April marks Stress Awareness Month, and the very name of the observance couldn’t be more timely. Over a year where many people have felt more stress than ever, the first step to managing this stress is to become aware of it.
To shine a light on wrangling stress, if stress is always bad (spoiler: it isn’t), and tangible tactics to incorporate daily, we sat down (or, in Darrell’s case, stood up) virtually with Meditation Guide and Teacher Trainer at Chill Anywhere, Darrell Jones.
Our society promotes stress as an indicator of success
If you’ve ever caught yourself feeling like you aren’t productive or successful unless you’re “so busy” or “so stressed”, then you’ve encountered an all-too-common byproduct of the world we live in today. We asked Jones to break down this mindset, and share ways to challenge it.
We live in a society where the mindset is that if you’re not stressed, you’re not doing enough – what can people do to combat that mindset?
Jones: “It’s not comfortable to do, but question this mindset. In our modern world, everyone just accepts this mindset. In order to know that I’m productive or successful, the only symptom that proves that is if I’m stressed. That’s not true. Stress is a way to know you have a lot going on, but just because you’re stressed does not mean you’re performing at your optimum level or being productive. It just means you have palpable stress present. Question that mindset – that’s what mindful meditation is all about.”
What about stress being inherently “good” or “bad”?
Jones: “Stress is not necessarily good or bad – we have placed a lot of meaning on it. One of those meanings is that stress is ‘the thing’ that shows we are exerting effort or doing something right/well/enough. Oftentimes we carry stress as an indicator that we are being productive, but to hold stress in that way for validation doesn’t lead to balanced and healthy living. As we develop a relationship with stress, then we can choose how to use it and how to respond to it. Stress can be a motivator. During the 30 minutes leading up to a presentation, for example, that stress and anxiety might motivate you to review your notes for 15 more minutes and prepare. Stress can support us in that way.”
How does being present help with managing stress?
Jones: “There’s a TED Talk from Matthew Killingsworth that talks about capturing data from 16,000 people via text messages that ask what they’re doing, if they’re thinking about what they’re doing, and their relative state of happiness (positive, neutral, or negative). They found that 47% of the time, people were not thinking about what they were currently doing. Almost half of their days were spent thinking about something else that was not currently in front of them. If we aren’t focused on the present, we’re either in the past or the future, where we spend most of our time. In this ruminating space, our body doesn’t know the difference between an actual event and us replaying it in our mind. Every time we replay a stressor event, our body reacts by sending out stress hormones.”
What can happen if excessive stress goes unmanaged or unaddressed?
Jones: “Mentally, it’s fatigue – brain fog, the inability to focus. Emotionally, an added symptom from mental fatigue is instability in our emotions. We need full mental capacity to manage our emotional wellbeing. Our prefrontal cortex is the executive director of our nervous system. With chronic stress, our prefrontal cortex is prevented from doing its function, and the telltale sign of chronic stress is when we experience overreactions. Physiologically, high levels of stress hormones get released when we ruminate or overthink which can result in adrenal fatigue. Stress can also lead to heart flutters, heart palpitations, IBS, and more physical effects. The impacts of stress are quite broad – it depends on overall health, personality, and how an individual moves through life.”
Taking strides towards stress management this Stress Awareness Month and beyond
With these impacts of unmanaged or unharnessed stress in mind, finding ways to become aware of stress and reframe the mindset around it is crucial. Jones shared easy-to-implement strategies that he both recommends and uses personally to manage stress.
What are your favorite tangible tips for stress management?
1. Exercise time management. “One of the biggest stressors is time. We can’t create any more than 24 hours in a day, a good chunk of which are required for the body to sleep, so the simple practice of designating specific times to do certain work is key. It’s common sense, but not necessarily common practice. Everyone knows how to schedule doing, but most people don’t schedule non-doing, too. Schedule breaks and truly step away from screens or anything that stimulates our brain in that way so you can restore, reconnect, and re-energize. It’s like starting the day fresh every time.”
2. Make time for movement. “Whether that’s changing how we work (sitting to standing), or getting up to walk and stretch or move.”
3. Set intentions. “Something I do every day is set intentions. Intentions are not goals. I know what my goals are, my calendar has the deliverables. The intention is how I’m going to move through the day. Who am I going to be? It’s aspirational and value-based. It’s not necessarily tangible. An intention for me is often flexibility. Or joy. Or being present.”
4. Eliminate distractions. “Along the lines of scheduling is eliminating distraction. When I’m working at home, the door is shut to my office. Even a family member walking down the hallway does something to pull my attention away, so I eliminate the distraction. With our phones and smart watches, people tend to put notifications on vibrate and think they need to know when something is coming in. Even if you don’t look at the notification, the fact that there’s been a noise can distract and pull your attention, too.”
5. Stop multitasking. “Notice when you go into multitasking mode and try to stop it. Eliminate having multiple windows open at once. Even in the meditation world, there are presentations to create, assignments to grade, etc. You can leave tabs open, but to return to later, not to work on all at once. Multitasking stresses the mind.”
6. Stay hydrated. “Caffeine is great and can get us into work mode, but slamming too much coffee and not enough water can lead to dehydration and over-caffeination. I love coffee, but I always have water to stay hydrated too.”
Challenging the misconceptions of meditation
If meditation looks one singular way in your mind, Jones challenges you to take another look at that notion.
Jones: “Unless someone has done significant practice, they tend to think mindfulness is about feeling good, which it is not. You can have the effect of feeling a little better after meditating, but people get frustrated because they think they’re supposed to access a space of bliss. Nope. To have an experience of great joy in meditation is not required for it to be effective. You don’t have to be happy in order for meditation to work.”
The same holds true with the common misconception that meditating means turning off your thoughts.
Jones: “Meditation is not about stopping the mind from thinking. The mind never stops processing – dreams at night are proof of that. Even in meditation, thoughts are happening in the background. What we attempt to do is to wrangle our attention so that although the mind may still think, you can give your full attention to a sound, a palpable feeling, a word, or a quality. So you can pay attention to the present moment. It’s not the mind stopping, it’s the mind focusing. It regulates our ability to manage stress. There is no perfect way to meditate, and no mental destination to get to. It’s about returning, not getting anywhere. It’s about staying in the present moment, and bringing back your attention when it wanders.”
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