We have all experienced stress in our lives. Stress can arise when we feel overwhelmed with the amount of work we have to do, when life is uncertain or traumatic, or when we are tasked with doing something we have never done before, such as speaking in front of an audience for example.
Stress can occur, even when we are in an unstressful situation. For example, we might be enjoying a coffee with a friend, but suddenly a thought pops into our head about a deadline we have in a week’s time. This triggers an unpleasant emotion, which then feeds further thoughts and worries. Before we know it, we are having a miserable time and find ourself cutting the meeting short. In such circumstances, we may have not only magnified the thought, we may have also given it some authority over our life - allowing it to dictate what we do next.
Research tells us that, whilst a little bit of stress can be quite motivating, too much can affect our health and impede our ability to pay attention, problem-solve and regulate our emotions.
So how can we alleviate stress in our lives?
Through practicing mindfulness meditation, which involves regularly tuning into and observing bodily sensations, mind states and emotions, we become very sensitive to stress triggers. We begin to notice in our experience the often very subtle thoughts, emotions and external stimuli that work together to make us feel stressed. If we catch them early, we might find that we can nip them in the bud, before they grow too large and cause us a great deal of trouble.
We also learn to look at things for what they are, without embellishing them with qualities they don’t have. Have you ever put a task off because it seems too onerous, only to find out that, in reality, it’s a 5 minute job?
Try this exercise: begin to notice the things in your life that trigger stressful thoughts and feelings. Notice how a situation sets off a thought and how the thought creates a feeling in the body. Notice the thought but bring your awareness mainly to the associated feelings. Breath gently in and out of the centre of these feelings, with a sense of kindness and gentleness toward yourself. You may find that, with practice, such a focus softens the feelings and calms down the mind, helping you to see more clearly.