So many of us have difficulty knowing exactly how to deal with stress. It is common for people just beginning to develop greater mindfulness to initially feel a bit overwhelmed at how wild and out of control their mind seems to be. But, if you have supportive friends, patient and insightful mentors, effective techniques, and the personal discipline necessary to put what you learn into practice, you can swiftly develop confidence in your ability to calm your mind. You can learn how to deal with stress proactively and effectively.
Many of the people we've worked with are classic examples of people who are highly sensitive, stressed, or have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). These people are usually high-intensity, high-energy sorts of people who are erratic, easily distracted, easily excited, or depressed. As a result, they often have a long history of frustration, poor self-esteem, and alienation from others who are impatient or uncompassionate toward them. They also lack an understanding of how to deal with stress in their lives. What they learn when they calm their minds is that their personalities seem to change totally.
Lynn was an executive on the fast track in her telecommunications firm when she came to see Joel as a patient at the medical center. Her doctor had referred her for stress-related panic attacks, headaches, and stomach problems. Outwardly Lynn was attractive and highly controlled. Though she generally managed to keep a fairly cool and calm appearance, her internal turmoil was revealed as noticeable flushing of her face and neck, flared nostrils, perspiration beading at her brow, and a telltale racing pulse that was noticeable at her throat or temples. Inwardly she was prone to many swift and abrupt fluctuations in her thoughts and feelings.
As part of their work together, Joel and Lynn used a mirror and an instrument that monitored the changes in Lynn's skin temperature and skin conductance -- two measures that are sensitive indicators of the level of physiological stress response. The mirror offered visual feedback on her furrowed brow, tense eyes, and flushing. The monitor showed decreases in skin temperature when she was stressed, and warming hands as she relaxed, as well as elevated skin conductance when her palms were sweaty under stress, and decreased readings when she relaxed. The mirror and monitor were visible to both of them, providing valuable feedback while they experimented with various techniques to help Lynn understand and master the intensity of her stress response.
"On her first visit, it was clear by watching her physiological changes that her mental stress was strongly effecting her physiology," Joel comments. "The changes in her mental state were dramatically mirrored in swift, erratic changes in her body, as indicated by dramatic and abrupt increases and decreases in her skin temperature and skin conductance. At first these physiological changes seemed totally unconscious and out of her control. Yet as her mindful awareness developed, Lynn began to gain insight into how her mental stress tended to escalate. As she began to get more focused, and to bring more awareness into the interplay of her mental state, her pounding heart rate, her sweaty hands, and flushing neck, she recognized ways she could break the cycle and learn how to deal with the stress by bringing her stress response under control."
As Lynn learned and practiced new skills, she found that she could relate to her stress in a more spacious and playful manner. She learned to smile to herself as she tuned into her internal dialogue. She learned to make choices for how to respond to stressful situations that didn't intensify the distress. As the weeks passed, she learned to consciously control her stress responses. As she did, she maintained the same passionate intensity and breadth of responses, but was able to move between different states of mind and body in a much smoother, more balanced, and less erratic way. She began to feel more naturally calm, confident, and in control, and the frequency and intensity of her painful headaches and stomach problems diminished.
A year later, when Joel met Lynn at the market, she smiled and gave him a warm hug. "You know, that work we did together was the first stage of a long and wonderful journey." she said. "Since I last saw you I haven't had a single panic attack, and when I feel a headache coming on, I can usually relax it away. This has given me the confidence to finish my MBA and make some changes in my life and relationship that have been long overdue. I can't begin to thank you enough for holding up the mirror so I could see myself in a brighter light."
"What made the difference for you, Lynn?" Joel asked, knowing that something had made this work on herself a real priority. "You know, what really got me motivated to better understand how to deal with stress was seeing my five-year-old daughter begin to have worries, headaches, and stomachaches just like Mommy," she explained. "I realized that I probably picked up some of my strategies for dealing with stress from my mom, and I made a commitment to myself to learn and model for my daughter some wiser, healthier, more balanced ways of dealing with the stresses that come with living in our modern world."
[Adapted from the book "Living in Balance" by Joel Levey
and Michelle Levey]