This is the sixth and last 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, “Putting It Into Practice: A Few Basic Truths”, we discussed several practices or techniques which can help us change our experience of stress. These include various meditation practices, including mantra-based meditation, breath-based meditation, and guided meditation, in addition to informal and formal mindfulness-based meditation, such as mindful eating or walking meditations. We also discussed a technique which involves the creation of a “pre-shot routine”, or procedure, where you decide – in an non-judgmental state of mind – which old, damaging, habitual responses you want to swap out for new, healthier versions, and then use stress triggers to alert you that it’s time to replace your old responses with the new ones you have created.
These methods enable you to reach a point where you can still your mind and remain in the present moment, key to changing your experience of stress for the better. If you got to the end of the blog, you reached the fun part – HOMEWORK! Since you had already experienced a two-minute meditation during the “try to not think for two minutes” exercise in an earlier blog post, this most recent homework exercise invited you to practice the procedure–>trigger–>new response technique. So let’s take a moment to look at what you experienced during this exercise.
If you followed the very simple instructions, you hopefully thought of one or two stressful situations for which you would like to create new responses, identified what new response(s) you wanted to create to replace the old one(s), and also identified a trigger for each of the situations which would help you become aware that it was time to start your new response. Hopefully, you also had an opportunity to practice this in real life, or through role-playing. And this brings us to the next important part of this whole process – PRACTICE!
As with any skill, changing your experience of stress, whether you use any of the methods described above, or others that are out there for you to discover, will require practice on your part. Developing any skill is a journey, so here are some tools, excerpted from The Practicing Mind, to help you navigate through the process.
Tool #1: DOC (Do, Observe, Correct)
The key here is to analyze, not judge, as you progress through your practice. Let’s use the procedure>trigger>new response technique as an example, and the following hypothetical situation: (You have already gone through the procedure to identify which responses you would like to change, what you would like your new responses to be, and what your trigger is for each response.)
Stressful situation: Co-worker says something rude to you
- Trigger: You feel your body tense, and you can feel anger building.
- Old response that you would like to replace: Lashing out at co-worker with an equally rude remark.
- Desired new response: Quietly counting to ten, and then telling co-worker how her comments made you feel.
Do: When your co-worker makes her rude remarks, you become aware of your trigger (your body tensing, anger building), you quietly count ten, and then tell her how her comments made you feel.
Observe: Later, when you are not in the midst of the situation, you analyze the event and decide if you are comfortable with the way things went. Perhaps (most likely) you were able to count to ten, but after you objectively told your co-worker how her comments made you feel, she responded back angrily, which led you to respond with anger as well. By observing this from an objective, non-judgmental position, you are better able to distance yourself from an emotional response and to analyze the entire situation. You can then decide what you would like to change next time. This takes you to the “Correct” part of DOC.
Correct: You would prefer to not get caught up in a cycle of unending rude remarks with your co-worker. So, you refine your new response to include continuing to quietly count to 10 each time your co-worker comes back at you with her rude remarks. Or, you may decide that if your co-worker persists in her rude remarks, you will tell her that her remarks are offensive and you walk away. It’s up to you. The key is to continue to refine the process through DOC and practice!
Tool #2: The 4 “S” Words: Simplify, Small, Short and Slow
This may seem to be a no-brainer, but you would be surprised at how little we use these tools when faced with a stressful situation. Here’s an example:
You have a large family gathering approaching, and you are hosting the event. There seem to be a million things to do, and not enough time in which to do them. You are feeling pressure and some fear about getting everything done on time. How can the 4 S’s help?
Simplify: Break the tasks that have to be accomplished into their component sections. All too often, we look at the whole goal that needs to be accomplished, and it feels overwhelming. Then on comes the stress. Instead, the success of attaining each simpler goal will generate motivation that will propel you along the entire process. So, for example, identify that one smaller goal is to clean your house. Another goal is planning the menu. Another goal is shopping for food. And so on.
Small: Although you are aware of the overall goal of having your house ready for the family gathering, use this only as a rudder or beacon to keep you on course. Break this down into smaller sections that can be achieved comfortably. So, taking the simplified goal of cleaning the house, say “I will start with cleaning the kitchen and only the kitchen for now. I will not concern myself with anything else for the moment”.
Short: You can now bring “short” into the equation. You can decide that you will only work on cleaning the kitchen for 45 minutes at a time, and then will take a break.
Slow: You may be scratching your head about this one. How can you get anything done if you work slowly? Well, what this really means is that you work at a pace that allows you to pay attention to what you are doing. How many times have you worked so quickly to complete a task that you ended up making mistakes, or forgetting things, and then had to go back and re-do much of what you had done? By working “slowly”, you can accomplish your task more quickly and with less effort because you are not wasting energy. This is another opportunity to experience being mindful and in the present moment. So when you tackle the kitchen cleaning, 45 minutes at a time, wipe the counter slowly, with intention. Feel the soapy sponge in your hand, watch how the color of the counter top changes as you wipe it with your sponge. By paying attention to what you are doing, you are less likely to have to go over spots that you missed, for example. And you may actually find that you enjoy the process!
Here’s a tip – one way to start your day is to use one of the “S” Words – “Slow” – when you brush your teeth. This mindful experience is not only a practical training exercise for teaching present moment awareness, but it also can help set the tone for the rest of the day, one which you may be anticipating (uh, oh, you’re out of the present moment) as being stressful and over-scheduled. In the absence of a more traditional meditation, this type of mini-meditation can be easily incorporated into what you normally think of as daily, mundane routines, and can be very useful in managing your experience of stress.
Here’s another tip – anytime that you are feeling caught in the turbulent waters of anxiety and stress, practicing the “pebble meditation” can be a lifesaver. This simple, short practice is described in Donald Altman’s book, One Minute Mindfulness, and is not only a useful tool for rescuing you from the white waters of your anxiety and bringing you to a peaceful and calm state, but also a wonderful way to begin your day. For this practice, “find a word that you will use to act like a pebble that drops into and beneath the roiling water”. That word will carry you into the calmness below the turbulent water’s surface. The word is your personal choice, but, as psychotherapist and former Buddhist monk Altman suggests, you can also consider one of these neutral words to see if one resonates with you: pebble, one, neutral, peace, calm. Once you have chosen your word, find a quiet place where you can mentally focus on your word. You may find that this is reminiscent of your earlier experience in the two-minute meditation exercise – thoughts and emotions may arise in the process. That’s OK. Let them go and continue to focus on your “pebble”. After sixty seconds of focusing on your pebble meditation word, you may already be experiencing some quieting of your mind!
This is the end of this Stress Reduction blog series. I hope that this has been fun and illuminating, and will be useful as you move into a more peaceful, stress-reduced life!
Some of this information was taken from a stress-reduction workshop, “Reducing Stress One Moment at a Time, which was developed by Tom Sterner and myself and used in a corporate training environment. As promised, below are some of the resources that were used to develop the workshop and this series for you to explore.
“The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life – Master Any Skill or Challenge by Learning to Love the Process”: Thomas M. Sterner
“A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook”: Bob Stahl, PH.D., Elisha Goldstein, PH.D.
“The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook”: Martha Davis, Elizabeth Robbins Eshelman, Matthew McKay
Georgia Southern University Counseling and Career Development Center Online Workshop: How To Handle Stress: Jodi K. Caldwell, Ph.D. – http://students.georgiasouthern.edu/counseling/relax/OnlineRelax07.htm http://students.georgiasouthern.edu/counseling/workshop/stress/stress01.html
Wildmind Buddhist Meditation – Walking Meditation: http://www.wildmind.org/walking/introduction
“The Stress Solution”: Lyle H. Miller, Ph.D., and Alma Dell Smith, PhD.
Mind Tools – Stress Management: http://www.mindtools.com/stress/UnderstandStress/StressMechanisms.htm
“One Minute Mindfulness”: Donald Altman