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 (in this case, your attention). They step on each other and wander away and then come back and wander away again. They also have some pretty sharp teeth and claws, that come in the form of thoughts like "you are a failure, you may as well not try," or any other pain-inducing statements your mind throws your way.
Seeing this pile of kittens, you might be tempted to lay down in the middle of them and let them crawl all over you, which is great until the claws come out and then you're scratched up and bloody. So instead, sit down next to them and watch how they play. Watch the ones that seem to dominate, and those that are barely heard from. Invite one to you and give it your attention and focus, then let it go. Move your focus from one kitten to the next, getting to know each one. Notice which ones seem more likely to scratch or bite, and notice what you like about them anyway. When you're done, go back to whatever else you need to do, like having dinner with your family or taking care of tasks around the house. The kitten pile will still be there, meowing at you and crawling over itself in its kitten-y way, and you get to decide whether or not you want to go play, or stay in what you're doing at the moment.
One real, concrete way to achieve this is to purposely bring your attention back to something real and tangible. Some things you can use to anchor yourself:
The feeling of your breath
The taste of food
The sight of your loved one’s face
The sound of water being poured
The smell of dessert
By doing this, you communicate to your brain through your actions, telling it that there is no threat, calming the freaked out kittens. 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, can bring some peace to your inner self.
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.