In my last post, managing stress to be your best, I went into detail about what stress is, some of the general causes, and a few ways to manage stress. I briefly mentioned one final strategy for how to relieve stress.
That strategy was mindfulness and I thought it was worthy of its own post.
It’s worthy of its own post because mindfulness can relieve any kind of stress when applied intentionally and consistently over time.
Why do I believe mindfulness is key if you want to know how to relieve stress? Because mindfulness is awareness and the first step to changing anything is to be aware of it.
People often use the terms mindfulness, meditation, and mindfulness meditation interchangeably. All of them can certainly contribute to reduced stress, but they are not the same thing.
Meditation is engaging in mental exercise that often involves contemplation and reflection.
Mindfulness meditation is meditating without reflecting, thinking, or contemplating on anything specific.
When engaging in mindfulness meditation, you’re meditating, but simply observing. This could be your mental activity, sounds, feelings, emotions, sensations, or all of them.
The point is that you’re just observing.
What is mindfulness?
As I said before, mindfulness is awareness. In even simpler terms, it’s nothing more than paying attention. Not to a particular thought or feeling, rather observing whatever thoughts or feelings pass through you.
Mindfulness is when you essentially act as an outside observer to what’s going on with you. Mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually, whatever.
It’s being able to see what’s happening without judgement and without getting caught up in what’s happening.
You can be mindful anywhere at anytime. However, being mindful in everyday life isn’t as easy as it sounds. It becomes easier with practice, which is why many people take up mindfulness meditation.
Mindfulness meditation is like practice for being mindful. It strengthens your ability to be mindful when you get out in the game (i.e., everyday life).
The title of this article is how to relieve stress with mindfulness. So how does being mindful relate to managing stress?
When we learn to be mindful, we can:
- Recognize when stress is present
- Recognize when stress is absent
- Know what things support the presence or absence of stress
- Know what things support the removal of stress
- Learn how to avoid stress in the future
All that just from being more mindful? Absolutely. You’ll be surprised at how much you start to notice once you become more mindful.
Have you ever been ruminating on something and have no idea how or why you started thinking about it? Like out of the blue you find yourself angry about a situation that happened months ago?
The more mindful you become, the faster you will catch yourself when one thought leads you down a series of other thoughts. Usually to nowhere fun.
Okay, so before I get too far off track let’s dig into the five bullet points I mentioned above.
These five ways of using mindfulness to relieve stress are about skillfully working with stress. They are about what is called in Buddhism, “The Middle Way”. Or in other words, not indulging in what’s happening nor trying to suppress it.
I would also suggest looking into mindfulness meditation if it isn’t a part of your life. This beginner’s guide is a pretty good resource.
Recognize When Stress is Present
I know I know. Some of you are asking yourself why I would point out something so obvious.
We all know when we’re feeling stressed out but we want to know how to relieve stress.
It’s true that most people become aware that stress is present…at some point. When we are mindful we can become aware sooner than later.
Most of the time when we realize we’re stressed out, we have actually been under stress for quite some time.
When you increase mindfulness you increase the speed of detection and can respond faster.
For example, if you’re having a difficult conversation with your significant other you might come under stress. That’s only natural because it’s a demanding circumstance for anyone.
If you’re mindful and notice what’s happening right away, you can pause and choose your response. If not, you’ll most likely act out of habit or instinct. This generally isn’t good in these situations.
The end result is likely an escalation of the situation where stress turns into anger, contempt, and other hostile behaviors. Leading to even more stress.
With mindfulness at work, you can truly respond instead of react. The sense of urgency to get your point across or “win” becomes less important.
In other words, mindfulness illuminates the space between stimulus and response. Allowing you to decide how to move forward rather than simply acting out your feelings.
It serves as a form of stress relief by cutting off its momentum.
Recognize When Stress is Absent
We have a negativity bias as human beings. Numerous studies have shown that the brain reacts more strongly to stimuli that it deems negative.
Our brains being supersensitive to negativity evolved in order to stay out of harms way. Our survival has always been dependent on being skillful in avoiding danger.
Unfortunately this has carried over into all areas of our modern life. Our brains are steadily on the lookout for things that can cause us pain. And as such, finds things fairly easily.
This can cause life to seem a lot more chaotic than it really is. I won’t make the bold statement that NO ONE is stressed out all of the time, but most of us aren’t. We may feel like it, but we’ve probably just lost sight of the moments when we aren’t.
If you’re experiencing a moment of calm, be mindful and take note of it. Don’t try to hold on to it or fear its passing away, just take note.
It can prevent or at least help fight ruminating thoughts such as “I’m always stressed out” or “I’m constantly overwhelmed”.
Those kind of thoughts lead to self fulfilling prophecies because you’ll constantly be looking for additional reasons why you’re stressed out.
It may take some work to stop and recognize when stress isn’t present, but it’s worth it and essential for managing stress.
Like gratitude, it will multiply. In other words, when you notice the absence of stress you’re more likely to experience more moments where stress is absent.
Know What Things Support the Presence or Absence of Stress
The first two steps are noticing when stress is present or absence. Next you need to know what things support he presence or absence of stress.
In simple terms, this is taking note of what is going on when stress is present or when stress is absent.
This should include actually taking note, in a journal or somewhere else. Knowing what things support the presence or absence of stress is not a one time thing. It’s not a quick fix.
It takes time and reflection to really understand on a deeper level why you are or aren’t experiencing stress. When you capture these things consistently you can start to see a pattern.
For example, you might have a few difficult conversations with your boss over the span of a few months. You take note of the times stress is present and also when stress is absent.
When reviewing your journal, you notice that it isn’t difficult conversations in general that cause stress. Rather, it’s conversations revolving around a specific topic.
Or you recognize that stress is absent when you’re driving in the car. But not just when you’re driving, but driving and listening to a specific type of music.
Knowing what things support the presence or absence of stress takes time. You may think you know already, but there could be very particular details that are only revealed through careful investigation.
Know What Things Support the Removal of Stress
When stress is present, it doesn’t last forever. Nothing does. Just like every other feeling, emotion, or phenomena, stress is impermanent.
Being mindful allows you to notice not just the arising of stress, but also its passing away. This takes time because our natural tendency is to get caught up in the stress. We start telling ourselves all kinds of stories about it instead of just looking at it.
If we can become mindful of the passing away of stress, we can then investigate the circumstances around it. It will eventually pass no matter what, but often we are a part of that process.
As a personal example, over time I’ve noticed the absence of stress when I’m running. In addition, I’ve noticed that when I’m stressed out, running contributes to the removal of stress.
Specifically, just after the second mile is when this generally occurs. So if I’m experiencing a great deal of stress I know that running a 5k will generally take care of it.
This is not to be confused with the previous section on noticing when stress is absent. Stress can be absent in many neutral scenarios. Those same scenarios won’t necessarily remove stress if it’s already present.
In my example, both happen to be true.
Knowing what things support the removal of stress requires awareness of the entire process. The process of stress being absent, stress arising, and stress passing away.
This is where we give specific attention to what’s going on as the stress subsides.
This can be very effective for managing stress because it provides specific information on what to do.
Learn to Avoid Stress in the Future
You’re in pretty good shape if you can learn to do the first four things. Of course, it’s even better if you can completely avoid future stress.
Not all stress is avoidable, but being mindful can help prevent some. And we should always seek to minimize the difficulties in our lives that are within our control.
The most obvious thing you can do is remove yourself from stressful situations that are completely unnecessary.
For example, if watching the news stresses you out, don’t watch it as much. You might not even realize it’s stressing you out unless you’re mindful.
You may want to be entertained and informed but is sacrificing your well-being worth it? Probably not. You can find other ways to meet those needs.
What about always waiting until the last minute to do things? Procrastinating is a sure fire way to impose stress on yourself.
You might already know this on an intellectual level. Being mindful can help you feel it on an emotional level. And feeling it on an emotional level can be the impetus to make real change.
There are countless other examples of stressors that can be consciously avoided.
If we’re mindful of how, when, and why they show up, we can exert a certain amount of control on them.
Being mindful allows us to take wise, preventative measures against stress. In this way we are take care of our mental health and well-being just like we do with our physical health with diet and exercise.
This article isn’t supposed to be an end all be all solution for how to relieve stress. It is more like a framework for recognizing it, understanding it, and working with it.
Stress, like any other phenomena in our lives, arises under certain conditions and passes away under other conditions.
The five steps mentioned can be categorized or grouped together into three broader categories for easier understanding:
- Know when stress is present and when it is absent
- Know the conditions leading to the arising and removing of stress
- Know the conditions that prevent stress from arising in the future
If you really want to know how to relieve stress, go ahead and give these a try. Start with the first one or two and see for yourself what kind of impact they can have.
You’ve got nothing to lose by trying these strategies out. Except of course your inability to manage stress.
Until next time friends…