Stress Awareness, Mindfulness and Coping

Updated: Nov 5, 2021

So, we’re still in the midst of a global pandemic. COP26, the United Nations Climate Change Conference is happening. We are more aware than ever of the unfolding climate and ecological crisis, and the vast inequalities and social injustices in our world.

And this week is International Stress Awareness week.

This prompted me to think about what an interesting time this is, and what role mindfulness has to play.

The two key ways I find mindfulness supportive for coping with stress are:

1. Awareness of what stresses us and how we react

2. Awareness of what resources us and gives us inspiration and hope

Before elaborating further, I invite you to orient to the space around you. Let your eyes and head move and take in sights: objects, colours, light, shade, shapes, textures. Let any thoughts or feelings that come up be present too. Notice what sounds are present, near and further away.

Now grounding - feel the support under you. Feet on the ground, maybe the feel of a chair under your legs and buttocks. Feel free to move around. Sense the contact of your hands, perhaps with a device you are holding.

Know that orienting to the space around you, and feeling the ground under you, are potentially ways of resourcing yourself as you reflect on stress and how you react.

Now let’s go back to:

1. Awareness of what stresses us and how we react

I reckon there are three locations of stressors, from the more individual and personal to the wider world. Here’s a little model that illustrates them:



Areas of Stress


a. Internal – what’s happening in our body, heart and mind. Physical experiences like pain. Physical and mental health conditions. Our trauma history: wounds, hurts from the past, baggage – whatever you want to call it. Emotional difficulties. Feeling “too much”, or not being able to feel. Etc...

b. External – our life circumstances. Relationships with loved ones, friends, family, community. Work, housing, money. Etc...

c. Wider world – what’s happening more broadly in our region, country and across the globe. Culture, society, environment, history. The news. Awareness and direct experience of the climate and ecological crisis. The culture of consumerism, requiring that we are never satisfied. Technology we interact with that has been designed to be addictive and push our buttons – e.g. social media, YouTube, Netflix. All the “isms” in our society – sexism, racism, class discrimination, etc etc. Social injustice, poverty, inequality. Collective history. For example many in the UK having relatives who lived through two world wars. Etc... We tend to talk about mental health as an individual, personal issue - but it is connected to everything outside us too.

Take a moment to reflect on these areas of stress, and notice if any reactions are coming up.



We all have our own unique experiences of stress reactivity. We might feel a tightness in the chest, a constriction in the throat. Churning in the stomach. Feel agitated, or become very tired. There may be a lot of thoughts or strong emotions coming up. Or we might feel nothing – disconnected, numb.

The various stress reactions we can bring awareness to, are a whole mind-heart-body experience:


Numbing out

Despair

Paralysis

Racing thoughts

Anxiety, hyper-vigilance, hyper-arousal

Anger, rage, aggression

Denial

Etc...

Important next step!


As far as possible, once we identify stressors and reactions, we recognise that it’s ok to feel how we’re feeling. How natural it is, as a human being, to have difficult and painful experiences. We often get critical, judgemental and resistant thoughts towards our reactions, which makes us feel worse. Maybe we can identify and accept these thoughts too! Try phrases such as “of course… how human of me”, “it’s ok to feel this way”, and “it’s ok not to like this, it’s ok to want this to go away”.

2. Awareness of what resources us and gives us inspiration and hope

On the 8 week mindfulness course I teach (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction), we do an exercise where we identify what depletes us and what nourishes us. We use a hot air balloon to illustrate things that are nourishing and uplifting in our lives.


Here are some of the recurring “nourishing” activities and themes. See if any of these resonate with you, or if other ideas come up as you read this:




We may dismiss these activities as non-essential, they may get squeezed out in stressful times, but being aware of, and making more time for what nourishes us is so important for our well-being.

You might feel inspired to reflect on, and write down all the activities, places and people that nourish you.

I find seeking out good news very supportive. Most news stories are negative, as this triggers us, hooks us in and keeps us reading. However, good news keeps us inspired and engaged in issues - for example, I get a real buzz when I read about people who are working hard to combat climate change, and all the progress being made.

For example, I learned recently that, contrary to what we might think, the majority of people in the US are concerned about climate change and keen on renewable energy. Meanwhile in the UK, many towns and cities have action plans to reduce carbon emissions and boost local ecosystems. There are loads of environmental projects run by local and national organisations, e.g. tree planting schemes.

Along with awareness of the crisis, tapping into the positive things happening is energising and inspiring; makes me feel good about all the small things I do; and spurs me on to keep doing them: cycling to work, avoiding buying stuff / buying second hand where possible, planting trees and wild meadow areas in our garden and creating wildlife habitats, litter-picking, donating to environmental charities and activist organisations, signing petitions, writing to my MP, reducing my energy and meat consumption, using eco-friendly detergents etc. I'm especially excited about growing a sense of connection with, and love for the natural world, and weaving this more into my personal and business life (see my last post about Wild Acres!). All of this is an antidote to the paralysis, numbness and inaction that despair can bring.

If you need some inspiration, listen to a podcast interview entitled "Our future is still in our hands" with climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, that recently got me buzzing, here.


Or for a shorter hit, here is her TED talk.

Finally, here is a wonderful quote from Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron:

Life is glorious, but life is also wretched. It is both. Appreciating the gloriousness inspires us, encourages us, cheers us up, gives us a bigger perspective, energizes us. We feel connected. But if that’s all that’s happening, we get arrogant and start to look down on others, and there is a sense of making ourselves a big deal and being really serious about it, wanting it to be like that forever. The gloriousness becomes tinged by craving and addiction. On the other hand, wretchedness–life’s painful aspect–softens us up considerably. Knowing pain is a very important ingredient of being there for another person. When you are feeling a lot of grief, you can look right into somebody’s eyes because you feel you haven’t got anything to lose–you’re just there. The wretchedness humbles us and softens us, but if we were only wretched, we would all just go down the tubes. We’d be so depressed, discouraged, and hopeless that we wouldn’t have enough energy to eat an apple. Gloriousness and wretchedness need each other. One inspires us, the other softens us. They go together.
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