Learning to Respond Rather Than React with Mindfulness
Welcome to the beginning of the final quarter of an extremely difficult year. A global pandemic, social, political unrest and economic turmoil as well as severe, unprecedented weather and climate events have left us weary, frustrated, disconnected and stressed. Feeling stressed and overwhelmed is certainly one thing my clients, my friends, my family, myself and the broader community around me can all agree on. We’re stressed out. We’re over the pandemic even as it is not yet over.
So, let’s check in. When was the last time you paused and touched base with yourself in order to ask, “How am I doing? How has this terrible, frightful year been impacting me moment to moment? How am I right now?” Pausing to get a glimpse of what your body and nervous system are experiencing is a critical step toward managing stress and soothing a dialed-up threat system. Mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn teaches that “Our physiological/psychological balance, stable though it is, can be pushed over the edge into dysregulation and disorder if it is taxed beyond its limits to respond and adapt” (Kabat-Zinn, p. 248). And, typically, in our culture, we’re not taught how to recognize the physical clues our body offers that tell us that we have reached our threshold of tolerance for stress or we’ve even been pushed beyond it… meaning we may lash out at ourselves and others unconsciously creating disharmony in our relationships and yucky stress related sensations in our bodies. The key is to learn our unique stress signals before we simply react, mindlessly. “This simple momentary shift from mindless reaction to mindful recognition can reduce the power of the stress reaction and it’s hold over you. In that moment you now have a very real choice. You can still go the route of the stress reaction, but you no longer have to. You no longer have to react automatically in the same old way every time your buttons get pushed. You can respond instead out of your greater awareness of what is happening” (Kabat-Zinn, p. 266).
The first step in building this muscle of awareness is to learn to bring your attention to your breath. Try it… pause now and breathe. Take slow, deliberate, deep breaths in and even slower breaths out. Notice how the air moves in and out of your body and how your body is impacted by this simple act. Our bodies are ALWAYS breathing… but we rarely pause to notice. “The breath itself is calming, especially when we can tune in to it at the belly. It’s like an old friend, it anchors us, gives us stability” (Kabat-Zinn, p. 269). In this quiet centering we have the opportunity to tune back into our own experience, and be in our BODIES and not just our heads. As you breathe and feel the sensations of breathing, what else do you notice? Pain? Feelings? Tensions? Blankness? All of this is important information about the state of YOU and how you feel in the midst of stress. As you practice sitting, breathing and paying attention to what is present in you in any particular moment, you begin to gather data about yourself, your body and your thoughts, like an impartial observer studying YOU. And you’ll begin to notice the signals and clues your body offers when you begin to feel stressed. Then you can practice self-care and soothe your nervous system before you spin into reactivity. Learning to pause and notice offers the gift of being able to choose how you want to react in any given moment. Just having that choice reduces stress all by itself. And it could be the key to making it to the end of 2020 with more ease and calm and much less stress.
Want to begin practicing checking in with yourself? Try this body scan practice, created by Jon Kabat-Zinn, as part of his Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction program. https://ggia.berkeley.edu/practice/body_scan_meditation
Kabat-Zinn, Jon. (2013). Full catastrophe living: using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. New York: Bantam Books.