Stop. Look. Listen. (Managing Thoughts vs. Managing Stress)

08/13/2016 06:37 pm ET

I hate the term, “stress management.” To me, I get the image of a vicious, rabid animal running around the room wreaking havoc, with me standing on the desktop and swatting it with a broom before it can bite me. When someone in the next room offers, “You need to learn how to manage your stress,” I look down at the creature and think, “I don’t want to manage it! I want to get rid of it!”

“Manage” implies that it always has to be there. 

Stress has become, for many, the common state of being – so much so that we no longer see the animal that’s constantly in the room with us, nipping at our heels. We may not even realize that it did bite us, and we are now infected with a poison that suppresses our immune system, making us more susceptible to heart disease, gastrointestinal distress, high blood pressure, hormonal imbalances, weight gain, and a host of chronic illnesses. And it seems that no one is safe from it. 

I had a harsh reminder of this recently when I was under tight deadlines at work and noticed I was feeling a little flushed and could actually hear my heart beating rapidly in my head. I happen to wear a Fitbit HR and lead a fairly active lifestyle. My resting heart rate, which is normally 62 BPM or less was now at 90 BPM and rising. While this may not seem like much, consider this … I was able to raise my heart rate and body temperature – at rest – with my thoughts.

Immediately, I stopped what I was doing. I closed my eyes and began taking a few deep breaths. I imagined I was looking at the space behind my forehead, as if to observe my thoughts. As soon as I attempted to watch them … they went away. It was only for a moment, but that was enough. Within a few minutes, my heart-rate, which had topped out at an astonishing 125 BPM was back down to 72 BPM and falling. While many may say that I effectively managed my stress, I like to think that I successfully managed my thoughts – and the stress went away (or, at the very least, my reaction to it).

I couldn’t help but wonder – in what other ways are we stressing our bodies on a regular basis …  perhaps without realizing it? And, I was fascinated by the fact that I could have that much control over my being with just my thoughts.

Where do you stress? Perhaps it’s a tightening in your stomach to the point where you are plagued with intestinal distress. Maybe you are prone to migraines from years of tensing up your jaw, neck, and shoulders and no longer associate the migraines with a stress reaction. I’m not saying that every illness or injury is stress related; but I can say with certainty that stress won’t help your condition.

I’d like to leave you with one takeaway exercise for today, and invite you to try it over the next couple of weeks, and see what you notice about your own stress reactions and mindfully changing them.

“STOP. LOOK. LISTEN.” MINDFULNESS ACTIVITY (Estimated time: 5 min.)

1. STOP. The moment you notice you are stressed … pause. If you are able to, close your eyes. If you are not in the position at that moment to do so (e.g. you’re driving in your car), make it a point to stop the moment you can safely do so. Take a few deep breaths.

2. LOOK. Imagine you are watching your thoughts … they may appear as words or images. Distance yourself from your thoughts, as if they are near you, but not actually a part of you. Try not to react to them – just notice them. Do this for several minutes. Keep breathing.

3. LISTEN. Listen to your body. Where do you notice discomfort? As you become aware of these areas, take a few more deep breaths and imagine you are breathing life-giving oxygen into them. Notice these areas of your body beginning to relax.

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