This is the final part of a four-part series. You can read the others here: Part I, Part 2, Part 3.
Everyday stress is a killer. Literally.
The greatest damage from stress is caused by excessive triggering of the fight-or flight (stress) response. These throw your entire system into high gear on a chemical and biological level. Your system is designed to handle no more than a few fight-or-flight responses a week.
Instead, our modern world bombards us with more than fifty such (brief) episodes each day. Over time, this unrelenting stress wears down and damages every part of your body in some way.
Your body can’t distinguish between minor, everyday stress and those which threaten life and loved ones. So we respond to all stressors as if they were charging tigers.
Moreover, your body doesn’t distinguish between physical threats which require action, and psychological threats which require thought or a verbal response — or potential threats which are worries about the future and don’t even yet (or maybe ever) exist.
Thoughts alone can trigger a full blown, physiological stress reaction throughout your body. Your body “believes” your thoughts are real.
If you think about a fight you recently had or might have, your system reacts as if you were having the fight now! The good news is you can trick your unconscious, internal systems into thinking you are sitting on the beach with a tall, cold drink in hand.
This is what gives visualization and mindfulness such power.
The key is visualizing in detail. To demonstrate the power of thoughts and images on your body, close your eyes and imagine, in vivid detail, that you are eating a lemon. Soon your mouth will begin to pucker. You will start to salivate. Your stomach will start secreting the fluids to digest a lemon. Your mind will have tricked your body into thinking you were eating a lemon.
This is a visualization you can tailor to your mood and whatever time you have available:
- Close your eyes.
- Imagine yourself in a place you love — the woods, the beach, or some place which holds special meaning for you.
- Make sure it’s a place where you feel secure, safe, comfortable, and happy.
- Focus on the details of your imagined scene.
- Work with each of your senses, one at a time. Focus on everything you see. Colors. Shapes. Light. Shadows.
- Work from the ground up.
- Focus on the sounds around you, including the silence.
- Take a few deep breaths, then tune into the smells. Allow scents to trigger positive emotions.
- Focus on the variety of textures around you. Imagine yourself touching the items in your environment – smooth, rough, hard, soft, and so on.
- Focus on any movement in the scene you have created for yourself. Clouds in the sky, waves in the ocean.
- Finally imagine doing something you love in your mental oasis. Put your feet in a lake. Ski down a mountain. Play with a pet.
- Continue the experience until you feel a sense of peace and well-being.
Gradually ease yourself back into your day focusing on your breath, then the sensations in the room. When you’re ready, slowly open your eyes and take another deep, abdominal breath.
Mindfulness is a slightly different way to focus on the present moment. Focusing on the present decreases tension and stress. It increases your enjoyment of life. You can give your body and mind a mini-vacation from worry about the past and the future, and reduce the damage stress can do over time.
You can practice mindfulness while you are doing anything from washing dishes or folding laundry, to walking upstairs or even eating.
All you need do is spend a few minutes focusing on the details and sensations of the moment. Use all of your senses, one at a time.
Mindful eating is a good exercise for beginners. For example, while eating an orange you can focus on the color and roughness of the skin and the different colors and shapes of the segments. Then focus on the feel of the rind, pulp and juice on your hands, face, lips and tongue and the sensations in your mouth, throat and stomach as you bite, chew and swallow. Then turn to the smell and the taste of each bite and how they change as you go through the process of eating. Come back to the real world slowly and focus on abdominal breathing for a few moments before you get on with your day.
Life is aggravating. It just is. You can’t completely eliminate everyday annoyances or anxiety, so be prepared to change how your body reacts to them. I’ve explained abdominal breathing, Progressive Muscle Relaxation, mindful walking, visualization, and mindfulness. All these techniques can reduce the level of stress stored up in your body and mind. Using these can dramatically improve the quality of your life.
Do what you can, whenever you can for as long as you can. Just … do something. No matter how small, anything you do will protect you and help heal your mind and body. In the process, you’ll develop skills which will serve you well in the future by allowing you to take control of your responses to the stress life inevitably brings.