October 31, 2013

Stress Savvy

When I teach mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) class, we spend a lot of time discussing ways that mindfulness can help us behave more adaptively when we're facing a challenge or stressor. I emphasize the idea of developing adaptive responses to stressors, rather than engaging in automatic and habitual stress reactions that invariably make things worse.

Everyone loves the idea of coping better with stressors, and most people have personal strategies that they apply during periods of particular stress; examples include exercising more, taking extra care to eat well and get enough sleep, going for a massage, spending more time with family, and spending less time with family. Such stress reduction/management strategies help us avoid slipping into the kind of automatic reactions that stress can produce (e.g., smoking, drinking, eating poorly, avoidance, withdrawal, picking fights). But the other night, one MBSR participant raised a key point: What if you don't know you're stressed out?

Good question! After all, we can't implement our stress reduction/management strategies if we aren't aware that we're stressed out. We've all had the experience of making a poor decision, hurting someone's feelings, or otherwise saying or doing something mindless or maladaptive only to later realize that we were completely stressed out at the time. This is where mindfulness enters the picture to help us know ourselves better and recognize our patterns.

Here are two questions we can ask ourselves--right now--that can help us recognize earlier that we're stressed out.

1) What are the first signs that I'm stressed out? For some people, the first sign is physical: shoulder tension, belly agitation, headache, or a feeling of pressure in the chest. For others, the first symptom of stress is mental, e.g., ruminating over an issue long after it's been resolved, getting really indignant over a minor issue. For others, the first sign is behavioural, e.g., they know they're stressed out when they find themselves eating out of the container standing up. One MBSR participant reported that his first sign is that he starts being rude to cashiers, taxi drivers, and other strangers--people he usually greets with "Hi, how are you?"

2) Under which conditions am I the most likely to get stressed out? Examples include "When I'm hungry," "When I'm tired," "Toward the end of the work week," "When I've been fighting with my partner," "When I'm in a rush," "When I feel like my authority is in question."

Knowing the answers to these two questions is mindfulness gold. If you can identify that eating out of the container is a sign that you're stressed, the next time you find yourself standing in front of the open fridge with a tub of yogurt in one hand and a spoon in the other, you'll know it's time to implement your stress reduction/management strategies. If you can identify that you're prone to mindless stress reactions when you're tired, the next time your children or loud neighbours keep you up all night, you'll know to consider how to best care for yourself the following day so you don't fall prey to mindless stress reactions.

Knowing the signs and conditions that indicate stress for us doesn't eliminate our initial stressors, but can help us avoid the added stress generated by mindless reactive behaviour.

What are your signs and conditions?