Guest writer, Gail Donnan author of The Gateway: A journey to reclaim your power from stress and anxiety, writes topics to consider this Stress Awareness Month.
Stress Awareness Month
Many of us are brought up in a culture in which compromise is taken for granted and busy equal’s productivity, which earns us a badge of honour. We often ignore the body while overusing the mind, causing us to live through disguised emotional wounds and stress.
Emotions are vital but temporary messengers that should last seconds and have evolved in humans as a self-preservation sophisticated and complex system. They are meant to exist because they push us to act, they are temporary because they have to be alert to signal the next alarm when the time comes and when our mind registers that a situation is resolved the signal switches off. If we have emotional reactions to our emotions they will persist, if we act negatively to this natural process, this triggers ‘avoidance system’ of the brain and the mind closes in on itself and treats our own negative reaction as the enemy.
Stress and Emotions
The human stress response works the same as the animal stress response, except animals can turn theirs off after the danger has passed. Humans can turn theirs on from purely psychological reasons.
It is not healthy to live in a corrosive bath of hormones produced by stress. Research shows that stress itself is generally more damaging than cause of the stress and, in coping with stress, the body shuts down the immune system. It can damage artery walls and the learning and memory part of the brain is affected.*
It is helpful to be aware that happiness is not a constant state and sadness is natural, so it would be unrealistic to imagine we can or should get rid of one and keep the other. Sadness itself is not problematic, rather it is our reaction to sadness which is. The negative effects of this spiral become compounded and we have emotional reactions to natural, passing, temporary emotions.
The negative views that can be switched on by unhappy moods transform, passing sadness into persistent unhappiness which can lead to mental health issues. This negativity affects our mind and body simultaneously, the body affects the mind and emotions via a feedback loop. Some of this can occur with us having little or no awareness of it actually happening, as we are somewhat disconnected to our bodies.
The Need to Fix
When we feel unhappy we try and think our way out of it by trying to ‘fix’ what is wrong with us using a highly sophisticated human skill which is called critical thinking. This actually compounds the problem because it puts us straight into ‘doing mode’ which focuses on the gap of where we are compared to where we want to be. This leads to what Psychologists call ‘rumination’ which actually deteriorates problem solving.
The antidote to all of this is ‘awareness’ is known as mindfulness practice. We start by paying attention differently by intentionally focusing on the present moment in a sensory and non-judgemental manner. In a busy life we can catch ourselves wanting to get onto the next thing which appears that we are postponing our happiness. Mindfulness practice gives a new degree of freedom; there is no longer a gap between how we feel and how we think we should feel. In Buddhism this is referred to as ‘non-striving’. We get to a point where we don’t reject unacceptable emotions, but turn towards them.
It is helpful to establish that most thoughts are not facts, they are passing mental events. Try noticing your thoughts and put them into categories such as: planning thought, past thought, worry thought, critical thought, judgmental thought, compassion thought, kind thought, scared thought etc.…
So in this new way of paying attention, we don’t have to add anything to our already busy day. We can start to build a greater awareness of what we are already doing. Unhappiness, stress, tiredness and emotions don’t stop existing - they just have a lot more space around them. These practices allow us to enter into ‘being mode’ and disengage us from our mental patterns, so we are able to connect with our bodily sensations which give us feedback from our emotional landscape to make more creative decisions and a new level of freedom.
Examples of things to pay attention to differently might be: washing up, loading the dishwasher, brushing your teeth, preparing food, showering, taking the rubbish out, doing laundry, driving the car, leaving or entering a room or going up and downstairs. If you are sat in a traffic jam try reframing your narrative by just seeing the situation as a lot of cars on a road rather than catastrophizing what it represents for you personally i.e. being late, letting people down, being unreliable and stressed.
Taking time for yourself
Self-honouring is about taking responsibility for your own happiness, respecting your own needs and your own health. When you honour yourself, you pay attention to your needs and boundaries by listening to and acknowledging them. If you start saying no to what feels wrong or consumes your energy start saying yes to what makes you happy. Giving yourself permission to take time out and rest is not a rebellious act. Design yourself a permission slip, sign it and put it on display. Put your feet up with a good book, fill up a diffuser with aromatherapy oils, book yourself a massage, have an aromatherapy bath, light a candle, drink plenty of water, eat fresh foods and herb, listen to a podcast, meditate, do some yoga, go for a stroll in nature, take photos, watch a movie, do something creative - anything that brings you joy.
Jennifer Young's Well Being Beauty Collection was designed to address some of the emotional needs arising from a cancer diagnosis. This skincare line draws on founder Jennifer Young’s knowledge of the healing powers of high quality essential oils, as well as her understanding of complementary medicine. It embraces wider meaning of self-care, and brings a sense of spa experiences into your home or whichever environment you are spending time in.
Chakra oil and crystal sets can help to encourage mindfulness through meditation, and other products include indulgent oils, butters, balms and candle therapy to encourage feelings of confidence, vitality, calm, clarity or holistic wellness.
Well Being Beauty products can be used to encourage you to relax and focus on the present and manage emotions.
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Strengthening Your Practice
If you want to strengthen your mindfulness practice there are a number of free mindfulness meditations to listen to, a mindful walk recording plus a mindful walking with photography activity on my website www.gaildonnan.com
Copyright Gail Donnan 2021