Week 4 of the MBSR begins a deepening of the discussion around stress. My post from 2015 follows below and then I share some of the practices I follow now and the changes it has brought to my life.
How it was
The full title of this week’s MBSR class was ‘Reactivity to stress and pain’. We covered a wide range of concepts, discussion points and practices, but by far the biggest discussion was around what stress was. As dealing with stress and chronic pain were the original reasons for the development of the MBSR by Jon Kabat-Zinn and there were quite different understandings what stress is in our group, I’m going to focus my thoughts upon what stress is.
Let’s start with some clarity. No one can agree what stress is. I know, there are plenty of definitions, but even the guy who first coined the term, Hans Selye (1936) later said to reporters, “Everyone knows what stress is, but nobody really knows.” There is some common ground, repeated in most medical dictionaries and websites, which define stress as “the body’s reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response. The body reacts to these changes with physical, mental and emotional responses.”
A general perception is that stress is a negative reaction. That stress is a ‘bad’ thing. This was borne out by our group discussion where one or two people could only understand stress as a difficulty or problem that they did not function well under. The fact that our body’s flight or fight response generates a cocktail of chemicals into the bloodstream in order for high functioning reactions, to perform at our highest capability and possibly to avoid death or major problems, is part of a ‘stress reaction’ is not always understood.
The scientist Hans Selye coined the term ‘stressor’ to distinguish stimulus from response. Hence a stressor could be a car accident or public performance and the stress caused would be the body’s reaction to this stressor. Then we also have to take account of our individual reactions. One person’s stressor is another person’s reason for being. For example some of us hate the idea of a public performance, others revel in the limelight.
Throughout our lives we have developed automatic reactions to potential stressors. These are habits that we have little awareness of and include: indifference, attachment and aversion. In each case the common theme is that we are not in the present moment, we are choosing to ignore, imagine other experiences or avoid the unfolding experience. The outcome of these habits is that we may not be aware that we are being affected by a stressful situation.
The MBSR is most concerned with awareness. If we are aware that our body is reacting to a stressor we are able to change that reaction. So how do we become aware? We have to tune in to how our body reacts to a stressful situation. Here are some of the physical and emotional symptoms our bodies may experience (from Boots WebMD)
Emotional symptoms of stress include:
- Becoming easily agitated, frustrated and moody
- Feeling overwhelmed, like you are losing control or need to take control
- Having difficulty relaxing and quietening your mind
- Feeling bad about yourself (low self-esteem), lonely, worthless and depressed
- Avoiding others
Physical symptoms of stress include:
- Low energy
- Upset stomach, including diarrhoea, constipation and nausea
- Aches, pains, and tense muscles
- Chest pain and rapid heartbeat
- Frequent colds and infections
- Loss of sexual desire and/or ability
- Nervousness and shaking, ringing in the ear
- Cold or sweaty hands and feet
- Excess sweating
- Dry mouth and difficulty swallowing
- Clenched jaw and grinding teeth
How can we be aware of stress?
We heighten our awareness of the moment by practicing mindfulness: meditation (breathing, body scan), mindful movement (yoga, walking, qigong), mindful activities (washing the dishes, eating, photography…). Each of these practices deepens our presence within the moment. In that space we can be more aware of how our body is, what our mind is thinking. Then with attention we can breath and be with our experience. Rather than turning from it, we turn towards it and in that space it begins to soften and lose its impetus.
My habits and practices
Now this is all fine and dandy in theory, but what of my reality. I now know that I have created my chronic health condition by ignoring my unfolding experience, not paying attention to my body’s reactions and acting out of a habitual response. My drive to succeed, to be the best I could be at my job and in long distance running led me to ignore the warning signs and allowed an acute breathing condition to become chronic.
Those habits are still with me. The difference now is that by continuing to deepen my mindfulness practice (meditation, yoga, body scan and mindful photography) I am now becoming more attuned to how my body is and I am then able to make choices that support my health.
It is an ongoing practice. The habits are decades old! However, mindfulness provides me with the tools to forge new neural pathways, new habits and new ways of being.
How it is now
The MBSR has been developed from Jon Kabat-Zinn’s understanding of how our body and mind react when we find ourselves in a stressful situation. Mindfulness is offered as a practice that can heighten our awareness to how we are, right now, in this very moment.
It is worth remembering that mindfulness is described as a practice. As with any practice sometimes it goes well and and other times it does not. When we do not notice (or choose to ignore) that we are experiencing a stressful experience we then return to our habitual reactions. The body’s cocktail of chemicals to support us is released and we behave as we do usually in these scenarios.
This reaction will be personal to you, but I am certain that you know what I am talking about. My pattern of behaviour when I am not attuned to the bodies reactions, and events are getting too much for me is to carry on, take on even more tasks and continue to not notice that my body is starting to struggle. Finally this will manifest in an acute situation with my chronic breathing condition. I then notice and stop.
Whilst I am getting better at noticing this I still think that I am invulnerable and have more capacity than I actually do. It is of course difficult to admit to your own vulnerabilities – health, behaviours or habits – but this is the area where the work and practice is required. Understanding how we behave and the situation that leads to that behaviour is the first step in recognising the vulnerability. Admitting that this is something that we often do is the first step in beginning to change the pattern.
Mindfulness and meditation train our mind to pay attention. They provide us with the space to begin to notice how we are. I understand this completely now. It does though remain a practice, one that I am committed to and one that I am making progress. It is going to take a lifetime though!