How does stress affect my body?
We have thoughts about situations whether we need to or not. This is a natural part of being human. We develop strong preferences throughout life for specific outcomes around being our version of safe, healthy, and happy. In order to survive, our body has its own specific preferences too, with the goal of homeostasis. This is the ability of organisms to maintain and control the internal environment despite disturbances from outside forces.
When situations arise that challenge our personal or body’s preferences for homeostasis, we may experience emotional and physical symptoms of stress as a result of chemical changes. Our reactions are all an attempt to make sense or meaning out of what is happening in order to survive and meet our needs. In the short-term, this can be lifesaving.
However, when you choose a thought-response that results in a prolonged sense of fear, anger, worry, or anxiety, you are signaling to your body for a corresponding physical-response. This ongoing state of “fight or flight” and chronic release of the stress hormone cortisol has earned it the name, the “fat hormone”.
How does mindfulness work?
Mindfulness is a learned trait that is defined as a non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. Studies demonstrate that developing this trait has positive effects on your physical and mental health.
Mindfulness works because you are the one with the most influence on your thoughts, actions, and the reactions that happen in the body as a result. However, even a small amount of regular attention to mindfulness can have a positive impact on your health!
What are we trying to accomplish with mindfulness?
The first goal of mindfulness practice is to put just a little more time between the moment of something happening and your reaction to it. Mindfulness reduces the activity in the part of the brain called the amygdala that’s responsible for turning on your stress response.
This momentary delay gives you a chance to choose your next thoughts and influence your body’s reaction. It also puts you in greater touch with your thoughts, whether they make sense for what you want, and whether there may be a better way to address the situation.
How do I practice mindfulness?
Here are some key ways that help you learn a new response to stress through mindfulness:
- Take some slow, deep breaths for as long as you need. This shifts your focus to how the breath sounds and feels throughout the body. Purposely take the time to do this before you react to a situation.
- Movement, sound and touch dissipate the stress response. Walk, dance, sing, make silly noises, or do something you get pleasure from.
- Notice stressful thoughts and let them arrive and depart as clouds in the sky or train cars on a track.
- Direct your attention to an aspect of your life you feel secure about.
- Find appreciation or gratitude for something or someone.
- Start a mindfulness meditation practice. You can start with just 5 minutes a day. The UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center developed Free Guided Meditations that includes an app for iPhone and iPad. Also see Getting Started with Mindfulness