Our day-to-day lives are busy and unless we are mindful of how we relate to ourselves, it is easy to inadvertently add more pressure to the stress we are carrying.
Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, Ph.D. reminds us to remember that our nervous systems have evolved to keep us alive, not serene; the animals that survived to pass down their genes were fearful and vigilant - the comparatively zen-like creatures were more likely to become a meal.
Fast-forward several thousand years and the human brain is hardwired with a negativity bias. Scientific studies have demonstrated that the brain generally reacts more to negative stimulus than that to an equally intense positive one; people typically learn faster from pain than pleasure.
In addition to this hardwiring, we have been socialized to use the rational problem-solving mode of mind to tackle all our difficulties. This process of setting a goal, working towards the goal and monitoring whether we are reaching the goal works for issues based in the outer world (e.g. landing the ROVER on Mars). Unfortunately, this process can intensify a difficult emotional state.
So, how does this happen? Let’s say we feel more fatigued at the end of the day than we want. In an effort to alleviate this physical/emotional state and prevent it from happening again, we try to figure-out why we feel fatigued, ESPECIALLY if we have an ostensibly good life where “nothing is really wrong.”
But tension and fatigue aren’t problems that can be solved through critical thinking. Rather they are emotions and body-states to be felt and respected.
Using our habitual problem-solving mind, we attempt to feel better by reminding ourselves that we have good lives and that we do not have a good enough reason to feel fatigued or stressed. In our attempt to feel better, we unintentionally criticize ourselves for feeling this way, which in turn intensifies our level of stress. It is easy to see how we can fall into this cycle.
The good news is that our nervous systems also have a sensing mode or being mode of mind, which is the more effective mode of mind to manage our internal state. Like any skill, we are able to intentionally strengthen the being mode of mind with practice.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month - reminding us of the importance of turning inwards and noticing how we are relating to ourselves to manage the stress in our lives as effectively as possible.
Here are some tips to establish mindfulness-based practices using the sensing/being mode of the mind to skillfully manage stress:
Deep Breathing Practice - take deep breaths focusing on long exhalations; a long exhalation signals to the body’s parasympathetic nervous system that it is okay to relax. For example, inhale for a count of three and exhale for a count of six. Repeat.
Savoring Practice - to counteract your brain’s negativity bias, intentionally look for and savor the small pleasant experiences during your day with as much of your senses as possible (feeling soft clothes on your skin, the warm water when showering, the scent and crispy temperature of spring air).
Gratitude Practice - noticing what you are grateful has been proven in many different scientific studies to increase our resilience to stress and increase our happiness. Note of caution - sometimes gratitude practice brings up guilt or self-criticism in the moment; during these times it is best to use another practice.
As we raise awareness for mental health and how our brains function, it is important to remember that any self-care practice has a significant benefit beyond that of the practice itself; mindful self-care is an intentional act of kindness towards the self and any intentional action on your own behalf registers deeply on a neurological level for you. Any time we are active in our own care we feel more empowered, which can increase optimism and happiness, which in turns helps us be more resilient in the face of stress.
Elizabeth Hale-Rose, LCSW, CPC is a licensed clinical social worker and certified life coach at Privé-Swiss Wellness, an award-winning luxury clinical-holistic wellness center, located at 1587 Boston Post Road, Westbrook and 28 Main St., Essex; phone: 860-391-8840; website: www.priveswisswellness.com