As hard as it may sound to pull out of this stress reaction cycle, it is possible. The first step in creating any positive change is always raising your awareness of what the cycle is, how you participate in it, and what pains the cycle creates.
Why? Because you can’t change a habit you don’t know you have. And if you don’t recognize the pain the habit is creating, you won’t have the motivation you need to make new choices and break out of the cycle that has become familiar despite the fact that it is destructive.
The practice of mindfulness is an incredibly powerful tool to help you find that awareness. Mindfulness teaches us to pay attention, non-judgmentally, to what is happening in the moment. Mindfulness not only counteracts stress, but also prevents it from happening in the first place, because when you practice mindfulness you can begin to observe your patterns and make new choices instead of compulsively acting them out over and over. Mindfulness helps you break the cycle. It also sets the stage for your parasympathetic nervous system to take over and to create the conditions your body needs in order to heal itself. Start to check in with yourself when you feel that old familiar feeling of stress creep in and try to observe the thoughts you have and actions you take in response to it.
A foundational piece of mindfulness is to be non-judgmental about the thoughts and feelings you pay attention to, so resist the urge to beat yourself up for wanting a piece of cake to help you feel better or feel guilty about how much time you spent scrolling through your social media feed instead of working on the project or having the conversation that’s causing you so much stress. At this point, you simply want to raise awareness of how you react to stress.
Another Thing to Become Aware of: Your Inherited Patterns
Whether you realize it or not, you were born into a family with its own unique patterns of maladaptive coping mechanisms. Just as you inherit eye color, height, and talent from your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, you can also inherit an addictive personality, or a tendency to reach for sweets, or a quick temper.
In your attempt to deal with the stresses that life has thrown your way, you have been repeating patterns that began even before you were born. Recognizing what those patterns are and how they have shown up in your own choices is such a relief. It’s empowering to know the truth so that you don’t have to blame yourself and feel shame for obstacles that you inherited.
Choosing Better Coping Mechanisms
Once you recognize your patterns, it is absolutely possible for you to break them and choose new coping mechanisms that actually support you instead of contributing to your breakdown. Just as your body has physiological mechanisms that help you respond to stressors, it has an equally powerful system that helps you relax. This is ruled by the parasympathetic nervous system.
Spending more time in parasympathetic realm also cues deeper emotions, such as compassion, in what’s known as the “tend and befriend” response. This drive to connect with others is really what motivates you to wander in to the office kitchen during a hectic day — you’re looking for someone to talk to, even though you may think you’re there to see if there are any leftover pastries from the morning breakfast meeting! When you spend more time in the parasympathetic realm, you not only benefit your physical health, you tend to your emotional health, because it sets the stage for you to deepen your relationships, develop a support network, and exercise your compassion. This helps you find the support you need to start making changes in how you deal with your stressors.
Heal the Body with Conscious Relaxation
Now it’s time for a deeper dive into the pool of relaxation. Conscious relaxation is exactly what it sounds like — using your mental awareness to produce a relaxed state that is profound. The practice builds body awareness, focus, and empowerment — because once you know how to do it, you never need to feel trapped in a stress reaction again.
I have included instructions below for a conscious relaxation practices called a body scan:
Time 20-40 minutes
If you can, practice this three to five days a week for six to eight weeks, as research suggests people reap more benefits from this practice when they keep at it.
How to practice:
- A body scan can be performed lying down or sitting. You can close your eyes if that feels comfortable for you.
- Once you are comfortable, begin by taking a few deep breath in through your nose and out through your mouth.
- Start noticing your body, feeling the weight of your body on the chair or on the floor. Notice where your body is in contact with the floor or chair, and where it isn’t.
- Now place your attention on your feet. Notice the sensations of your feet touching the floor—the weight, pressure, vibration, and temperature.
- Next, notice your legs against the floor — is there pressure, pulsing, heaviness, lightness?
- Move on to your back and see what sensations you can feel there.
- Now bring your attention into your stomach area. If your stomach is tense or tight, let it go and relax. Take a breath.
- Notice your hands. Are they tense or tight? See if you can allow them to let go and relax.
- Now pay attention to your arms. Feel any sensations happening there. Let your shoulders drop and let go of tension and tightness.
- Notice your neck and throat. Let go of tension and tightness. Relax.
- Relax your jaw. Let your face and facial muscles soften. Let go of any tension and tightness that may be there.
- Then expand your awareness to take in your whole body, feeling how it feels to be in your body in this moment.
- Take a breath.
- Be aware of your whole body as best you can. Take a breath.
- Bring your hands together rubbing them together to generate heat in your hands and place your hands over your eyes. Slowly open your eyes and come back to the room.
- Notice how you feel.
- Thank yourself for providing the space to connect to your mind, body, and spirit.
- Give yourself a gift of love and dedicate a space to practice this technique regularly.
The body scan I am leaving you with is the best place to start in learning how to break the stress reaction cycle in your life. Conscious relaxation practices such as the body scan help by systematically placing your attention on each and every part of your body and inviting them to relax, one by one. Over the years I have learned this is the best place to start with my patients before covering more ground work using yoga, breathing techniques, more conscious relaxation exercises, and the power of positive affirmations.
Starting with this basic body scan is the first step in uncovering how powerful it is to connect to your body, mind, and spirit. It’s such a beautiful mindfulness practice helping us accept and acknowledge our thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations without judgement, so we can start to listen more attentively to how our body feels and what it needs to HEAL!
Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “Defining Adult Overweight and Obesity,” accessed on 9/19/17 at https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/adult/defining.html.