accept the non-acceptance. That is what really the radical acceptance is.

The Stance of Awareness

Also if you realize, if you take the stance of awareness, you never run into this problem of whether to accept or not. Because awareness hold acceptance, non-acceptance and acceptance of non-acceptance.

Awareness is just aware. From awarenesses perspective everything is okay. Acceptance is okay and non-acceptance is also okay.

 

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This Is How You Can Become More Positive

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Rick Hanson, the author of ‘Buddha’s Brain’ said:

Your mind is like velcro to negativity and Teflon to positivity.

If you played with a dog 1000 times and he bit you once, what will you remember? That the dog bit you once.

And not so much the 999 times where you absolutely enjoyed playing with him.

Why?

Because your mind is wired for negativity.

It is wired to easily pick out what is negative in your surrounding.
It is wired to easily dwell on the negativity.
It is wired to easily seek negative aspects of your experience.

Why?

It is an evolutionary adaptation. Earlier in the human history, the guy or girl who obsessed about things that could go wrong, was more likely to be prepared.

The person who obsessed about the predators on the horizon was more likely to be prepared and hence more likely to survive.

The person who didn’t bother so much about things that could go wrong was probably the first one to get wiped out when things went wrong.

And of course things did go wrong from time to time, e.g. predators attacked quite frequently.

Does this mean, obsessing about negativity is the right thing to do?

Not at all. Firstly, our environment is very different today.

It is still true that the ones who obsess about what could go wrong are more likely to be prepared. But you will end up paying a much steeper price compared to earlier in the history.

In the environment, we live today, the incremental benefit that you get from focusing too much on negativity is far outweighed by the risks of being too negative. 

Too much negativity can lead to a lack of self-confidence, depression, other mental and physical health issues.

But by default you are likely to engage in too much negativity because of the wiring of your brain.

Can it be fixed? And if so, how?

Yes, it can be fixed. Your mind can be trained to focus less on negativity and become more positive.

You do it by taking the time to intentionally notice the positive aspects of your experience. And practicing it repeatedly. 

The most effective way to train your mind is through repetition.

Practically following are some of the ways of reorienting your mind for more positivity.

  1. Gratitude journaling.
  2. Loving kindness meditation practices.

You may be familiar with gratitude journaling already. But I will show you one easy way to get started.

  • Get a small and inexpensive notebook. I suggest you keep a separate dedicated notebook for this purpose.
  • I suggest you use longhand and not do this on computer or phone. Good old pen and paper.
  • Keep this notebook and a pen by your bedside.
  • Right before you go to sleep, pick up the notebook and pen.
  • Think of 3 things that went well that day. 
  • Push yourself a bit if you need to, to recall 3 things that went well.
  • These 3 things don’t have to be grand.
  • They could be somethings as simple as having a meal that you enjoyed. It could also be the fact that you didn’t get involved in any arguments throughout the day.
  • This has to be an ongoing practice. You try to do it every day. It is okay if you occasionally miss some days.

I highly recommend you get started on this practice.

Any questions?

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11 Meditation Misconceptions Clarified

Young woman during relaxation and meditation in park meditation session. Frame shows half of body.

There are a lot of misconceptions out there about meditation and mindfulness.

In this article, I will try to clarify most of the misconceptions about meditation.

1. Meditation Means Clearing or Emptying the Mind

As described in this blog post, meditation means cultivation of the mind. More specifically it is the cultivation of the faculty of attention.

In meditation you try practicing paying attention. Paying attention is same as becoming aware. You can say that in meditation you practice becoming aware.

You pay attention or become aware, over and over again during meditation. It doesn’t matter what you chose to pay attention.

There are many choices when it comes to picking what to pay attention. You can pay attention to the breath, to the sense of the body, to physical sensations, to visual objects (e.g. a candle light), to sounds or even to thoughts.

It is just not clearing the mind. It is not emptying the mind or stopping thoughts. It is not the space between thoughts. It is practicing paying attention.

This argument may not hold when you reach the advanced stage of meditation. But for a beginner or an intermediate meditator, it is very important that they don’t think of meditation as clearing the mind.

It would help you a lot if you realize that meditation is practicing paying attention.

2. Meditation Means Going Into a Trance

This one is similar to the previous one about clearing the mind. Meditation is not hypnosis. You are not supposed to become unconscious during meditation.

On the contrary meditation is the practice of paying attention. I would add, alert attention.

Meditation is all about paying attention to your direct experience. And learning from your direct experience.

So much of our learning is conceptual. We used language symbols and we form concepts about such symbols and a framework that integrates such symbols along with a particular way of relating with those symbols.

Conceptual learning can be useful, but meditation is the skill of facing the direct experience head on. It is exactly opposite of hypnosis or trance.

3. Meditation Is Just a Relaxation Technique

Meditation is not merely a relaxation technique. When you meditate, you may feel relaxed afterwords.

Some scientist call meditation a relaxation response. You may have heard the term ‘stress response’, or ‘fight or flight response’.

During stress response, the body get agitated. Your heartbeats increase, your breath fasters, your blood pressure increases. After all the body is being prepared to run or fight.

When you meditate or practice paying attention and restoring your attention over and over again, the body is likely to produce a response which is opposite of the stress response.

Your body relaxes, your heartbeats slow down, your breathing slows down. You feel relaxed.

This is not guaranteed to happen each time you meditate, but there is a high likelihood you will feel relaxed.

But in reality meditation really means practicing paying attention to what you are doing in order to strengthen your awareness or mindfulness.

Once your awareness becomes stronger, you will be able to notice things you didn’t notice before. You will be able to notice how your mind functions.

With stronger awareness you will be able to notice, exactly when your mind reacts to somethings. You will be able to notice habitual patterns of your mind. You will be able to notice the previously unconscious biases and prejudices of your mind.

Once you start noticing how your mind works, it may help you get more clarity about the situation. Once you understand how your mind actually functions, you can see more choices that you have available in your daily life circumstances.

And through proper exercise of choices you will be able to reduce stress, worry, anxiety and other problems that you face in your life.

Relaxation is just a byproduct of meditation. Meditation is much more than relaxation.

4. The Purpose of Meditation Is to Gain Supernatural Powers

As we just discussed earlier, meditation is nothing else but attention training.

And by training attention, we improve or strengthen awareness and start noticing what was previously unnoticed or subconscious.

Such improved awareness can help us gain clarity about situations and make us see the choices that are available to us at any given instant.

It has nothing to do with supernatural powers. Meditation is firmly rooted in the mundane realities of life.

Because we are very familiar with mundane realities. And although sometimes supernatural powers can be helpful, if they ever existed, the mundane reality in itself holds the answers to many of your problems.

You just have to pay attention to your current direct experience.

5. Meditation Is Running Away from Reality

Yes you often meditate in seclusion or go to isolated places for meditation retreats.

Although such retreats can be greatly helpful. You really don’t have to leave your home to meditate.

When you are formally practicing meditation the lesser the distractions more helpful it is. In fact that is the point of trying to practice meditation in isolation.

But the whole point of meditation is not to continue to stick to the isolation but use a distraction free environment wherever it is possible to train attention.

And use the attention training to face the reality head on. Meditation is all about cultivating awareness and use that awareness to turn towards difficulties.

You use meditation to gain more clarity about difficult situation by facing them head on and not use the avoidance or ignorance techniques to deal with life.

6. Meditation Is Selfish Activity

Yes it looks like when you are meditating you are focusing on yourself and you even try to close your eyes. It looks like as if you are ignoring what is around you.

You try to close your eyes and you try to meditate in a distraction free environment. But the point is not to practice being selfish but to practice paying attention.

It seems like you are being selfish, but you are practicing paying attention so that you can notice when subconscious selfish urges arise and you don’t automatically serve them.

You meditate to improve awareness so that you can notice when you are being too selfish and not being fair to people. And same awareness can help you bolster a healthy amount of selfishness that you all need to prevent you from getting sucked into a depressive spiral.

7. Meditation Is Dangerous

So is driving car. Did you know that people are more likely to die in car accidents than flying in airplanes?

Meditation practices have been around for literally thousands of years. There aren’t documented cases of meditation proving to be very dangerous in a very short amount of time.

It may not be for everyone. In some rare cases, the mental health problems can get worse with meditation.

But even in those cases, there tends to be a gradual progression of its ill effects. There will be signs in advance.

When you start practicing meditation, you should always listen to the wisdom of your own body and mind. If meditation doesn’t suit you, the body and mind is very likely to let you know, well in advance.

There will be signs and symptoms that will be present and at the earliest signs you can stop.

For vast majority, meditation has been beneficial. If you are interested you can give it a sincere try under the guidance of a qualified teacher.

You should not try to meditate without proper understanding or proper guidance of a qualified teacher.

8. Meditation Is Not for Regular People

The prevalent images of monks or religious people meditating may have given rise to the notion that it is only for monks and not for normal people.

That is not true. Yes, monastic community throughout the world has used meditation to achieve their spiritual goals.

But as past couple decades of research has been showing us that meditation can have practical benefits like reducing stress or easing mental health problems.

Meditation has diverse set of potential benefits. People from all walks of life, ranging from athletes to business executives have been successfully practicing meditation for a long time.

9. Meditation Is a Mystical, Hard to Comprehend Activity

Meditation comes from Sanskrit word ‘Bhavana’, which means cultivation. Cultivation of what?

Cultivation of the mind. Mind has several faculties. And cultivation of any of those faculties is meditation.

From this reasoning all forms of education is meditation.

A more popular form of cultivation of mind is that of the faculty of attention. Apparently when you train your attention it helps increase your awareness or mindfulness and that has many practical benefits.

Meditation is nothing else but cultivation of different faculties of mind. In a more narrow sense, it is the cultivation of attention by practicing paying attention.

Yet another popular set of meditation is the cultivation of a set of mental attitudes. The example is the cultivation of kindness.

Human mind is plastic and you can cultivate kindness as a skill by repeatedly practicing being kind.

What part of this explanation is mystical? Training attention by repeatedly practicing paying attention and training to be kinder by practicing being kind, what is if anything that is not clear about that?

10. You Just Need Very Little for A Couple of Weeks to Experience Benefits

Meditation is not a quick fix. Our society has been primed to expect quick fixes.

You might argue who wouldn’t want quick fixes. Of course, if there are quick fixes you can use those.

In life, not all problems have quick fixes. And there are quick and dirty fixes and there are longer term, permanent fixes.

Meditation doesn’t work fast. It works by dose response. More you meditation more benefits you will experience.

But that doesn’t mean you have to meditate for decades in order to experience the benefits.

The research is still in its infancy, but there are some trends that have been emerging.

For some people they can start experiencing benefits with as short as 10 minute meditation per day and within a couple of weeks.

More practice scenario is that, once you start meditation more than 30 minutes, you are like to start experiencing significant benefits within 6 to 8 weeks.

But if you are able to form the habit of meditation, it can change your life. Your reality can transform in a way where things don’t disturb you so much.

You can become much more resilient and can face ups and downs of life with balance, clarity and ease. You can become more joyful, calm and wiser person.

Don’t expect meditation to work fast.

11. Meditation Is a Way to Get High

Do you get high by practicing paying attention?

Do you get high by practicing being kind?

It should be clear by now what meditation is and it has nothing to do with getting high.

If it is still not clear, let me know in the comment below and I will respond.

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Feeling Stressed? Try Mindful ABC

Beautiful casual bored or sleeping student woman by a desk.

When you feel stressed, worried, anxious or overwhelmed, you can try following a practice called Mindful ABC.

It is not a substitute for daily formal meditation, but rather a complementary practice that can help you cope with the stressful situation at the moment.

The way it works is better your daily meditation practice gets, easier it becomes for you to try Mindful ABC and more likely it will actually work.

Step A stands for Awareness

Step B stands for Belief reframing

Step C stands for Choice

Here is how it works

Awareness

In this step…

  • You bring awareness to the signs and symptoms of the stress or overwhelm.
  • Primarily the feeling of being stressed or being overwhelmed is there that can be felt.
  • But there are physical sensations and thoughts that are also present that you can become aware of.
  • At times the only apparent signs is your behavior. You may start avoiding things, or you may just become very irritable.
  • You always start with recognizing and becoming aware of the distinct feeling of being stressed or overwhelemed. This is an inherently unpleasant feeling.
  • Next easiest place to bring awareness is with physical sensations or symptoms.
  • Perhaps you notice the sensations right away.
  • If not you may have to scan through the body.
  • Start with the head and then move through the neck, shoulders, chest, belly, legs and feet.
  • Common places where you feel physical are in your head, face, stomach and chest. But it can be somewhere else for you. These symptoms are very individual.
  • The examples are the heaviness in head, tingling at the top of your head, warmth in your face, twitching on your face or eyelids, vibrations in chest or stomach or butterflies in stomach.
  • With practice you can also become aware of thoughts that are present. Although it tends to be hard to notice thoughts.
  • Or you can also notice the change in behavior, e.g avoidance or irritability.
  • The recommendation is not to try and cover all components of the experience e.g. physical sensations, thougths, feeling and behavior, but become aware of at least one component.
  • May be all you became aware of was the feeling tone of being stressed. Or may be you just noticed the funny feelng in your head.
  • After having noticed one of the aspects of your stressful experience for a few seconds you want to ask yourself the question “What is causing me to feel stressed?”
  • Perhaps it is because what someone said to you, presence of an individual you don’t like, an impending dealine or anticipatory thoughts about something that can go wrong in the future.

Typically when you feel stressed or overwhelmed, you get caught up in the reactivity. You experience the state of feeling stressed, worried or overwhelmed, but you get caught up in associated thoughts and you fully identified with the thought.

Then you are fully occupied with the scenario of what if you run into financial trouble in the future. Or what if you can’t meet the deadline at work. What if the neighbor threatens with the lawsuit.

Those thoughts are playing out in your mind, you are fully identified with them and there is no awareness.

In this practice, you try to bring awareness to the situation.

As you continue to practice Mindful ABC, see if you can expand your awareness and notice other aspects of experience, e.g. thoughts, sensations or behavior change that are present with feeling stressed or being worried.

You may realize that there is the feeling of unplesantness that is present and along with it, there is a resistance or a desire for that feeling to go away or be not there. You notice that you don’t like being stressed, or worried.

Normally you may have a vague sense of all of this, but here with Mindful ABC practice you are intentionally shining the spotligth of awareness to what is present in terms of physical sensations and the general feeling.

Next, you want to bring awareness to the trigger or the stimulus that caused you to feel stressed.

At this stage you are bringing awareness to the cause of your stress. What it is that is actually causing you to feel stressed.

Belief Reframe

During this step…

  • You try to revisit your basic belief about what causes you stress.
  • And you try to reframe that belief so that the stressful situation become more meaningful to you.
  • In reality stress is a fight, flight or freeze response that is an evoluation adaptation to get us out of the harms way. It is meant to restore balance within out body mind system.
  • You can say to yourself, “I am feeling stressed, because my body is trying to get me out of the harms way, or my body is preparing me to appropriately deal with the situation that is at hand.”
  • Normally you get caught up in thoughts or the resistance during the stressful situation and your relationship with stressful situation may just be plain unpleasant.
  • With practice over the period of time, you can get to a point where awareness can help you visit your beliefs about the situation.
  • And once you are able to successfully reframe your beliefs about stress, it may make your expereince more meaningful.

It is okay, if you can’t reach to the belief reframing step and just get caught up after the awareness step.

This practice is not expected to work in a rigid A, B, C sequent right away.  This practice is something you can keep trying over and over again and gradually you will get better at it.

It is completely okay to just to the stap A and abandone the practice.

Choice

The hope is that eventually you will get to this step.

In this step you choose how you go about the next steps, having become aware of your stressful situation.

  • You have ascertained you feel overwhelmed and unpleasant.
  • You also became aware of the cause of your stress.
  • Now you have to do a little more analysis.
  • You need to ask yourself the quetsion. “Is the cause of your stress, something that you can change or influence?”
  • If it is a presentation that is due, can you get to work and finish it?
  • If it is a looming deadline, is there a point in giving your 100% for the remaining time you have and actually doing it?
  • If it is a child throwing tantrum in a public place, can you take your child home?
  • If it is your boss gettnig mad at you, is there a point in setting up a meeting with boss to try and clarify the sitaution?
  • If it is what someone said to you,
    • Can you stop them from saying things?
    • You can’t stop others from saying things.
    • In that case, does shouting back to the person help? Not really.
    • But this doesn’t mean you become the doormat.
    • You can still tell them without shouting that what they did was insensitive and you don’t appreciate it.
  • If you don’t like the presence of a person,
    • Is it really upto you when and where that person presents himself? Not really.
    • What can you do then?
    • You can try to run away.
    • But then you will have to be ready to run away all the time and perhaps you will find yourself running away all the time. And not only that, others will be dictating your life.
    • You can try to accept that you don’t like the person but you might be okay with their presence. Maybe?
    • So that they don’t dictate your life anymore and you don’t have to start liking them. But yes you still have to have some amount of acceptance of your dislike.
  • The point is that, if there is a source of stress, which you can easily avoid, you do that.
  • If the source of stress is something you can’t control, it helps to accept that it is beyond your control and not try to “fix” the situation.
  • In order to make a proper choice of the “next steps” you need to have clarity about the current situation.
  • There cannot be clarify about the current situation if you are caught up in your stress reactivity.
  • You can use awareness to get yourself out of the reactivity and be more present.
  • Once you are present and paying attention you can start thinking clearly about what is the best way out your situation.
  • Again, you might not be able to reach this step earlier in your practice. And that’s okay.
  • The hope is you can do the full sequence with practice, over the period of time.

Summary

When you feel stressed.

  • See if you can first become aware that you are feeling stress.
  • See if you can notice the source of the stress.
  • Try to reframe your beliefs about stress. In reality you feel stress to do something about the situation and get yourself out of the harms way.
  • See if you can have a moment of clarity where you can contemplate your next choices.

 

 

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Knowing This About Human Psychology Can Save Your Life

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No Bystander Help for Murder Victim

In March 1964, Catherine Genovese was killed on her street in a late-night attack as she returned from work in Queens New York.

Although in a city as big as New York, many homicides take place, this was not an ordinary homicide.

For more than half an hour 38 law-abiding, respectable citizens in Queens watched a killer chase and stab a woman in three different attacks on the same street.

Twice the sudden turning on of their bedroom lights and their voices interrupted the killer and scared him off. But each time he returned, sought her out and stabbed her repeatedly.

Not even a single person called the police during the attack. One witness called police after the woman was dead.

Why Wouldn’t Good People Help? A Cold Society?

The investigators and the detectives were shocked and baffled. Why did so many good people fail to act under those circumstances?

Did the observers fear to get involved in the situation? Were they afraid?

It doesn’t seem to be the case. All it takes is a simple anonymous phone call.

Could that be a city-caused apathy? There is a notion that hardships of modern life make us cold.

When you are surrounded by so many people all the time, to prevent them from interfering with you too much, you isolate yourself. You become indifferent.

Was that the real reason why Catherine Genovese didn’t get help?

Although it may seem like this is not really an isolated case. Such cases happen with more frequency than you may realize.

Reasons Why Bystanders Don’t Help….Sometimes

Psychologists think there are two reasons why a bystander is unlikely to help in an emergency situation when there are other bystanders that are present.

Notice that bystanders tend to not help only when there are other bystanders that are present. This phenomenon has to do with a group of people.

Dilution of Personal Responsibility

The first likely reason is that when you witness something in a group setting, your personal responsibility gets diluted. You think that perhaps someone else will call police or emergency. Perhaps someone else has already called.

Everyone thinks someone else will help or has helped and no one helps.

Uncertainty About Situation, Is It Really an Emergency?

The second reason is a little bit tricky. It involves uncertainty about the situation.

In situations when you come across someone laying on the floor, could that be a heart attack victim or just a drunk person sleeping?

When you notice people quarreling, could that be an assault requiring police intervention or just a household spat where intervention is unwelcome.

In such situations of uncertainty, the natural tendency is to look around and look at the actions of others for clues. You try to learn from the actions of other witnesses in determining what to do next about the situation at hand.

What may end up happening is again, everyone in the group is looking at the others for clues and they all may end up making the wrong judgment.

In a research study, a student who pretended to be having an epileptic seizure was helped 85 percent of the time when only one bystander was present but only 31 percent of the time when there were five bystanders present.

The point is that there are many layers to human psychology. There are multiple invisible forces that dictate your behavior at any given instance.

At times, your behavior may appear very irrational on the surface.

More importantly, how would you prevent yourself to be a victim who doesn’t get help if you ever found yourself in such a situation?

Given the insight we have in possible reasons why bystanders may not help, you can try to address the core problems.

There are two problems here. One is that of dilution of responsibility. Everyone thinks others may have already done something about the situation and no one does anything.

One is that of dilution of responsibility. Everyone thinks others may have already done something about the situation and no one does anything.

The second problem is that of the uncertainty. The group of bystanders can be uncertain whether it is really an emergency situation or not.

How to Save Yourself In an Emergency

Following is what you can specifically do to address both of the above-mentioned problems.

  • Isolate one individual from the group/crowd of bystanders.
  • Stare at the person.
  • While staring, point directly at the person and nobody else, removing all doubts about who you are pointing to.
  • While pointing at the person, speak to the person.
  • Be very specific about what you say to the person.
  • For example, “Hey you sir, in the red jacket, I need help. Call ambulance.” Or whatever is appropriate for the situation. But be very specific.

How Not to Be an Apathetic Bystander

Here is where awareness can help. The real problem is that you easily become subject to unconscious urges.

From the point of view of awareness, it can trump the unconscious behavior of becoming paralyzed under uncertain circumstances and seeking social proof.

When you find yourself in a group of bystanders and uncertain about the emergency, you don’t make assumptions.  You don’t look at others, you go and take action.

You go and find out whether the person laying on the ground is just a drunk sleeping or a person having a stroke or heart attack. You give the person the benefit of a doubt.

 

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Reduce Overwhelm by Getting Grounded In the Body

Young woman meditating in a forest sitting on a wooden floor. Zen, meditation, relax, spiritual health, healthy breathing

Modern life is complex. You are extremely busy wading through the complexity of the life.

For many of you, it can be hard to cope with the realities of the life. There are lots of responsibilities that are there upon your shoulders.

You feel overwhelmed. Life also becomes very boring, monotonous, uninteresting and more painful.

The Disembodied Living

What ends up happening a lot is you get caught up. You get caught up in the rat race. You get caught up with the business of the life.

When you get caught up, very frequently the worrying thoughts catch up with you. The anxiety catches up with you.

This is the disembodied living.

You live mainly in thoughts, emotions, and mind states. You also call this living in your head.

It is the most unstable form of living. It is very fickle.

Of course, it can easily become very painful once you get caught up in worrying or anxiety causing thoughts.

So what can you do?

There are some choices that are available to you. You may realize this or not, but the choices are out there.

Following are the four possibilities or ways of living.

  • Living in the thoughts, emotions, and mental state
  • Living in the physical sensations
  • Living in the breath
  • Living in the body

They are listed in order of progressively increasing stability.

Living In the Head

When you live in the mental world, where thoughts and emotions predominate you can easily get worried, anxious and depressed. You can easily get hijacked by emotions.

This is the default state of living. You start out here. We all start out here. This comes naturally to you.

Living with mental states means identifying with mental states. Getting lost in thoughts and emotional reactions.

Living In the Physical Sensations

The next more stable state of living is living with physical sensations. What does it mean?

It means becoming aware of physical sensations. There are almost always lots of physical sensations that are present throughout the body.

They are available to pay attention to. For example, you can feel the bottom of your feet touching the floor or the shoes.

Many such sensations are constant and when they are constant the mind tunes them out for its favorite activity, which is thinking or getting lost in thoughts.

But when you pay attention and feel the contact at the bottom of your feet, it doesn’t give you anxiety.

When you feel your buttocks pressing against the chair. Or you feel your back pressing against the chair or a couch it doesn’t give you anxiety.

Either you sit, stand or lie down, some extension of earth hold you and this holding can be felt as a sensation of touch. There is a certain kind of stability to this sensation.

It is not fickle, it doesn’t go away that easily. In itself it is natural.

You can say that it is a form of distraction away from your thoughts. That is true, you can say that. We just live so much in our heads you can use many types of distractions.

But it is not a mere distraction. Physical sensations are very much part of your reality as are your thoughts.

It is just that your mind judges them to be unworthy or inconsequential. But they can be real stalwart allies once you learn to pay attention to them.

You mind is not a very reliable source of good judgments. Because instantaneously judging everything is its nature.

And when you judge things out of habit, you can’t always do justice. You mind is more adept at passing quick and dirty judgments that help it wade through the life.

A quick and dirty judgment that makes you feel certain in a moment, may not be a very judgment in the long run.

Living In the Breath

Next type of living is the living with the breath. It is a more stable form of living compared to living with the physical sensations.

Primarily because the breath is the life force. It never goes away. Thoughts come and go.

Physical sensations also come and go, although not as fickle as thoughts. But still physical sensations are more dyadic they change a lot.

Whereas breath never leaves. Of course, breath is not stagnant and static.

It has its own internal dynamism and rhythm, but still it is always there. Not only there, you cannot live without it.

You can live without thoughts, you can live without physical sensations, but you cannot live without breath.

Not only that, the breath has the power to sway the mind. By properly regulating breathing you can calm down your mind.

When you breathe out it relaxes you, so by extending your exhalations you can relax you mind.

But living with the breath is the next higher level of stability because breath is always there. You can count on your breath.

Of course living with the breath means paying attention to the breath.

Living In the Body

The ultimate form of stable living comes from living with the body. The body is the primary basis of our existence.

Everything is there because there is the body. Even what we call mind, seems to be housed in the body.

But still we tend of disembodied. We tend to live as if the body is just not there.

It is usually all about the mind. Mind dominates.

You tend to take the body for granted. But the body can provide a solid foundation which unwavering.

Your thoughts or emotions could be completely wild and crazy and can give you a lot of grief. But the body is always there available at the moment.

So how do you live with the body? You do that by paying attention to the body.

There are several ways of paying attention to the body.

  1. You can use the sense of seeing and visually look at the body.
  2. You can use the sense of touch to feel the parts of the body.
  3. You can use internal sense (interoception) to feel the presence of the body, even with the eyes closed.

The 1st option is a legitimate way of paying attention to the body. But there is a problem with this option.

You are so used to looking at the visual objects. And your mind has a tendency to start thinking about them as soon as you take a look.

There are more chances of you falling back to living in your head with option 1.

Also, as you can see that option 2 is really living with the physical sensations as we saw earlier. In a sense, living with the physical sensations can be a doorway to living with the body.

But here the recommendation is to feel the presence of the body using the internal sense.

Although it may sound unfamiliar to begin with, it is not that difficult. You can do an experiment.

Close your eyes for a moment. Even with your eyes closed you can feel the presence of the body.

If you are sitting in a chair, you can feel the body present sitting in a chair, even with the eyes closed.

That is interoception. The internal sense.

This sense of the presence of the body is the extreme form of stability. This sense never goes away, throughout your life.

That is your body, always there, always present.

The mind can go all over the place. It can think about the future or think about the past.

But the body is always in the present moment. We haven’t devised ways for the body to not be in the present moment yet.

Living with the body does not imply that body is immune to any unpleasantness or discomfort. Of course, at times, the body could be hurting or aching.

And if it is aching a lot, it could be impossible to live in the body. And that is okay.

Living with the body doesn’t mean always be able to live with the body.

The point is that even when the body is hurting living in the body provides more stability than living in the head.

Let me explain.

When you experience pain. There is the internal resistance to the pain as it is an unpleasant sensation.

But typically as soon as you experience the pain, your mind starts catastrophizing. It immediately runs through the worst case scenario.

What if the pain doesn’t stop. What if I need a surgery. And on and on.

As soon as you start living in the mind, your suffering exacerbates. But more you chose to live with the physical sensations or the sense of the body, less the suffering.

A Practice to Ground Yourself

Following steps are for a meditation practice that you can use to learn to live in the body.

  • Settling into a comfortable posture.
  • Placing your hand wherever it feels comfortable.
  • Closing your eyes if you prefer or keeping them open with a soft gaze in the front.
  • Keeping the back upright could be helpful.
  • You are really looking for a balance between relaxation and vigilance. A place where you are not overly stiff nor overly relaxed.
  • Take a couple of intentional deep breaths.
  • As you exhale, see if you can have a sense of letting go of concerns and worries. Give it a try if you are unable to, that is okay.
  • Then going back to normal breathing.
  • Now bring your awareness to the bottom of your feet. Becoming aware of the sensations of contact or pressure wherever your feet are in contact with floor, shoe or bed.
  • As best as you can, continue to feel the sensations in your feet.
  • Now if you can, expand your awareness to include physical sensations in your hands. Perhaps hands are placed in your lap or on your knees. Then feeling the sensations of pressure, touch or contact in your palms.
  • Continue to be aware of sensations both in your feet and your hands/palms for a few more moments.
  • Now expand awareness to include the sense of the whole body. You are still feeling the sensations in your feet and palms. But now you are also feeling the whole sense of the body, present and either sitting in a chair, standing up or laying in the bed.
  • If it is easier, you can drop the sensations in your feet and palms and just continue to have awareness of the body as a whole.
  • If mind wanders, then whenever you notice, bring yourself gently back to the sense of the whole body. As many times as needed.

Summary

Living in the head is the most unstable form of living. It makes us more prone to suffering. Still, you tend to live here a lot as it comes naturally.

Living in the body is the most stable form of living. The body is always rooted in its firmness. Always in the present moment.

You can learn to live in the body to be more grounded, stable, equanimous and peaceful.

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How to Aspire and Not Miss Out On Life

Concept or conceptual 3D male businessman on stair or steps near a wall background, metaphor to success, climb, business, rise, achievement, growth, job, career, leadership, education, goal or future

Your aspirations could be the driving force that makes you work hard. For some, the dreams are the only hope and only reason they are alive.

Yet, aspirations are double edged swords. You can easily wait for your dream to materialize and waste your life while it never happens.

You might end up missing out on what is important in your life.

There is a way you can still have dreams and hopes but not miss out on what is valuable to you.

The practice of meditation can help you make it happen. It provides you an opportunity to relate differently to your goals.

It is through learning to relate differently to life goals, you can learn to be present for your life.

First lets get the connection between meditation and goals.

Is There a Goal to Meditation?

Does the process of meditation have a goal? Some people would argue it doesn’t.

But it does have a goal. Meditation is really mind training.

It is not an aimless practice. You work with different faculties and attitudes of mind to develop them further.

In the beginning, the goal is to train your awareness.

In order to achieve the goal, you can use an anchor. Typically the anchor is the breath, as in breathing meditation.

The goal of the meditation is to focus on your breath (rest your awareness on the breath).

Drop All Your Goals When Meditating

But paradoxically, many teachers will ask you to try and drop all goals as you practice meditation. More specifically you should try to not strive or push yourself towards the goal of focusing on your breath.

Why should we do that? Is there really a goal or not? Is it just being wishy-washy?

There may be some value in approaching your meditation practice in such a paradoxical fashion. Let’s dig deeper to figure out why.

The ultimate purpose of any meditation practice is to train your mind. You typically start with training one of the faculties of your mind, the awareness.

You train awareness by picking an anchor.  E.g. the breath and practicing awareness of the breath.

As you practice awareness of the breath, you realize it is not at all easy to achieve the goal in such a practice. As your mind keeps wandering.

You may also encounter many other ‘distractions’ prevents you from achieving your goal, which is practicing the awareness of the breath (focusing on the breath).

You Are Very Good at Striving and Pushing Yourself

We are a goal driven species. Pursuing goals come naturally to you. What you are good at is striving to achieve goals. You tend to push our self really hard in order to achieve goals.

This attitude of striving or pushing can be effective in getting us close to our goals. But if your life were to turn into a series of goal pursuits, that would set you up for a lot of disappointment and the heartache.

By default, you approach goals as ends. You employ different means to reach the goal which is an end.

But that is not the only way to approach goals. There is another way of going about goals.

Goal as a Means and Not an End

Here you flip the goals upside down. In this alternate approach goals are not ends, but rather means. You still set goals but not something out there in the future to be achieved.

Here goals are just tools, means and the end is always the present moment. The end is always the now of your life.

Because there is nothing out there, for certain. There are just thoughts about what could be out there. What is certain is your life happening in this moment.

The journey is all you have. The journey of ups and downs.

And sometimes the present moment could be terrible with a lot of suffering. And that is the nature of life. Some moments are pleasant, some unpleasant and rest neutral.

You cannot expect all moments to be pleasant or unpleasant. At least, half the time things are not so bad in the present moment.

It is very common for the following scenario to play out in your life.

Aspiring Student Missing Out on Play

When you are in school, you aspire either to be a 4.0 GPA student, or you aspire to be a professional athlete. You prepare and focus on something out there which you haven’t achieved yet.

If your goal is an academic one, you skip play. If your goal is sports, you skip studies. Either way, you skip time with the loved ones.

When you reach the end of the school, you want to go to the ivy league or the college sports league. Again you sacrifice in order to prepare.

Although not many kids get into ivy leagues and college sports leagues. So you settle with what you get. Once in a college, again there is a new “out there” on the horizon.

Aspiring Job Seeker Settling With the Job

The dream job, or the dream draft. You get to work again. And after a few years of grueling work, most of you settle again.

It doesn’t end there. Then it is the promotion. Then it is retirement. It is your whole life.

What ends up happening is, you are always waiting for the next “out there” which you think will make you happy and content.

Most of the time, you don’t get what you aspire and you grudgingly settle. But even if you get what you wanted, the happiness and the satisfaction is only momentary.

The unsatisfactoriness kicks in again, as the new “out there” appears on the horizon. You end up not living your life, you end up chasing a mirage most of the time.

A Normal Guy Missing Out on Life

You only regret when you near your death. One of the worst regrets of dying is not being able to spend time with the loved ones.

I don’t mean to convey you should not engage in the activity you really enjoy, e.g. sports. Also being able to sacrifice, in itself is not necessarily a bad trait.

The problem is when such an attitude of waiting for “something out there” becomes the norm. That is when you start really missing out on life wholesale.

The Destination Is the Journey

This is why the goals as means could be a very useful skill you can learn.

Once you master this skill,

  • you can still aspire to score well academically, you can still aspire to become the best sports person or
  • you can still aspire to become the best sports person,
  • you can still aspire for that promotion.
  • But your life doesn’t depend upon that. The goal is just a tool. Your destination is the journey.
  • You practice awareness much more. You are living in the moment.
  • You take the time to reflect on what is meaningful to you. You prioritize your life so that you allocate time doing activities that you meaningful to you.
  • You notice the urge to keep up with people around you, but you don’t give into that urge. You now know that you have a choice when it comes to your emotions and inner drives.
  • You can set limits. You can easily say “no”.
  • You can find contentment in whatever you already possess. You don’t obsess about losing things.
  • You realize, the nature of reality is such that you can lose things anytime.
  • You can lose your life anytime. But you can take all of that with a certain equanimity.

Learning the Skill of Goals as Means

How do you learn this skill? Meditation is a perfect opportunity to practice the skill of goals as means.

Things to keep in mind for practice goals as means during meditation.

  • The ‘goal’ is still to orient awareness to the chosen anchor for the meditation and sustain it over there.
  • You affirm that this is not the end goal. It is just a tool. Means you can relax a bit.
  • You can also affirm it to yourself, that it is okay if your mind wanders a lot and you are not able to focus so much on the chosen anchor.
  • The real goal of meditation is to be present or be aware. It is to be with your experience no matter what type of experience you have.
  • You can expect to have some meditation sessions where it is easy for you to focus and others where it is not at all easy to focus.

Summary

You need goals.

Goals can make you lose sight of what really matters in life. As you always find yourself chasing the goals.

Goals can be ends, but can also be means to being present.

When you prioritize being present over striving for some outcome different than what you have, you are less likely to miss out on what is important.

Meditation can help you strike the balance between aspirations and reality.

 

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It’s Not the Stress Itself But the Stress Belief That Kills

Headache migraine people - Doctor woman stressed. Woman Nurse / doctor with migraine headache overworked and stressed. Health care professional in lab coat wearing stethoscope at hospital.

In a 2006 study, people who experienced a lot of stress in the previous year were 43 percent more likely to die, only if they believed that stress was harmful.

For people who experienced a lot of stress in the previous year and didn’t believe stress was harmful were no more likely to die than those people who did not experience stress!

The Power of a Belief

It is not the stress itself, but it is the belief about stress that kills. This study demonstrates the power of belief.

In a sense, you already knew that stress is not always bad. Some people perform the best when they are under stress.

But this research study is not about performance. It is about the effects of stress on your overall health.

You might be performing better under stress, compared to not being under stress, but it might still be impacting your health in the long run.

It is when you believe that stress is not harmful. And it is the interpretation of a stressful experience as a challenge, which comes about from the underlying belief, which prevents the detrimental health effects of stress.

Placebo Effect Taken to the Extreme

This is somewhat like the placebo effect.

In itself, the placebo is inert and has no effect. But it is the belief it can be helpful or beneficial, will actually make it beneficial.

Stress in itself is harmful, is a common knowledge. But if you believe that stress is not harmful, rather a challenge, it stops being harmful.

This research points out that it is worthwhile changing your beliefs about stress.

Stress Is Harmful Right?

By default, you tend to think that stress is harmful.

Why is that the case?

Because by default chronic stress does affect your health in a negative way.

Chronic stress is known to be a factor in obesity, heart diseases, insomnia, depression and digestive disorders. By default, chronic stress is bad for you.

The key is ‘by default’. By default, your belief about stress is going to be that it is harmful.

There are two reasons you come believe that stress is harmful.

  1. The first reason is a widespread observation through scientific studies that chronic stress leads to deterioration in physical health.
  2. The second reason is that the actual personal experience of stress is unpleasant. You feel it and you know it doesn’t feel good. You don’t want it.

That first-hand unpleasant experience of stress is what you don’t want and is what help shape our beliefs and ideas about stress.

Fight Or Flight Or Freeze Response

The experience of stress is essential.

This experience of stress is none other than what is popularly known as the fight or flight response. (It is more like reaction rather than response.)

Stress is also known as fight or flight or freezes response.

This response is triggered by a perception of a threat. It could be a physical threat or a psychological threat.

A physical threat is easy to understand. You perceive that your physical health or well-being is in danger.

The psychological threat means the threat to your pride, social status, ego or sense of respect.

The threat doesn’t have to be real. You just have to perceive it.

This perception automatically triggers the fight or flight reaction. Why does it do so?

Because it can very well save your life. Imagine you being presented with a real threat. What if you didn’t do anything about that threat?

You might die if you didn’t do anything about a threat. That is why evolution has equipped has with an automatic response system.

Even with the slightest hint of any form of threat, be it physical or psychological, the fight or flight reaction is triggered.

The reaction in itself is unpleasant and it makes you suffer. But more importantly, it is designed to make you take action.

It either makes you fight, or it makes fly or freeze. And by doing so you increase the chances of your survival.

In that sense, the fight or flight response, which is none other stress, is good for you as it can save your life.

A fight or flight (stress) response has 3 stages.

  1. Perception of the threat
  2. Arousal or preparation
  3. Unwinding or extinguishing of the arousal

Perception of the Threat

This is when you perceive or detect the physical or psychological threat.

Arousal or Preparation

The perception of threat triggers the sympathetic nervous system. It prepares you for fight or flight.

Not only it prepares you for action. It makes you more sensitive to external information. It makes you take in more information from your surrounding.

It makes your pupils dilate so that it can take in more light. It makes your body hair bristle.

The idea is that for the preparation of fight, it is best to collect as much information about your surrounding as you can.  That way you are better prepared for the actual fight or the dash.

The heart rate increases. The blood pressure increases. The blood flow is shunted away from nonessential activities like digestion and diverted to the limbs in preparation for action.

The arousal eventually peaks. The threat starts receding.

Unwinding or Extinguishing of the Arousal

As soon as it is perceived that threat is either gone or is going away, the unwinding starts. Because as we will see later the arousal state, although necessary for a short amount of time, is not good for the body if it lasts any longer than necessary.

The parasympathetic nerves system kicks in. It starts withdrawing all the hormones that were called upon during arousal.

The heart rate, the blood pressure and the metabolic rate starts going back to normal. The body starts relaxing back to the equilibrium.

How Much Stress Can You Tolerate?

But, the real question is, how much of stress can you tolerate?

If you ever watched those National Geographic or Discovery channel documentaries about African Savannah, you are familiar with a typical scene.

A lion sneaks up on an unsuspecting zebra. The zebra develops fight or flight reaction. For zebra, it is mostly just the flight (although it definitely does land a few kicks every once in a while).

A chase ensues. There are two possible outcomes. Either the zebra gets killed and eaten by lions. Or the zebra tires lion off and survives.

After a while, you find zebra happily grazing. That is if the zebra survives.

Very soon, the zebra is able to forget about the encounter. It doesn’t seem like the zebra broods about the encounter.

It doesn’t seem like the zebra is especially pissed at lion because it attacked him. Zebra gets back to the norm of happily grazing again.

This makes for the title of a book by Harvard psychologist Robert Sapolsky: Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcer!

In the natural world, animals do get stressed, but they don’t seem to suffer from the ill effects of chronic stress that we humans suffer.

Why is that the case?

In order to answer that question, we have to consider following aspects of a stressful event.

  1. The duration that stressful events last.
  2. The frequency of the stressful events.

You already saw that stress is the fight or flight reaction. In the natural world, actual fight or flight does take place more often. At the same time in the natural world, the fight or flight reaction seem to resolve or unwind completely.

What I mean is, the zebra is able to go back to grazing happily very soon after the escape. That is unlike a fight or flight reaction experienced by a human being.

The Real Problem with Stress

In your case, when you perceive a threat, the sympathetic nervous system kicks in. It pumps a set of hormones to prepare the body for action. Your heart rate, blood pressure and metabolic rate increase among a plethora of other things.

All of that is needed for the action to take place. But it is in your best interest for this reaction to unwind at the earliest. Because if the blood pressure continues to be elevated it could damage kidneys and other vital organs.

If cortisol and another stress hormones continue to be flowing at the elevated level, after a while it starts irreversibly damaging the hippocampus, an area of the brain responsible for memory and learning.

The fight or flight reaction has to stop in due time.

And there has to be ample time between such occurrences for the body to heal or recover. 

Actual Fights and Flights Not Allowed

For a stressful event to resolve to end soon, the actual action has to take place. It means, actual fighting or running away has to happen to help stop the stress reaction.

After all, that was the prelude under wich the body was making preparations. It was expecting action to take place.

But in our society, neither fighting or flying is socially acceptable. When you get angry at someone, even though you may strongly feel like slapping that person, the expectation is not to do that. That is just not civil.

So you try to deal with the stress reaction by not actually fighting or lying but trying to gulp up the reaction.

This makes it difficult for the reaction to resolve fully. When you feel stressed and if you don’t take physical action, the stress response lingers and takes a while to die down.

What you can do is take physical action that is acceptable. Can you get on a treadmill, or go for a jog?

This is the reason people use stress balls. Depending upon your physical condition and health, relatively vigorous activities help more.

Setup for Feeling Perpetually Stressed

In today’s world, you don’t have that many physical threat. As a society, we don’t have to worry so much about the lions, tigers and bears so much as we had to one in the past.

But in today’s world, there are many more psychological threats that we experienced compared to the past.

Our lives are much more complex than before. This complexity presents many more opportunities for psychological threats.

Our work environment is very different compared to the past. In the past, we used to be more of independents craftsman.

No, we tend to work more in big groups. This change in work environment also presents more opportunities for feeling stressed.

We make it more difficult for actual stressful events to stop because of non-acceptance of physical action and on top of that you are exposed to many more opportunities where you are likely going to feel stressed.

This makes for a double whammy where before your last stressful events have fully resolved, a new one starts and you find yourself in a state of perpetual semi-fight or semi-flight response.

You suffer the damaging effects of the turbo mode where your body is being constantly kept ready to fight or run.

Your body is not made for such constant stand-by mode and ends up physically suffering the consequences.

How to Cut Short a Stressful Event

Your primary aim is to learn to stop chronic stress, or, at least, prevent the damaging effects of chronic stress.

There are many possible tools and coping skills that you can use to deal with stress. As we saw earlier, the shift in belief about stress seems to be a powerful tool.

When you start believing that the stress is not bad for your health, but is a challenge that you should try to overcome, the fight or flight reaction still develops.

Your heart rate and blood pressure still increase. But apparently some of the characteristics of physiological response change.

For example in a normal stress reaction, the blood vessels constrict. Along with higher heart rate and increased blood pressure, constricted vessels means more likely hood of undesirable events like strokes and atherosclerosis.

But apparently with the change in belief, the vessels don’t constrict. Which seems to be one of the factors why chronic stress doesn’t experience cardiovascular problems.

Mindfulness can also be an effective way of dealing with chronic stress. But the mechanism is very different compared to the change in stress belief.

How Mindfulness Can Help Reduce Stress

As you saw earlier, stress is the fight or flight reaction. The reaction has phases. Initially with the perception of the threat, the reaction starts.

Sympathetic nervous systems kick in and prepare the body. The reaction strengthens and culminates. After a while, the perceived threat eases or disappears.

The parasympathetic nervous system kicks in. It unwinds the reaction and withdraws all the preparatory signals and hormones that were dispatched to prepare the body for action.

You go back to the balance or the homeostasis.

With mindfulness, the whole fight or flight reaction can be aborted. The reaction starts with the perception of threat. But in its nascent stage, the reaction is abandoned.

With highly refined mindfulness, as soon as the reaction starts, you catch yourself reacting. And as soon as you become aware of the start of the fight or flight reaction, you catch yourself and in catching yourself the reaction diffuses.

The body isn’t automatically prepared for action. No signals or hormones are dispatched for preparation.

Because the body isn’t prepared for action there is no possibility of body staying in the arousal state for an extended period of time and hence no damage.

You may argue, what about the threat. Yes, as we said earlier, there is a reason why the stress reaction takes place as the action might have to be taken.

To answer that you have to understand that mindfulness in itself doesn’t change anything. Mindfulness is just awareness.

What awareness does is, it makes you realize choices that you have available.

Without awareness, the whole stress reaction goes through its completely cycle automatically. With awareness, you now have the choice of letting the stress response run its course, which is what may really be needed in case of a physical threat.

Or with awareness you see that there is not point in your getting angry at someone because getting angry will not help resolve the situation.

Mindfulness allows you to exercise your analytical ability and your intelligence to clearly comprehend the situation and take the correct course of action depending upon the need of the circumstances.

You are not merely acting out automatically and subconsciously.

Summary

Stress is same a fight or flight response.

Stress is a life-saving mechanism. If you never felt stress, you won’t survive too long.

Stress belief seems to be more powerful than actual stress for you well being.

Modern life presents with many opportunities for you to get stressed.

When feeling stressed, taking actual action helps but is socially unacceptable.

Mindfulness can help in gatekeeping the stress reaction.

 

 

 

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