Mindfulness in Your 20s: Understanding the Brain on Stress

04/28/2015 05:15 pm ET | Updated Jun 28, 2015

(Part two of an ongoing crash course on mindfulness in your 20s. Click here for the last post.)

Before we move forward with some basic mindfulness practices, I want to give you a quick review of the stressed brain. I think it's useful to understand the effects of stress before we tackle how to respond to it.

You're an animal. Sure, you're living inside some walls and wearing clothes, but you evolved from other animals. And the goal of all of these animals is to stay alive in order to reproduce. Although I should emphasize that this doesn't need be your current goal, this is just how nature works. In order to stay alive, our brains and bodies evolved to quickly react to anything that may harm us.

Because this is already sounding boring, let's just go right to the part of your nervous system that's called the autonomic nervous system which includes:

1. the parasympathetic system and
2. the sympathetic system

The parasympathetic system is like your autopilot mode. This is the system that is most basically summarized as rest and digest. You're mostly just cruising along in this state. Conversely, your sympathetic system is the panic button of the body: the fight, flight, freeze mode.

Hang in there with me. I promise this flashback to biology class will be over soon.

Let's imagine you're an animal in the wild. You're just hanging out by a river sipping some water with not a care in the world. You hear something moving in the tall grass behind you, and you suddenly fear for your life. BAM! The sympathetic system kicks into gear. You may have to run, so your blood pressure increases to get circulation going. In the meantime, you stay completely frozen in place until you decide to make a move. You need every ounce of energy you can muster, so your body shuts down long-term processes like digestion, body repair, and reproduction. Even your immune system shuts off.

Fast-forward in evolution a couple million years. You're just hanging out at home watching a Law and Order marathon (again). You decide to scroll through your Facebook newsfeed during a commercial break, and you suddenly read that one of your friends is soon headed on a vacation that you can't afford. Your brain instantly fears that your money issues won't go away and your schedule will never clear and BAM the sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear. You may have to run, so your blood pressure increases to... (insert previous paragraph).

Insane, right? Your body reacts to fear in the same way any other animal does. The problem is that most animals can spend much of their time in a harmless state of being, so their sympathetic system reads with a big label: IN CASE OF EMERGENCY. On the other hand, humans use it like a debit card, depending on it all the time without caring about the depletion it causes. (Don't worry. I agree with you that your last Amazon purchase was totally necessary.) We're surrounded by busy traffic, annoying co-workers, heaps of work, and a lot of leftover food. All of this causes us to resort to stress and anger mode non-stop, even if its just mildly for a short time period.

Go back and read that list again of things that happen in your body when you're stressed. All of that is happening to some degree every time you decide to get worked up about something. You can imagine all of the short- and long-term health issues that can result from this. Plus, weak immune system = more doctor visits.

A tiger watched an antelope that stopped to eat. The tiger wanted to throw its teeth at the small animal in order to not go hungry for the day.

I watched a YouTube video that stopped to buffer. I wanted to throw knives at the screen in order to cope with not immediately seeing the end of the video.

Yea. We're screwed up.

Try This

Try recognizing your sympathetic system. When you're greeted by that annoying co-worker who reaches out for a fist bump and all you want to do is fist bump his face, try catching yourself by thinking, "Hello, sympathetic system." You might be surprised at how calming it is to simply start naming that feeling.

Yesterday, I started thinking about all the things I needed to do before the night was over. I felt the stress in my stomach first. Immediately, my inner voice said, "Check out that sympathetic system. Off it goes! Feel the tension. Be with it." I felt like Dr. Phil. It was incredibly strange. But hey, a few minutes later, I simply started at the top of my list. I didn't get upset at myself for becoming upset. After all, I'm only human, no matter how many times I walk away from an X-Men movie wanting otherwise.

Those moments are also good times to bring attention toward your breath. Oh, look, it's still there! And as Jon Kabat-Zinn reminds us, "As long as you are breathing, there is more right with you than there is wrong, no matter how wrong."