Stress seeps into our systems and wreaks havoc. It is linked to myriad health conditions, with research uncovering more and more relationships between stress and disease. A stressed out immune system can go haywire and create allergic reactions; or it might become underachieve and fail to protect the body against the common cold. The digestive system responds to stress by slowing down, creating issues like irritable bowel syndrome. The brain stops prioritizing executive thinking, which makes it impossible to make wise decisions or act in a thoughtful manner.
By learning to cope with stress, we begin to reassert control over our bodies and our health.
What is stress? It’s not just some hazy word to describe a feeling. Stress is the physiological response that the body has to a perceived danger. Once the brain registers a threat, it send the signal to release a hormone called cortisol into the blood system. Cortisol is what triggers all of the systemic changes listed above. It slows non-essential function so that the body can focus its energy on what is most important. In the moment of danger, the most important thing is to fight or to flee, so all systems become primed for that priority.
Humans evolved the stress response in order to stay alive. If we didn’t have it, there’s a good chance that our ancestors on the African savannah would never have lived long enough to create the generations that led to us in the 21st century.
So we can say “thank you” to our stress responses! Except…
In this modern world, the stress response has become a liability for some of us. While our caveman ancestors were responding to real environmental threats, like hungry lions or armed enemies, in the present day we are often perceiving threat while in a safe environment. The sound of a busy street, or an echo of a traumatic memory, or the fear of saying something embarrassing could all trigger a stress response.
Imagine a person, waking up a few minutes late (STRESS!), running for the bus (STRESS!), seeing a stranger who reminds them of their abusive ex (STRESS!), and finding that she left her phone at home (STRESS!). All of these stressors before 9 am! The cortisol never has the chance to return to a baseline level.
The mind that perceives danger in every day situations creates a body primed for disease and discomfort.
You can interrupt this cycle. More and more research is showing how intentionally committing to being in the present can reduce cortisol levels in the blood. Perhaps you’ve already heard the word “mindfulness” to describe this practice. But that word fails to truly describe the action, and can be a bit confusing, so I’m going to demystify it here.
By taking a few minutes every day to play with your thoughts, you will decrease stress.
Here is what I mean by “play with your thoughts.” Visualize your thoughts like a pile of wiggly kittens. All over the place, each with her own agenda, sometimes fighting over a toy. They step on each other and wander away and then come back and wander away again. It’s really really hard to resist going and messing around with the kittens, especially when they’re meowing at you. They are helpless and scared of most things. When you’re involved in any activity (which you ALWAYS ARE!! Breathing counts as an activity), this kitty pile can be insanely distracting. You’re trying to eat dinner with your family, but who can focus on the conversation when there’s a kitten pile over there??
Your job, then, is to wait a beat before you go start playing with kittens. Give yourself space from your thoughts, even while noticing they’re there. In other words, find a moment, a breath of time, when you notice that you’re being pulled to the kitten pile, and see if you can just sit there, watching from afar rather than jumping in. If you find yourself with a kitten in your hand and you don’t even know how it got there, that’s ok. Just put it down and return to the table for your family dinner. And then, when you do go to play, you’ve done so on purpose. And most crucially, you are separate from the kittens, and can go back to your dinner at any time.
One concrete way to achieve this is to purposely bring your attention back to something real and tangible. The feeling of your breath, the taste of the food, the sight of your loved one’s face, the sound of water being poured, and the smell of dessert are all excellent anchor points. By doing this, you communicate to the part of your brain that thinks you’re in danger (the kitten pile) and let it know that you’re ok. There is no danger in the environment, no lion in the brush or armed enemy at the door. By sitting still, breathing slowly and just watching your thoughts, you’re speaking the language of the kitten pile, and are able to bring it some peace.
Call it mindfulness, call it presence, or awareness, it doesn’t matter. Begin by practicing this refocusing with your mind, and you open the door to all sorts of mental superpowers you never knew you had.