This is the fifth in a series of Stress Reduction blog posts which are also being featured on the website of my great friend and colleague, Tom Sterner, author of The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life.
In the previous blog post, “Awareness, Part 2, or You CAN Teach an Old Dog New Tricks”, we tried several exercises to bring our awareness to our thoughts and our physical and emotional responses to our stressors. The first exercise illustrated how our minds naturally seem to resist stillness. The second exercise showed us that, although our minds naturally resist stillness, they are equally capable of naturally becoming still when we are completely focused on accomplishing one task. Let’s talk about these concepts in a little more depth.
You might be surprised to hear that what you experienced in the first exercise was actually a 2-minute meditation. Yes, I know, you are wondering, “How it can be called a meditation when my mind was all over the place?” However, meditation is not the PRODUCT (or goal) of achieving a still mind. It is the PROCESS of stilling your mind. It is also a skill that can be developed through practice. As we discovered in the second exercise, when we focused on standing on one foot, we found that we WERE able to still our minds when we focused on one thing only. This focus not only stills our minds, but it also keeps us in the present moment. And as we discussed in the last blog, the benefit of this still, present-moment mind is that it has no room for judgment or evaluation, two of the many culprits that contribute to our negative experience of stress.
Through the practice of meditation, we can “set the stage”, as you will, for not only how we experience stress in a more beneficial way, but also how we experience life in general. As with any skill, as we properly practice meditation, we get better and better at meditating and experiencing that still mind. And we also get better and better at being able to live our lives in a more present-moment manner. There are many different types of meditation: breath meditation, mantra-based meditation, guided meditation – to name a few. In fact, there is even a clinically proven program for alleviating stress, among other things, called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, which heavily incorporates meditation into its practice. Mindfulness meditation can be practiced in a variety of ways, from mindful eating, mindful walking, mindful listening, mindful yoga, and much more. At the end of this blog series, I will include information that will provide you with some of the meditation resources that are available.
There are other practical ways in which we can change our experience of stress. One of these ways is to utilize a technique that uses your awareness of your body’s responses to stress to help you identify your stress “triggers”. Triggers stop the momentum of your old habitual responses to stress, enabling you to then replace them with new, beneficial responses that you have created. As described in The Practicing Mind, a trigger is “……a whistle blow or a bell ring, that alerts you that you are in a situation where you want to replace your previous response with a new one that you have chosen.” The trigger will stop your emotional response to a situation, stilling your mind and bringing you into a present-moment, non-judgmental state. It will remind you that it’s time to commit to the new process that you have chosen.
The first part of this technique is the creation of what is called a “pre-shot routine” in the sports world – we’ll call it a procedure for purposes of this blog. This is actually where you decide, in an unemotional, non-judgmental state of mind, what habitual response you want to change in a particular circumstance, and what new habitual response you would like to create to replace the old one. For example, you may find that whenever your supervisor assigns a new responsibility to you, you immediately feel your body tense and experience anxiety as you contemplate trying to squeeze yet another task into your already full day. You then bottle your feelings up, creating a vicious cycle of stress responses. You may decide that you would like your new response to be along the lines of responding to your supervisor by acknowledging your understanding that the task needs to be done, and that you would like to discuss with him how to incorporate that into your current workload. It’s not a bad idea to practice this response, or procedure, either virtually, or even role-play your response with someone.
Now that you have run through your procedure to create your new response, you need to identify your specific trigger for the situation. Remember, the trigger will let you get ahead of your emotions and still your mind so you can execute your new response and begin to make THAT response your new habitual reaction to your supervisor. The trigger will be different for each person – it’s entirely personal. In this scenario, the trigger may be when you first become aware of your body tensing in response to your supervisor’s task delegation. Again, keep in mind that all the trigger needs to do is jolt you into awareness that it’s time to put the new routine into practice.
Time for homework. Think of a stressful situation or two for which you would like to change your habitual responses. For each situation, identify what new response you would like to create to replace the old one, and then identify a trigger that will help you become aware that it is time to start your new response. Then practice these situations either virtually, or role-play them with a friend or family member. The more you practice, the better you will become. And don’t forget, the goal is to help you learn to experience stress in a new, more beneficial way!