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Use Mindfulness to Manage Stress

Mindfulness may seem to be a strange way to cope with the stress in your life. Perhaps you’re wondering how becoming more aware can help you cope with, say, an elderly parent, a challenging job or a busy family life.

The fact is that awareness is the starting point for managing any change, which is why mindfulness is so important. You can’t expect to change how you manage stress while you remain unaware if or how exactly you’re generating the stress.

That would be like trying to walk from your home to your friend’s place in the middle of the night with no torch — you’re going to get lost and what’s more, not even know whether you’re getting closer or farther away.

In the same way, the awareness that mindfulness offers helps you to notice what’s causing you stress, and the thoughts and emotions that are associated with it. You can then see how the stress arises in the first place and what you need to do to move away from excessive stress. In other words, you switch on your torch and make your way to where you want to go.

Consider the word ‘stress’ and write down what other words or thoughts come into your mind.

This exercise helps to show you how you perceive stress. Some people see stress in a negative way; others think of stress as positive and motivating.

  • Pressure: A helpful state when at the right level. Leads you to feel awake and motivated and drives you to take positive action in your life to achieve your goals.

  • Stress: An unhelpful state created by too much pressure. Stress can also be generated by having too little pressure.

Think of yourself as being like a guitar string and the pressure you experience in life as the tension in the string:

  • If the string is too loose, you don’t get a decent sound. In other words, you’re not under any pressure and feel bored.

  • If the string is too taut, the sound produced isn’t pleasant and the string can easily break. In other words, being under stress from too much pressure can lead to burnout — physical and emotional exhaustion — in the long term.

  • If the string is at just the right tension, you get a beautiful sound. In other words, when you feel the right amount of pressure in your life, you feel motivated, focused and energized. You’re likely to be in a state of flow.

The figure illustrates the effects that increasing pressure can have on your performance in daily life. When you have too little pressure, you feel bored. When you have too much pressure, you feel anxious and stressed; if this situation continues over the long term, you can experience burnout.

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For protection, all human beings are hard-wired to have a stress reaction when faced with a dangerous or threatening situation. When the stress reaction switches on, your body prepares itself to run, fight or freeze to avoid the danger.

So, if you’re being followed by an aggressive person, your heart starts to beat faster, your muscles tense, your senses heighten, and you feel energized. Your body turns off your digestive system and immune system because you don’t need to bother digesting your breakfast or fighting the flu if you’re about to be attacked.

The problem is that the stress reaction doesn’t just get switched on in physically dangerous situations that require running or beating someone up. Stress is activated when you realize that you’re behind on your deadline, when you think about how annoying your boss is or when your partner says something unkind to you.

But hang on a minute — that’s crazy! You don’t need your immune and digestive systems to shut down while talking to your partner. In fact, even the more reasonable, intelligent, and wise part of your brain shuts down in a stress reaction. You’re placed into a state of mind looking for threats.

So although the stress reaction is fine for extraordinary physical threats, it’s a malfunction during normal life. Not only is chronic stress unhelpful in your everyday tasks, but also it’s dangerous: having your immune system turned down over long periods of time can cause many illnesses. Remembering how dangerous long-term, high-level stress can be is important, as is taking swift action to reduce stress before it creates more problems for you.

Consider what happens to you when you’re under high levels of stress and note down what you find. This exercise helps you to identify your stress. If, in the future, you show any of the warning signs that you’ve listed, you know that you’re experiencing stress and can take preventative measures.

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