Although often thought of as a negative thing, the stress response is critical to survival, as it helps the organism adapt to challenge and maintain the balance of our physiological processes. It helped our ancestors to escape from predators or fight enemies. Good stress can help us react in an emergency or successfully present an end-of-year report in front of the board. There is another kind of stress known as tolerable, which is not so helpful, but can be managed before it becomes chronic / toxic stress.
On any given day, we can be exposed to stressors in many different ways. They can range from negative interactions with colleagues or relatives, being stuck in traffic, and caring for a sick loved one, to the unexpected beep of a phone message or watching bad news. When one experiences acute stress- a stimulus, the sympathetic nervous system is rapidly activated. This acute activation is often referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ response, which results in increased respiration, blood pressure, and heart rate, and activates hormonal pathways
The stimulus that disrupts our balance doesn’t have to be real; it can also be our thoughts.The evil of modern stress is grounded in the details of how we perceive everyday life events. Psychological distress is the way we think about what is happening rather than what is actually happening to us. It is all about perception, pure and simple.
In healthy people, the stress response is rapidly counterbalanced by the parasympathetic nervous system – ‘rest and digest’.The number of hormones and neurotransmitters decreases once the event is no longer perceived as a threat by our brains.However, disease can arise when there is long-term exposure these substances, as it leads to a toxic inflammatory state, mostly in vulnerable individuals, that can adversely affect the brain’s structure and other numerous aspects of health.
Although undoubtedly a subjective measure, most people consider themselves ‘stressed’, typically due to the stories they tell themselves and others about their life experiences.
Some researchers at Sandford have developed the concepts of ‘breaks, buffers and protective factors’, which can be understood as rest areas between periods of stress, just like we push the breaks of a car when we feel it’s going to fast, to keep it under control. We can create our own breaks to bring down the stress to a lower level, like peaks and valleys, which could be manageable. This is probably the best way to deal with stress in everyday life.
It might sound difficult to live in peaks in valleys, but it is possible, and it will greatly improve our well-being, feeling like we can live a life that inevitably will have stressors. We can teach our brain new ways to deal with situations that are perceived as threatening, so it starts perceiving them as ‘those situations again’ and lets them pass without generating a great deal of discomfort and all the physiological reactions mentioned above.
Mindfulness is a practice rooted in Buddhism that empirically has been proven to be associated with psychological well-being. It has been adapted so that the elements of mindfulness – awareness and nonjudgmental acceptance of one’s moment-to-moment experience, are regarded as potentially effective antidotes against common forms of inflammatory states or psychological distress, namely anxiety, fear, anger, depression, etc.
It is usually practised along with different types of psychotherapy, leading an individual to focus on the present moment on purpose, by observing and describing it without any judgements or attachments – seeing situations as they are and not the conception we have of them. By learning how to describe events without judgements, our ‘fight or flight’ response will not be triggered always, but only when it is helpful to survive. In this way we can develop protective factors for future difficult emotions or challenging interactions.
There are many ways in which mindfulness can be practised, including:
- Breathing paying careful attention to what happens to our body while we inhale and exhale, observing how every part feels and learning to describe those feelings;
- Breathing trying to observe the thoughts in our minds and letting them pass, as clouds in the sky;
- Observing with curiosity the places where we live and work becoming aware of all the details in them;
- Doing the regular housework feeling all the sensations that come into our body through our senses.
- Every day while we eat, we may do it less automatically, as often happens, and become more aware of the food by looking at it, identifying different smells and flavours, noticing the moment we salivate while we continue with the next bite; the same when we drive or walk to a certain place. Usually we become so used to going along the same road that we don’t even notice signs, trees, etc.
Research has examined the relationship between mindfulness practices and psychological well-being. Scientists have compared meditators and non-meditators on several indices of psychological well-being. Individuals who practice meditation have reported significantly higher levels of mindfulness, self-compassion and overall sense of well-being, and significantly lower levels of psychological symptoms, and difficulties with emotion regulation, compared to those who do not. Changes in these variables were directly associated with extent of meditation practice.
By becoming more mindful of our everyday life, we can identify our own thoughts and emotions, and can check the facts of every situation we experience. We will also become more aware of the people and places around us; will be able to enjoy them more; and therefore, enhance our well-being within a context of tolerable stress.