Let's do a quick personal assessment. See how many of these questions are a "yes" for you.
1. Too busy?
2. Have a job?
3. Have children?
4. Past the honeymoon phase of your marriage or relationship?
5. Watch the news?
6. Have a friend in crisis?
7. Own a smart phone?
8. Feeling stressed more often than you would like?
How many got an affirmative? These days, our brains are overwhelmed by stimuli, demands, and uncertainty aplenty. Answer "yes" to one or two of these questions, and your brain is probably pretty healthy. Three or four, you probably feel overwhelmed more than you would choose. If you answered "yes" to five, six, or all of these questions, pause for a moment.
Take a deep breath.
You may have just had the first moment of peace in weeks or months. Truth: Your brain is on overload almost all the time and the side effects are defining your daily life.
When our brain is stuck reacting, trying to make sure we survive because we have too much to pay attention to, we lose the moment. It's crazy how many smart people I talk to every day who don't know what stress really does to their brains.
Truth: I didn't either.
Even though I've studied and practiced zen, meditation, and centering prayer among other ways to be, I just wasn't be-ing often enough. The reason: I didn't know that all the unintentional stress was stealing the best parts of my life.
Most of us don't realize that the moment something triggers our brain, we get a shot of stress. Someone tells you bad news: You get stress. An argument with a partner or child: more stress. A tweet, text, or message: even more stress.
The stress isn't bad; it's just your brain wanting you to pay attention. You want stress when you have a deadline you choose, an emergency that needs you, or a personal goal that really matters to you. Stress gets us out of bed in the morning. The problem is all the stress we don't choose consistently leaves us overwhelmed and exhausted.
So what's the answer?
Every time you feel stress, both the kind that irritates you and the good things that excite you, notice it. Becoming mindful of stress -- using it as a reminder to return to the present moment -- is one of our brain's greatest gifts we rarely take advantage of.
Stress is actually a quick test on how your life is going. If you like what you're doing, the stress proves you care and it's worth the effort. Or, it shows you that you're not paying attention to something important. When stress fires through your veins and you realize you don't like what's going on, it's powerful. It's instant feedback that you need a change and a call to live differently.
What I've changed in my own life in the last six months (confession: It began on a sabbatical, and I simply don't want to go back to the old reactive, stressed-out dude) is that every time I feel even a little surge of adrenaline, I step back.
I use a variety of mindfulness techniques to get back into the moment. My favorites are two deep breaths, just listening, and cloud watching. Most of the time, what happens next is that I feel better. I enjoy the people, places, work, or fun without worrying about the past or future.
But when something more serious is going on, I notice that too. Then, I reflect. I literally pause and wait until my brain points me to what needs to be acknowledged, appreciated, or changed. Am I grieving? Am I simply tired? Oops, I need more to eat (or less).
You can use stress as a test in every moment to see if you are mindful. The more you check in with your stress, the more often you can choose whether you have a reason to stay stressed. And (and this is so important) which form of mindfulness will create the experience you want right now.