Updated: May 1, 2020
Dear reader, you may be disappointed to hear this tale of a mindfulness teacher being overcome by stress..
Earlier this week, an issue that periodically triggers dismay and frustration in my life reared its head. During that stressy morning I could have been overheard bending the ears of both my long-suffering partner and a close friend, on an issue they had already heard plenty about on previous occasions. Although I am well versed in the theory of helpful responses to stress, the practical application of being mindful and compassionate at that time, sadly, eluded me.
Reflecting on this event, however, I find that there is in fact some cause for celebration. Looking back a few years, a situation seen through the lens of anxiety and aversion would often have seemed more real, more solid and 'how things are'. Earlier in my life, I was quite capable of keeping such reactions going for hours; days; even weeks and months. Sometimes, if I am brutally honest, years. Ouch.
An ongoing practice of mindfulness has not yet turned me into a perfect paragon of calm and positivity. But it has made it easier to see that, rather than showing me the objective truth of the world-out-there, my reactive mood merely signifies that I am in the grip of an 'amygdala hijack': my body-mind is pumping out hormones appropriate to being under attack from a predator. In the moment, I may take my difficulties overly seriously, however the perspective that emotional reactions are temporary phenomena is more accessible these days: "This too will pass". Do negative emotions pass more rapidly, as a result of an ongoing intention to bring awareness and kindness to one's troubles, whether real or imagined? Actually, yes! (Sighs of relief all round, not least from my friend and partner).
Learning to recognise and self-sooth an aroused threat system is a life-skill that gives and gives. What might self-soothing look like? I'd like to share a few of my personal go-to practices:
Feeling my feet on the ground and/or my sitting bones resting on a chair can have an almost miraculous effect, particularly in shifting anxiety.
Focus on the out-breath:
I can confirm in my own body what the science tells us - that following my out-breath to the end and perhaps noticing that little pause before the next in-breath arrives takes me rapidly into the 'rest and recuperation' mode of my nervous system.
It's easy to see a negative response as reprehensible and add a layer of feeling at fault to an already unhappy emotional state. Mindfulness practice encourages an attitude of open allowing as opposed to pushing the experience away or obsessively feeding it with more thoughts and stories: "This is just what's here right now...it's OK...let it be..."
Recollecting that "it is normal to feel upset and angry sometimes - it doesn't make me some sort of monster or freak!" definitely helps.
The intention to be kind to myself in this moment of stress - even when the suffering is self-imposed - brings in a perspective that is the opposite of the fearful, blaming emotions normally associated with a stress response.
I'm very far from being a perfect embodiment of the principles of mindfulness and compassion! But I'm here to tell you, these things do work for me, progressively. I would rather have several hours of feeling fed up and miserable than several days! And sometimes these shifts even happen in minutes, which is about the closest thing to a miracle I'm ever likely to witness.