These Five Things Will Improve Your Stress Response
Dealing with stressful events and interactions with mindfulness
We have all been in situations where an interaction has left us feeling agitated, annoyed, or embarrassed? Our mind is firing at a rate 200 thoughts per minute, mostly about the actions or words that you have interpreted in a particular way preventing us from engaging further and working through the issue in a constructive way.
These are particularly difficult situations because you need to engage with people either socially or at work, so it is important that you are able to respond in the way that represents how you want to be, and not be held hostage by your in the moment reactions. In many cases however it feels impossible to think of a suitable response, and the first thing that comes to mind is to either fight back with a like for like reaction or hope that the ground to swallows you up and you can disappear.
People report when they are under the influence of these emotions their mind scrambles and delivers anything but the response that they want to. This often results in further anxiety, anger, frustration and fear about what others might be thinking and what this may mean for the future.
Here’s what you need to know and do to navigate these situations.
The first thing is to understand is that in many cases, what has preceded these strong emotions and your reaction amounts to a threat. When we think threat thou we think physical, however a threat to your self-esteem, your sense of fairness or relationships is very significant and can prompt the same reaction as a threat to your safety.
The next thing to appreciate is that at these times your body and mind are simply doing the job they were designed to do, albeit in a rather primitive way. This is because the innate features of our physiology and psychology that drive our basic survival instinct includes our need for certainty and to belong socially amongst other things. When these aspects are threatened, possibly by an ill-considered remark or even when we perceive a threat internally generated from past experiences, our primitive reptilian brain structure, the amygdala, causes cortisol and other hormones to be released into the body to generate our physical fight and flight reaction. Remarkably, we do not need to be faced with physical danger or risk to get this reaction.
The actual response of your body to threat is highly focused on your physical well-being which has the automatic effect of shutting down functions that are not considered essential to your survival. This includes your pre frontal cortex where your higher level thinking occurs. This means when you feel threatened you are less likely to be able to reason your way through a situation, preferring to fight back or to simply remove yourself from the source of the stress as quickly as you can. These are your fight and flight reactions, and as we know it’s not always possible, or advisable to fight back or simply exclude yourself from events to avoid the discomfort.
So threats to self-esteem or the prospect of social embarrassment can have the same effect as a threat to our physical safety. We can become overwhelmed and ‘hooked’ by our negative thoughts which obstruct our capacity to be present and in the moment, when it matters most.
So here’s four mindfulness practices to help you be your best when challenged by difficult situations and interactions.
1. Develop your moment by moment self-awareness – Observing your thoughts and feelings is a powerful way to connect with what pushes your buttons and of course the ‘go to’ reactions that this triggers. This means noticing emotions as they arise and allowing them to simply pass through without undue concern or over reaction. This does take practice but even a small amount can result in improvement.
2. Know your internal narratives – Most of us have stories that we tell ourselves about people, events and even ourselves. We can at times become so immersed in these stories that we generate a high level of anxiety which acts as a prime for our next interaction. To manage this tendency or to ‘unhook’ from these thoughts and feelings use the STOP method below
3. Reframe for difficult interactions – Before a difficult interaction be aware of what you mind is telling you about how this may play out, the people involved, and even your ability to cope with the demands of such a situation. Whilst we attribute much of our reactions to external sources, such as the impact of others, in reality we can be creating much of this ourselves. Simply by taking a curious mindset into an interaction frees us up to simply listen and take in what is being said without getting hooked on past problems or future possibilities and the need for judgement
4. Preparation – Take a few mindful minutes before you have an important conversation or meeting by focusing on your meeting preparation and your mental preparation. There are simple mindfulness techniques that can help you prepare and ‘unhook’ from difficult emotions. Try the STOP exercise below
5. The STOP exercise – For a few minutes prior to your most challenging interactions make some time and with some practice you should notice a difference.
When you notice things are getting out of control simply find a quiet space where you can spend a couple of minutes to allow the difficult thoughts and feelings to pass. Start by closing your eyes or fixing them on a spot in the room
Take a couple of breaths
Concentrate on fully emptying your lungs and then allowing them to fill naturally. Repeat this a few times and then allow your breathing to return to normal observing each breath as it comes and goes. Then……
Observe thoughts and feelings
Take the perspective of an observer of your breath while at the same time allowing your thoughts to come and go and observe your feelings non-judgmentally and with curiosity. Try not to get hooked, but if you do its OK and natural, simply return to observing the breath again and repeat this step.
Pursue your goal or valued direction
Finish with your commitment to pursue your goals, valued direction and the person you want to be in your next interaction
April 12, 2018