Stress & Emotional Health Post 5
By now we should all be in agreement that chronic stress negatively influences us and steals our well-being. In addition, our current social, cultural, and economic context often creates in us a sense of threat, and then provides a type of escape from this threat that is only a band-aid.
Knowing this, how do you become a master of your own stress?
Use the Power of Your Higher Thought Life
It starts with the higher mind—the part of the mind we stated we must exercise. You must become aware of the cues your mind and body are sending you. You must begin to quickly detect this feeling of stress and fear. It could be muscle tightening, a headache, perspiration, palpitations, acid reflux, or other physical symptoms. It could also be a loss of focus, the feeling of melancholy, anxiety, fear, irritability, anger, or many other uncomfortable negative emotional symptoms.
But you must detect them early. If you don’t, you won’t be able to understand what’s causing them, and they’ll just escalate. When these negative emotions begin to increase, a physiological cascade happens that you won’t be able to control. You’ll get to a point where you’re lost in a forest of fear and stress, just bouncing off trees, not knowing how to find your way out. You want to avoid this.
The best way not to get lost is to recognize that you’re about to enter into this forest that you are unfamiliar with. It’s better to not go in at all, but in the event that you do, the next best thing is to quickly get yourself back out.
Essentially, you have to use the power of your higher thought life—your cognitive resources—to pick up on the cues that you’re actively experiencing stress or fear. More than likely, you will have both the physical and emotional signals that this is occurring. Rather than reacting instinctively, stop and observe what’s happening.
You might say, “When I feel this muscle tightening, it usually means I’m becoming stressed.” So you stop, observe, and question, “Where’s this stress coming from?” It could be coming from many sources. You could be having a challenging day that has required a lot of focus and attention. That’s fine; there’s no need to become excessively stressed about it and lose your focus. Or it could be because you received an inflammatory email. This may provoke emotion, but the last thing you need to do is let that take your well-being from you.
The goal is to use your cognitive resources to turn off the fight or flight automated responses that get you lost in the forest. As you use the power of observation, you begin to rightly interpret the source(s) of your stress. You can then make decisions about what to do about it from a strong and focused state of mind rather than from the perspective of a threat. Most of the time the reason behind your stress will not have a significant impact on your survival. It’s doubtful that it’s going to even be a significant impact on your day-to-day comforts.
Don’t give these circumstances power over your mind or power over your higher thought life. You’re the one in charge of how you think about and respond to circumstances.
Use the Power of Your Cognitive Resources
At this point, I often get a response such as, “You don’t know what I’m going through. If you understood my circumstances…” You’re right; I don’t know your circumstances and I see people who are going through truly challenging circumstances that I know would impact me. But I often reference a great work by Victor Frankel called Man’s Search for Meaning. Without getting into too many details, essentially he was able to master his own mind while experiencing the very real stress of being in a Nazi concentration camp while knowing that his relatives were dead.
My point is that, if Victor could master his mind in this context, then we’re certainly capable of doing at least some mastering of our own. We cannot give in to our lower-mind impulses. We must cultivate the higher mind that we all possess which allows us to understand things accurately, be in control of our own behaviors, and experience authentic well-being.
You have cognitive resources at your disposal, but you must strengthen these. Exercise improves your cognitive functions in your higher mind. Meditation and mindfulness strengthen your higher mind. Contemplation and self-exploration can help you better understand yourself.
After strengthening, you must then detect your feelings of stress and fear early and rightly judge them. If they are threatening to you, then you can create the right response based on your rational thinking. However, most will not be truly threatening. You may just need to get off your social media feed, turn off the news, get away from the people who are creating a negative environment around you, and expose yourself to some positive stimuli. By choosing to do so, you’re telling your brain that everything is OK.
Essentially we’re talking about detection and interpretation. Your brain is trained to do this, but you must understand how to do it. Perhaps once an hour, assess yourself. How are you doing physically and emotionally? Do you need a moment to just breathe and rest? Do you need to work through an inventory of all the good things in your life to remind yourself that you’re doing OK?
Use Your Power of Your Self-Awareness
It’s amazing what a few minutes of gratitude can do to diffuse these stress responses. Don’t get lost in the forest of stress and fear. Use your powers of observation and self-awareness to take the path that keeps you free from unnecessary stress and fear. And don’t let others suddenly put a forest up around you. Be very protective of your inner peace; when you sense that it’s being disturbed, carefully assess the situation and create the right response. This is you using your mind as it was designed.
In our next post, we’ll discuss how you can begin to use the power of the mind and body to begin to diffuse stress responses.