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Changing the Stress Cycle! #StressAwarenessMonth

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  • Posted by Rachel Sherman on April 20 2021

Working in the creative sector, while rewarding, often comes with a lot of pressure and stress. Any creative can tell you that between the sharp deadlines, task juggling, large creative collaborations, and frequent need to upskill and keep up with latest trends, there can be more than plenty to stress over. And that's before we add a global pandemic on top of it all!

This April, for Stress Awareness Month, we are exploring how to change the cycle of unhealthy stress and free ourselves from its overwhelming loop. Good news, it IS possible! If we tune into mindful living and attend to our emotions as they arise, you would be surprised how much can change…

The Western term of mindfulness, as defined by meditation teacher, author, researcher and clinician Jon Kabat-Zinn, is “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” Too often (almost exclusively), we react to stress unconsciously and without any awareness of what is actually going on within our bodily systems and the huge impact it can have on our day-to-day lives. Let’s explore how this works and uncover a mindful way to manage stress.

Character on a yoga mat.

The Automatic Stress Reaction Cycle

The stress reaction cycle, as defined by Kabat-Zin, begins with either an 'External Stressor,' like a tough critique and that impending deadline, or an 'Internal Stressor,' which are those pesky thoughts and emotions which may tell you that you're not good enough or your work could be better. In the face of these external and internal stimulants, we tend to react automatically (instead of responding mindfully).

Physiology sets us up to have a fight or flight reaction to the stressor, leading us to either confront it head-on or flee as far away from it as possible. This automatic stress reaction can happen anywhere from 10-100 times a day, and in this habitual state, it becomes hard for us to recognize that it is even happening.

When we bulldoze over our feelings in this fight or flight mentality in an effort to get our work done, we just end up compounding the stress even further internally. This can then arise as psychical ailments like no sleep, headaches, inflammation, high blood pressure, and so much more. What happens then is typically we use maladaptive coping strategies to quell the pain we feel, strategies like over-working, over-eating, substance dependency, and more. This, believe it or not, creates MORE STRESS! All of this compounds the automatic cycle and keeps it in a seemingly never-ending loop of stress and internalization. Round and round we go…

A diagram of the automatic stress reaction cycle

This spinning merry-go-round of stress can be exhausting, but there is a way to break the cycle by responding to stress rather than reacting to our stressors. By simply paying attention, we can swap this automatic stress response for a mindful and mediated stress response.

The Mindful Stress Reaction Cycle

Let's start with that stressful deadline all over again. Upon receiving an external or internal stressor, while the impulse is to fight or flee and then suppress, we can lessen the weight of our stressors just by paying attention to them as they arise. Once you can detect this automatic system working for you on your behalf, you begin to have the power to halt it in its tracks and respond to the situation rather than feeling like its victim. By attending to the stressful event, thought, or emotion, you will find that it doesn't get rid of or fix the bodily feelings of those sweaty palms or racing heart, but instead, it will create room for you to hold space for these feelings rather than react blindly to them. 

In this space, what likely will happen is you will realize that your thoughts and emotions are just that, thoughts and emotions, not the truth of the matter. In this clearing of the mind, there is a calm and spacious opening where new options can arise in areas where problems seemingly had no solutions before. Over time, as you pay more attention to your thoughts and stress reactions, more solutions will greet you on the other side of awareness as neurological pathways to greener pastures unfold.

A diagram of the mindful stress reaction cycle

The Solution – AKA How to Change the Cycle

So next time a ton of notes come in right before a deadline, instead of diving headfirst into the deep end and feeling frazzled by everything you need to get done, take a moment to notice your thoughts and feelings. Do not try and change them or fix them or analyze them further, just notice them. After a moment, you may get the sense that you need not be as stressed as previously thought and you may even find a better way to get things done. 

It seems too simple to be as powerful as it is, but that is mindfulness for you. All it boils down to is being aware of what stressors affect you and creating the space to pay attention to them, rather than impulsively and unconsciously reacting. With practice and patience, mindfulness can have you managing stress like never before.

Character in a meditative state

The Training

To get a jump on your mindfulness journey, it is highly recommended to find 5-10 minutes a day to meditate. This time, to practice coming back to the object of your meditation (a mantra, your breath, the body), is extremely helpful in building up the stamina for internal awareness. The Calm app has a number of YouTube videos that help you do just that.

Character in a mindful yoga pose on mat

Rachel Sherman

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