Here’s my free gift to you – Chapter 5 of my book, Living in the Now. It’s all about an original and effective way to manage stress. Enjoy.
The full book can be downloaded as an e-book from Amazon on http://www.amazon.com/Living-Now-Jill-Jacques-ebook/dp/B009FBT0QU/ or, Search by typing in: Living in the Now by Jill Jacques.
Chapter 5 (Living in the Now by Jill Jacques)
The Stress connection
“Stress is a preoccupation with emotional upset.” Dr D. Roger
“The amount of stress in your life is determined by how much energy you expend resisting your life.” Gary Zukav
Different strokes for different folks
Popular magazines are fond of printing quizzes that purport to indicate your stress levels by giving points to your answers and then assessing the total. For instance, ‘divorce’, or the ‘children leaving home’, are usually high on the points scale, whereas noisy neighbours score fewer points. The fallacy of this approach is obvious if we remember that different things affect different people differently. For one person divorce may be traumatic, for another, it may signal the end of stress; one mother may be devastated by ‘empty nest syndrome’, while another may be delighted; loud music from a neighbour may put one person in a party mood, while another may feel irritated and imposed upon.
If this is the case, then clearly it is not the situation itself that is stressful; it is our response to the situation. So we need to take responsibility for our stress by:
- not blaming outside circumstances
- not blaming other people nor ourselves
- living in the now
Taking responsibility for your stress does not mean it is your fault. Our reactions to situations and events are usually the result of conditioning: our culture, upbringing, ideologies, role models, circumstances and beliefs are some of the things that cause us to respond in particular ways. So remember to be kind to yourself and others in this regard. ‘Standing on the third floor balcony’ helps to see things in perspective and then there is less chance of stress taking over. Outside circumstances are often beyond our control, but if we are fully present we may be in a position to respond rather than react automatically.
Why be concerned about too much stress?
Much of the stress that people suffer from is unnecessary and avoidable. If you are preparing to fight for your life or run away from danger, that’s a different story. Then your body goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode, releasing adrenaline into your bloodstream to raise your blood pressure and prioritise your muscles and other responses. The cortisol activated by the pituitary gland in your brain influences your energy levels, but also interferes with the body’s production of white blood cells, which are crucial to an effective immune system. These responses are appropriate when you are faced with a threatening situation and simply illustrate the body’s wonderful efficiency; when the danger has passed, body functioning returns to normal.
So what’s the problem? The problem arises when emotions are triggered by thoughts in your mind, rather than real situations, and the body is constantly going into emergency mode for no relevant reason.
What the body cannot do, is distinguish between real and imagined danger. When you have an emotional altercation with someone and become very angry, you may experience the increased heart rate and muscle tension that tells you your body is preparing for fight or flight. But this can be taken one step further. If during the day following the altercation, you constantly mull it over in your mind, reviving the same angry emotions, the body thinks you are in danger. It responds by preparing you to meet the perceived threat, supplying the body with adrenaline and cortisol. Each time this happens, your blood pressure goes up and your immune system is compromised.
Under normal circumstances, once the danger has passed, the body returns to normal and the balance is restored. If this happens occasionally, there is no harm done. But if the body is on a constant see-saw of homeostasis (normal balance) and perceived danger response, adrenaline and cortisol are injected into the blood stream too often and inappropriately. The incessant adrenaline puts the body into a state of high alert all the time, resulting in unnecessary and continuing high blood pressure and muscle tension, as well as predisposition to heart attack or associated heart problems. Similarly the continual supply of cortisol, which depresses the immune system, may lead to constantly feeling under par, with recurring colds and infections, or even auto-immune conditions.
Thus ‘stress is a preoccupation with emotional upset’. Living in the now means not dwelling on past upsets or future anxieties. It means dealing with any stresses that present themselves in the moment, but not wasting time and energy trying to change the past or control the future: both are an illusion.
Circling thoughts and a cat
Imagine that you return at night to your home and you’ve forgotten to leave lights on. The house is in complete darkness. You turn the key and as you step inside you become aware of a movement on your right. Your heart beats faster as your body gets ready to fight or run away; you start to sweat and your mouth goes dry. Nervously you feel for the light switch. After what seems like a long time you find it and turn it on.
When you see that it is only the cat, you give a sigh of relief and your heartbeat gradually slows down. But during the days that follow you may find your mind turning back to the experience. What if it had been an intruder? I would have turned and run out through the gate, you think. But what if I had accidentally left my keys in the front door? Why didn’t I take my panic button? The thoughts go around in circles always coming back to the ‘what ifs’ of the event (or non-event, as the case may be). And the memory is accompanied by fears about the future, which hasn’t happened yet.
But let’s go back to the cat. When the door opens the cat has had the same shocked reaction. It stands ready to face the enemy with dilated pupils, claws unleashed and its fur standing on end to simulate a bigger and more frightening creature. When it sees it is only you, being a cat, it lies down and goes back to sleep. What the cat doesn’t do is lie there thinking: What if that had been a Rottweiler? What if it had been two Rottweilers?! What if a Boerbul comes tomorrow?
The cat lives in the moment. If there is danger it springs into action, but after the danger has passed, it doesn’t worry about past events or future possibilities.
Research by Dr Derek Roger in the Psychology Department of York University over many years has indicated that it is the disproportionate pre-occupation with thoughts of past and future that causes stress. This has led to the development of techniques for coping with these thoughts, rather than concentrating on the stressful situations themselves. The central theme of these interventions is present moment awareness.
How mindfulness helps
When we constantly push our bodies into fight or flight mode unnecessarily, we suffer the consequences – high blood pressure with possible ensuing heart problems, and a compromised immune system. In other words, a short, miserable life! Unfortunately, being stressed is often worn like a merit badge. If I’m not stressed it shows that I don’t work hard enough or that my life is dull and unchallenging, or that I’m not important enough. What a burden!
Remembering to live in the present eliminates the stress caused by fantasizing about past and future. Living in the now invariably evokes a deep peace and contentment; a joy around just being alive. So how do we make this happen? Easy – all you have to do is come to your senses! Whenever you remember, consciously see what is front of you; hear all the sounds; feel and smell your surroundings. You don’t have to go anywhere; just be where you are.
Letting things be
In Chapter 4 we considered the importance of accepting what we cannot change. Gary Zukav sees resisting the way things are, as the major cause of stress; he suggests that stress is in direct proportion to how much you resist what happens in your life. (See opening quote) Fighting against what you cannot change is exhausting, non-productive and stressful.
When I was a child of about 11 or 12 years old, my parents took me with them to the cinema at night every now and then. My mother had a habit of changing her mind at the last minute and announcing that we were going to stay at home instead. Every time I was devastated. I would spend the next hour following one parent around pleading with them to change their minds. They never did, but I would always be broken-hearted for hours afterwards. How much easier it would have been if I had been able to accept that their first statement was final, and by implication, that people change their minds sometimes.
This exercise is similar to the exercise in Chapter one, but with increased body awareness.
Sit comfortably in a chair that supports your back and allows you to have your feet flat on the floor.
Take three conscious breaths. On each exhalation allow bodily tensions to be released.
Look around and acknowledge the silent presence of objects in the room.
Be conscious of your body-weight on the chair, your clothes against your skin, the floor beneath your feet.
Close your eyes.
Check your body again for unnecessary tension and let that go. In particular check your jaw and face; the back of your neck; the small of your back.
Register taste and smell. (If labels leap to mind eg a bad smell, a fragrant smell, just let these thoughts come and go, without dwelling on them.)
Become aware of sound – just listen. If thoughts come in, as they almost certainly will, let them go and return to the listening. Be aware of the silence behind the sounds. Rest there for a few minutes or longer.
This exercise can be practised anywhere, at any time and in any position, but it may be useful at first to use the same place, position and time until you become accustomed to it. Sunrise and sunset are particularly good times as there is a natural, general peace at these times, but any other, preferably regular time, is fine. As the practice becomes easier you will find that you can come to rest almost immediately. It is useful to use this exercise between activities, so that stress from one activity does not run into the next and build up over the day.
Try to be aware of your thoughts as often as possible during the day. When you feel a sudden tensing up of the body, see if you can catch the thought that preceded it. Be content with just being able to observe this; the rest will take care of itself.
What did you find?
One man spoke about doing the first exercise in his office at lunchtime. It had been a frenetic morning with many interruptions and he had decided to work through the lunch break, as he usually did, in order to catch up. Then he remembered the exercise, closed his office door and went through the steps with as much attention as he could. “When I opened my eyes it was as though I had been transported to somewhere else. The objects I see every day seemed to have suddenly appeared and the colours were so bright they jumped out at me. An ant was crawling across my desk and I couldn’t take my eyes off it. It moved so purposefully, stopping to examine various things then journeying on. I still worked during the rest of the lunch hour but the pressure had gone – I could even say I enjoyed it – getting back to where I needed to be.”
A woman’s elderly mother and her husband were involved in a traffic accident. She described a bad week during which she was rushing to and from the hospital where her mother was in intensive care. “I didn’t know whether I was coming or going, but when I remembered to do the exercise, or even just come into the moment, it really helped. It was like stopping for breath during some mad out-of-control roller-coaster ride!”
One person described the thoughts in his mind as ‘endless, unnecessary noise”.
A woman said that she had noticed that often a feeling of depression would come over her for no apparent reason. She decided that she would try to catch the preceding thought as suggested at the group meeting. The next time it happened, she remembered. Immediately before the wave of depression she had been looking absently at the carpet and noticed that it was fading where the sun shone on it through the window. She felt hopeless because it wasn’t perfect and didn’t look nice any more. She tried the exercise a couple more times during the week and realized that when she saw things as less than perfect she felt like giving up, as though she had failed in some way, and that was when the feeling of depression and hopelessness took over. She remarked that seeing this helped her to see the depression as just an emotion rising in response to some idea she held about herself, and that it had nothing to do with her present situation. Watching the emotion in this way took away its power over her and she could just let it go.
Taking a present moment break at intervals during the day prevents the build up of stress. Watching your thoughts brings them into consciousness and diminishes their power over you. Dwelling in the past and imagined future makes life stressful in direct proportion to the frequency that this mind activity takes place. Living in the now reduces stress.
The full book can be downloaded as an e-book from Amazon on http://www.amazon.com/Living-Now-Jill-Jacques-ebook/dp/B009FBT0QU/
or, Search by typing in: Living in the Now by Jill Jacques.