Awareness has the power to alleviate the negative health effects of stress.
Stress is the body’s response to a challenge or a threat. The brain encounters a perceived threat through one of the senses or triggered by a thought or emotion.
For example, imagine you are relaxing at home and you smell something burning and see smoke. You jump up and run to investigate; this is a stress response. Or, you’re relaxing at home and your mind drifts to your to-do list; there are so many things overdue you feel anxious and jump into action, this is also a stress response.
Our habitual response to stressful events form neural pathways in the brain much like a well-traveled trail in the woods. After a while we don't even think about it we just head down the path. On autopilot we can become unaware that a stressful event has occurred and may not notice our bodies reacting to it.
Our minds don’t differentiate stress and react similarly, whether the house is burning down or our to-do list has grown overwhelming. The amygdala, a part of the brain that plays a key role in responding to stress, is often referred to as the reptilian brain. This is because of its inability to discern a real threat from an emotional response to a thought. In both situations, it sends out an alert to the body to respond.
The body responds in many ways. It shifts resources away from non-essential functions, such as digestion and reproduction, to processes that are vital for surviving the threat. It does this in part by releasing powerful hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones send out commands to; release glucose stores (sugar) to fuel the muscles, restrict the blood vessels to increase blood flow and carry essential oxygen to the organs and tissues. All of this and much more happens automatically.
Overtime this prolonged call to a state of alertness shows up in the body as dis-ease; manifesting as hypertension, irritable bowel, fat stores, muscle soreness, back and neck strain, depression, and anxiety are just some of the ways our body responds to chronic stress.
Awareness of Choice
Stress is not going away, but being aware of stress can change how we respond to it.
Awareness comes from the practice of paying attention. Attention is a deliberate behavior resulting in consciousness of the present moment. In this awareness, we create a pause that allows us to choose how we respond. Walk a different path.
Viktor Frankl a renowned neurologist and psychiatrist said: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Awareness is essential to living mindfully. Although this sounds simple, it takes practice and intention to see things as they are. It is through practice we can recognize that we have a choice on how we respond. A mindfulness teacher once said, “The practice is simple, but not necessarily easy”. Easy or not the health benefits of practicing awareness can be considerable.
There have been studies using fMRIs, images of the brain, that show in as little as eight weeks of Mindful Based Stress Reduction training there can be a shift in the neural pathways. I find it amazing that the brain can physically change by practicing mindfulness. This shift creates new pathways detouring from the automatic default network and empowering choice.
Awareness through paying attention makes this shift possible and can lead to preventing or lessening the effect of the stress related diseases.
Choose a routine activity that tends to be stressful. It might be your commute to work, going through your email, watching the news, preparing meals, shopping, etc.
For the next week set an intention to practice being present and fully aware when you are engaged in the activity.
Note when you feel stressed. You do not need to change anything. Simply watch stress rise up, observe your response and notice as it passes.
Pay particular attention to your body. Where do you feel stress? Body awareness can be challenging at first, however; a felt sense of the connection between the mind and body strengthens the more we pay attention to it.
At the end of the day, before you fall asleep, reflect on your observation; be curious.
Continue the practice from week one, however; change the nightly reflection.
During this week when you reflect on a stressful experience and be curious about your response. See if you can disentangle the event from your response.
For example: I received a call while writing this blog that my free parking space at a facility I work at once a month would no longer be available. The location is busy, and parking is difficult and expensive. My initial response was to project all the things that might happen: I’ll have to walk in the rain, it will add extra time to an already hard commute, does this mean they are unhappy with my work, do they like me less than the person who got my spot, etc….
Reflection: I got a call informing me I will no longer have a parking spot. None of the other stuff happened; I created the stress with my thoughts.