Holiday favourites – the upside of stress

When we’re stressed, it can seem that life is running away with us, that we are at the mercy of forces beyond our control. There is a delightful Zen story about a farmer who sees a man on a galloping horse tear past the village, and who calls out to him,

‘Where are you going?’

‘Don’t ask me,’ the man on the horse shouts back, ‘ask the horse!’

We constantly read about the harmful effects of stress on our health, our relationships, and emotional wellbeing, and many of our modern diseases are now being linked at least in part to stress. Chronic stress can even kill brain cells through the overproduction of the stress hormone cortisol, which is neurotoxic. Young children who grow up in very chaotic households can suffer permanent brain damage, to the point where they will always struggle with paying attention, forming relationships, and impulse control.

So stress is certainly something which needs to be taken seriously, yet there is also an upside to stress. We don’t thrive when we don’t need to put any effort into life, when everything is handed to us on a plate. Just like exercising causes small tears in our muscles which ultimately make them stronger, so a healthy amount of stress is crucial to developing our full potential.

One example in nature is a butterfly struggling to emerge from its chrysalis. If you try to assist the butterfly by breaking the chrysalis open, its wings won’t be hardened enough, and it will be weak or even die. In the garden, if we water a young tree every day for the next five years, its roots will remain shallow and it might fall over in the first gust of wind. Our immune system needs to be exposed to a certain amount of germs, otherwise it won’t be strong. However, if a newly planted tree doesn’t get any water, or our immune system is overloaded with germs, then we get sick or the tree might die.

Getting the optimum amount of stress in our lives is not always possible, because much of what causes us stress is outside our control. When we are under considerable stress, we need to manage it the best we can, including getting the basics of sleep, exercise, diet, meditation and social supports right.

There are times, however, when a more positive attitude to stress might help us ride its waves with a more joyful attitude. Yes, we’re too busy at the moment, juggling too many balls, perhaps our stomach is churning from nervous excitement and our heart seems to be beating very loudly in our chest, but it’s great to feel engaged in life. I’ve been involved in two choirs who perform regularly in public, sometimes for big occasions. We all get nervous before the performances, worried whether the songs will work, if the audience will enjoy what we have to offer, whether we’ll make mistakes or come in at the wrong time. After the performance, however, there is a great feeling of pride and achievement, and we can bask in the positive comments from audience members who are often moved to tears, the sense of having offered something precious to the community. And the nervous tension of the morning, and all the hard work leading up the performance, have been well worthwhile.

Mindfulness is not about being calm all the time, floating serenely above the vicissitudes of life. Sometimes life is messy, demanding, a little crazy – but we wouldn’t have it any other way!

Weekly practice idea:

This week, look for occasions where you can enjoy the upside of stress. You may not feel at your most serene, you may even be a little anxious or tense, but perhaps you can also enjoy feeling engaged in the challenge?

Anja Tanhane

Our internal alarm bell

Some years ago, I worked in a hospital unit with people who’d suffered a severe head injury. Many of the patients were in wheelchairs, dependent on others to get around, and in order to keep the patients safe, the smoke detectors in this unit were set at a very sensitive level. We couldn’t have candles on birthday cakes, for example, as blowing out even one candle would have set off the fire alarm.

There were a couple of occasions when the fire alarm was activated, the unit was evacuated and the fire engine arrived within minutes. Both times it was a false alarm – the first time the smoke detectors had picked up someone using talcum powder, and the second time it was steam coming from the shower. Of course it was a major undertaking each time the unit was evacuated, and costly for the hospital, but the motto was (understandably) ‘better safe than sorry’.

Unfortunately, our brain also has the same motto – better safe than sorry, better to set off alarm bells too often than to miss something which could potentially be dangerous for us. The amygdala, deep in our limbic brain, functions a bit like our alarm bell – it sets off alerts readying our bodies for fight and flight at the slightest signs of danger. Sometimes this functions very effectively, but unfortunately, there more stressed we are, the more sensitive the amygdala becomes to perceived signs of danger. In the end, just like the hospital smoke detectors, it sets off a whole series of emergency responses at the first sign of a birthday candle, talcum powder, or steam from a shower. And while ongoing stress is neurotixic, in that it kills of brain cells, it has the opposite effect on the amygdala – it just becomes bigger and more sensitive. And studies have shown that this lasts long after the stressors are over. So even if the external circumstances are less stressful, our brain may still be on hair-trigger alert. Which is why anxiety can become a chronic condition, rather than a short-term response to a particular event in our lives.

This is where mindfulness meditation has been shown to be particularly effective. Regular meditation shrinks the amygdala, so that it can do its job of keeping us safe without overreacting to every minor stressor, and without developing a chronic anxiety condition. Many people come to mindfulness because of chronic anxiety, and even during an eight-week course they may already find some relief from debilitating anxiety. If the anxiety is severe, most people will benefit from counselling and perhaps medication along with learning mindfulness. There are additional ways of reducing anxiety, including exercise, engaging in activities which are enjoyable, and fostering close interpersonal relationships. Mindfulness is not the whole solution, but by setting our internal smoke detector to a more useful level, it can play a major role in reducing anxiety in our lives.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, if you’re feeling a bit stressed, take a moment to pause, take a deep breath or two, and ask yourself – ‘what is really going on right now?’ Is your internal alarm bell functioning appropriately to the situation, or is it perhaps being overly sensitive?

Anja Tanhane

The resource-seeking system Part 2

Paul Gilbert’s model of the three emotional systems is all about balance, and, as we discussed last week, the strive- and resource-seeking system has an important role to play in our lives. However, because it is designed to help us survive, it comes with a strong in-built reward system which can easily hook us in. For example, every time we acquire something or achieve something, we are rewarded with a hit of the feel-good chemical messenger dopamine, which is in effect like getting a little sugar hit. This feels pleasant, and motivates us to keep striving for more. However, the resource-seeking system can become quite addictive – whether to drugs or gambling, or to over-work, or to needing constant praise. Also, within this system, the rewards depend on external validation – whether it comes in the form of a pay rise, winning an award, acquiring a new pair of shoes, or getting likes on Facebook. Receiving external validation feels pleasant, but it also leaves us vulnerable to the vagaries of other peoples’ judgments, the job market, what’s trendy and what’s not, who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. And, just as a sugar hit feels pleasant in the short-term but leaves us more depleted, so the excitement of the resource-seeking system can soon wear off – and we either feel strangely flat and dull, or go anxiously searching for our next ‘hit’.

We might put all your energy into our career, neglecting our family and our health, and then find ourselves without a job after the latest restructure. Meanwhile, the family is getting on with their own lives, since they hardly ever saw us, our health is in tatters and our emotional resilience is also very low. Like a gambler on a winning streak, the resource-seeking system works great when things are going our way – but there’s little to fall back on when our luck runs out. There’s nothing wrong with hard work and being rewarded and relishing excitement – as long as we realise the ephemeral nature of excitement and success.

We are all addicted in one way or another to the resource-seeking system – it’s part of our human nature to seek out praise and reward. We may not be addicted to gambling, alcohol or drugs, but on a more subtle level, we still love to get those dopamine hits! We can enjoy them, as long as we keep them in balance. And the best way to find this balance in our lives, according to Paul Gilbert’s model, is to cultivate the soothing and affiliation system, which will be the topic of next week’s reflection.

Weekly practice idea:

Think about areas in your life where you know you’re a little ‘addicted’. Checking the smart phone too frequently is a common one nowadays. Does this ‘addiction’ come with a cost?

Anja Tanhane

Catching the news

It’s evening, I’m sitting on the couch, and my cat is fast asleep on my lap. While I’ve been rushing about all over the place, she has spent most of the day dozing on the chair. Not that her life is completely free of stress – a new cat called Boots has moved into the house behind us, and Tashi is not happy. She’s often perched at the back gate, anxiously glaring underneath for signs of Boots. Still, she is relaxed now, and she has no idea of what’s been happening in the houses further down the street, let alone the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, I also want to relax, but it’s not easy to let go of the of the images and stories happening around the world. I don’t want to live in a Pollyanna bubble of willful ignorance, but so many of the stories currently making the news are truly upsetting. Tashi has no idea what’s happening in the Middle East, Nigeria and so on, and her life does seem better for it.

Mindfulness is about awareness, noticing the effects of something on our lives. It is also about making choices. For many of us, it’s finding the balance between being over-invested in every tragedy we hear about, and being apathetic and uncaring.

In the helping professions, it’s well known that the people who are most empathic and caring are the most vulnerable to burn-out and compassion fatigue. Workers can also suffer from vicarious trauma, where they start to experience some of the symptoms of stress and anxiety of the clients they’re working with. The key is finding a way of maintaining the positive qualities of caring and empathy, while also looking after ourselves. And looking after ourselves might mean set times away from thinking about other people’s problems – the problems of the people we’re working with, or of people in other parts of the world.

I find it helpful to make conscious choices about how and when I consume the news. This is not always easy, as the novelty-seeking part of the brain loves to quickly click onto the online news or listen to the radio, just to see what’s happening. And what if there’s some really important story developing that I should know about? Perhaps there’s a gunman loose in my neighbourhood, and I need to stay inside and lock the doors and pull down the blinds – which could happen, though it’s unlikely…

Staying informed is important, but there is a cost. We are so used to being bombarded with news, it’s easy to forget that every terrible story we hear has an impact on us, especially if we’re someone who feels for other people. Making conscious choices about our exposure to this might help us reduce some of our anxiety and worry.

Weekly practice idea:

Look at your pattern of consuming the news. How much conscious awareness do you bring to this process? Could you experiment with changing some of your patterns and noticing if this makes a difference for you?

Anja Tanhane

A different perspective

When I was still a student, I went for a bushwalk in the Grampians with a group of friends. It was foggy, the kind of fog which doesn’t lift all day, but sits close among the rocks and trees, ethereal and quite magical. I still remember the walk, how atmospheric it was to see the gum trees and granite boulders emerging and disappearing again into the mist. There was a sense of walking in enchanted land; of being, for the day, outside the usual sense of space and time.

A few years later, I did the same walk, but this time the sun was shining, and suddenly, to the right and left, there were stunning views – of valleys, other peaks reaching out into the distance, small towns, farms and vineyards. It was quite surreal, to know all this had been there the first time and I had been unaware of it. I’d had no sense of what was beyond the narrow path and the few trees I could see in the fog. Though I knew there was a world beyond the mist, I didn’t know what it consisted of.

When we are under stress we are often only aware of the narrow path in front of us, and we can lose all sense of the surrounding landscape. This is our survival mechanism, the fight/flight response which kicks in at the first intimation of threat. All our attention is focused on the perceived danger, whether it is someone just about to attack us, or difficulties at work or in the family. We also tend to become self-centred – fiercely determined to look after No 1 first. All these are valid responses to immediate physical threats, but less helpful in complex, ongoing stressful scenarios.

Throughout history, there have been people who have been able to step outside their own narrow self-interest in times of danger and act from a larger perspective. We probably know people like this ourselves – even when life is difficult for them they retain a sense of openness and awareness of the bigger picture. They might be the family mediators, or the colleague who smooths the choppy waters of office politics – the ones who can see where people are coming from, why they might be struggling in certain situations.

Mindfulness can help us develop this sense of greater perspective – being able to pause, ground ourselves, look around and ask – what is really going on here? What is happening in me? What can I sense in my body, what kind of thoughts are swirling through my mind? What is going on for others? By grounding our experience in the direct experience of our bodies, rather than getting caught up in abstract mental notions of how things ‘should’ be, we slowly gain the ability to see beyond the fog of stress; to get a more open, realistic perspective on what the difficulties actually are.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, when you are feeling stressed, take a few moments to ground yourself – feel the earth underneath your feet, notice your breath, any strong sensations in your body. Does this make a difference to how you deal with the situation?

Anja Tanhane