Take control of how you react to stress and anxiety

Posted by Karen in mindfulness

When we spend most of our life in a state of heightened alertness or stress with adrenaline pumping around our bodies all the time, our hormone balance becomes disrupted and cannot return to its normal state even when our stress level drops.

Many of us then find it hard to wind down, to ground ourselves and we enter a vicious cycle that is very difficult to break.

Stressful things happen – we can’t always avoid them, but we can learn to control how we react in stressful situations, be it the traffic jam when we’re in a rush, the impending work deadlines and clashing family commitments, a difficulty with a loved one or colleague or the stress that comes from within, from challenging thoughts or doubts that arise in all of us from time to time.

We can’t do much about these direct experiences, or “first darts” as referred to in Rich Hanson, psychologist and meditation teacher’s analogy. Pain and discomfort, both mental and physical, are part of life. However, we often cause ourselves extra, unnecessary stress by reacting to these experiences with various thoughts, feelings and judgements. Richard Hanson refers to these reactions as “second darts” – the ones we throw ourselves. These are what gets us into trouble. They are our reactions to the first darts. Second darts – our self-judgements, our harsh critical inner voice causes us most stress.

How do you react in stressful situations?

Picture this scenario. You’re under pressure to finish a job or task by a certain time. You might have such thoughts as ‘I’ll never get everything done in time”, “Why did I agree to do this in the first place?”, accompanied by feelings of anxiety, inadequacy, resentment, accompanied by judgements such as “This is a ridiculous job” (judgement about the job) or “I’m useless at this” (judgement about self).

Self-critical thoughts and ruminating about difficult situations in the past, can leave us feeling disconnected and low and worrying about things that haven’t happened and may never happen, catastrophising about them can result in high anxiety, restlessness and even panic.

How a mindfulness practice changed my life

Anxiety and stress have been unpleasant companions of mine for four decades.

Since I was a child I’ve suffered from high levels of anxiety and it manifested in being fearful about many things such as going to school, staying overnight at a friend’s house, going to places on my own. And later during my years at university, I would often experience high levels of anxiety and stress about exams, about studying and earning money, about living with other students and generally about growing up.

Up until about eight years ago, I was experiencing daily life through a veil of anxiety. I always felt slightly overwhelmed by life and I carried a nagging sense of ‘too-muchness’.

That was until a friend introduced me to the practice of mindfulness in 2008. It has changed my life.

Thanks to a mindfulness practice I understand myself better, the cause for my anxiety and perhaps even more importantly, my mindfulness practice has made me more aware of my stress and anxiety pattern. When I feel anxious and then stressed, a narrative flows in my head that goes like this: ‘It’s too much. I have too much work to do, I can’t cope, I won’t be able to do it all.’ These thoughts trigger my mind’s alarm system which in turn triggers more tension in my body and makes my breath shallow and inhibited which in turn impacts on the choices I make; what I say to my colleagues, friends, partner, family etc. and how I say it, aka knee-jerk reactions.

I have learnt to recognise and ‘catch’ patterns of behaviour. I now notice my breath getting shallow, I recognise the thoughts racing through my head, and the feelings in my body (for me it’s a tightness, a racing heart, anxiety, sweating, a sense of panic or feeling overwhelmed) and take some deeper breaths and let my breath find its natural rhythm again which allows my mind and body to calm down and relax.

It has helped me to see and understand my helpful and unhelpful habitual ways of thinking and behaving which in turn has helped me respond differently, more kindly and compassionately to myself, others and life’s challenges.

Today, I still suffer from anxiety occasionally, such as when I stir in the early hours and unhelpful thoughts enter my head; the difference is, I know now what I need to do to come back to the present moment, to my actual, direct experience. I expand my in-breath and slow down my out-breath. I become aware of whatever catastrophic thought is going through my head and I ask myself: Is this true? 99% of the time the answer is ‘No’ and I come back to the here and now and return to sleep.

Seeing things for what they are

We could all benefit from seeing things more for what they are instead of the often amplified sense we give things and situations.

Yes, I have work to do, and deadlines might be challenging or unpleasant but they are just deadlines and work is just work and giving a talk is just giving a talk – no more no less. It’s called primary experience. What we do with it, i.e. how we interpret what happens to us or these primary experiences is called secondary experience and this is what can cause anxiety or stress, depending on how we interpret, judge or analyse life’s events. My mindfulness practice has helped me to regain control of how I react to primary experience. Perhaps it could help you too…..

I have since trained as a mindfulness teacher and now offer mindfulness training to individuals and organisations. See latest course below:

5-week Mindfulness for Stress Course
North London Buddhist Centre
Saturday 17 Sept – 5 Oct 15.00 – 17.30
(with a practice day Sunday 30 October, 10.00 – 17.00)
72 Holloway Road, London N7 8JG (link to come). All welcome.

Top 5 stress busting tips

1. Notice when something is causing you stress
Look for symptoms in your body, such as tensing in your belly and shoulders, frustration, irritability, compulsive thinking.

2. Catch it early
Stress reactions can speed up and fire off very quickly. The longer they go on, the more difficult they are to work with.

3. Do something!
This may mean you need to stop what you are doing and do something else – stop shouting, stop working on your computer, stop getting up at night when you lie in bed feeling anxious. Bring your mind into your body and take a few deeper breaths (inhale for 7, exhale for 11 ). This is an immediate antidote for anxiety and tension.

4. Do less and make more time for you

5. Exercise in fresh air/green space, eat well, sleep well.

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