Young woman on yoga mat coping with stress
By Categories: Mindfulness9.2 min read
Matt Hersh, PhD

Dr. Matt Hersh holds a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with a specialization in child and family clinical psychology. He is a licensed clinical psychologist and mindfulness teacher in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts with a private practice in the Boston area.

Have you ever gotten really stressed out and then thought about how beautiful the world really is, how much you really love the person who may have pissed you off, or how you are finally going to commit to volunteering at that homeless shelter?

If those thoughts or motivations have never really crossed your mind immediately after feeling overwhelmed, out of control, or super stressed, you are in very good company. Such thinking in moments of stress is not entirely out of the question, but it is very hard to come by and for very good reason.

That Old Familiar Stress Reaction

When humans (and pretty much every other animal on this planet) feel a sense of stress (or feel threatened, cheated, or devalued), a very highly defined and refined process takes over and hijacks the mind-body. (Hopeful Hint: Mindfulness can help slow that process down and not have it completely take over, but let me first describe how it typically works for most people).

When we encounter stressors (whether “out there” or “in here”), we shift very quickly and quite automatically into self-preservation mode, a way of living in the moment that has helped our ancestors do what it took to stay alive. Yet, as many modern neuroscientists and stress researchers strongly suggest, this self-protective, hyped-up, defensive posture and attitude are in most cases no longer needed. And they certainly don’t do our bodies, our brains, our minds, our relationships, or our chances for lasting happiness any good.

In the famous book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, world-renown stress researcher Robert Sapolsky teaches us that although zebras shift quite quickly and automatically into fight-flight mode from perceived or real predators, their bodies return fairly quickly to homeostasis, a process of shifting from stress mode back to grazing and “hanging out” mode.

Quickly returning to “hanging out” mode without any other worry about when the perceived or real predator will return allows the zebra to avoid the chronic stress-born problems from which we now suffer. Obesity, ulcers (although certain bacteria certainly can be responsible for this), heart disease, diabetes, general dissatisfaction with life, sleep disorders, depression, chronic anxiety, certain cancers, and high blood pressure are lamentably just a few.

The zebra simply isn’t agitatedly thinking: “Oh my gosh, what I am going to do? I don’t want to die! I can’t do this! Will I ever be safe again? Why are those lions such bullies? Why am I so unlucky? I’m not going to sleep tonight, I’m just not. I never sleep well when that one lion looks at me like that. Tomorrow is going to suck! This month has just been one lion after another. My life sucks.”

The New Familiar Stress Reaction

What do we humans typically do when threatened, devalued, or cheated? We first thrash about in a veritable stew of stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol as primary ones) that corral the mind-body into a perceived pen of high walls and no apparent way out. Unfortunately this is not where it stops.

Stress mode simply puts the average person into a series of conditioned reactive moments. We react to that thing that we perceive is (maliciously) hurting us or getting in our way, whether something or someone else or even our own feelings and thoughts. We then perhaps start constructing a “story” about the situation or experience, much like our zebra friend did. We then often buy into our developing story as some kind of truth and can end up being unnecessarily self-critical or self-righteous as we defend our stress story. Guilt, shame, anxiety, and depressed mood sometimes emerge when the dust settles and our minds and bodies attempt to return to a pre-stressed state.

Just a quick side note here. Stressful experiences also often foster denial or avoidance of the actual stressor or feelings of stress. So, for many of us, rather than get increasingly revved up by the stress experience, we intentionally or inadvertently file it away in our mind-body like a “corrupted” file on our computer. These files, when left unchecked, can end up doing some damage to our system even though we didn’t even know they were running behind the scenes.

This may all sound like a dramatic description of what stress feels like to us or does to us. Yet surprisingly, human beings have an average of 50 mini stress (fight-flight-freeze) reactions per day. Some of those reactions grab us more intensely than others, and some of those experiences of stress do feel very much like the one described above.

Add up these everyday stress reactions and the bigger, more intense ones. What do you get several years down the road? Zebras with ulcers.

Mindfully Responding to Stress in 6 Short Steps

Ok. Enough stress talk for now. Are you feeling more tense at this point? If so, let’s apply a highly effective mindfulness-based coping strategy broken down into 6 simple steps. (The steps are relatively simple, but they do take practice, like any healthy habit worth cultivating). So let’s begin by mindfully taking a step back.

  1. Literally, take a step back. Move your body or your head at least a foot from the screen. Say to yourself something like: “I’m stepping back now. I’m stepping back to get some space. This is what I need for myself right now.”
  2. Take three breaths while stepping back. The breaths don’t have to be terribly deep or slow, but just three breaths that allow you to feel like you are actively encouraging your physiology to step back from the intensity of the moment. Your eyes can be open or closed. If they are open, gaze softly about 6 feet in front of you with your eyes half open. Pick a “neutral” spot at which to gaze. You might say to yourself while breathing: “Getting some space” or “It’s Ok” or “I’m Ok.” Now that you have helped yourself calm your physiological stress a bit, you can gain further perspective, calm, and clarity over your experience through the following steps.
  3. Acknowledge whatever you are thinking, feeling, and sensing at this very moment. In your head, this may sound like: “Ok, I’m feeling agitated right now” or “At this moment, I sense a very tight feeling in my throat” or “I notice how pissed I feel about my work situation.” Research has shown that simple labeling of our unpleasant emotions can reduce the stress reactivity in the brain (by calming our amygdala, the powerful threat sensor), thus leading us to be able to think less from a place of heated stress and more from a cooler and clearer perspective. Also notice that we can use the words “I sense,” “I notice,” and “At this moment.” These ways of verbally capturing our experiences help us get out of that narrow, walled-in view of things where we feel there is no way out. If we view a situation as temporary (“at this moment”) and from a place of noticing and sensing (rather than “I am an anxious person”), then we can begin to deal with our stressful experience more confidently and calmly and from a place of true strength and hope.
  4. Nod your head (and maybe muster a small smile) while you are acknowledging. Seems silly, stupid, or counter to what you actually want to do? Perhaps yes. But nodding and subtly smiling will help you accept whatever it is that you are experiencing at the time. And using your body to do this can send signals back to your brain that it’s actually OK to be thinking or feeling what you are. (If smiling is too tough for some situations, you can leave this part out). Acceptance is very often confused with passive resignation or feeling like you have to love something that is unpleasant. However, true acceptance is practicing the art of being with something as it is in that moment. If you are feeling worried and sense a tightness in your throat, then you are feeling worried and sensing a tightness in your throat. Acknowledging with a “gentle nod or smile” the basic facts of that experience is genuine acceptance. Later, when you are done trying out these steps, see what it feels like to shake your head. This may provoke even more negative emotion. But not everyone experiences it this way. The bottom line here is that nodding usually facilitates acceptance and shaking your head usually facilitates denial, resistance, disbelief, and tension. Which will you choose?).
  5. You can begin to check your storyline as your physiology and stress hormones are further settling down. You can continue peaceably tearing down the walls that the stress was building. Ask yourself about what tale your mind might be weaving about your stress experience? Are you building a “why me?” self-pity story? Are you weaving a “me against them” tale? Is your narrative becoming more anger-infused or perhaps more threat-oriented? Are you finding yourself defending against things or people that aren’t even harming you, at least right now? Are you borrowing trouble where trouble doesn’t (yet) exist?
  6. Choose to put your story down for a bit and re-enter your actual life. This is the process of letting be or letting go and moving on. It doesn’t happen all at once. But it is the art of choosing to do what is wholesome, skillful, and ultimately healthy for you and those around you. It is forward thinking and future-oriented in a positive and healthy way. You may literally say to yourself: “I am putting my story aside until after dinner” or “I intend to be loving right now even though my story tells me I should be pissed off and defensive.”

Integrating Mindful Coping into Your Daily Life

Practicing these steps with stressors that are relatively minor is a great way to learn this mindful way of coping with stress. You may also find that more chronic, lower level stress will respond well to mindful coping. Because you already know that something will stress you out (like physical pain, a person in your life, or some aspect of home, work, or school), you can prepare yourself to apply these steps the next time you encounter the stress or stressor. You can then work up to using mindful coping with bigger or more intense stress.

When you practice these steps with real, everyday experiences, you may find that the steps blend together and don’t seem so piecemeal. That would mean that you are practicing them well and infusing them successfully into your daily life.

So what happened to that zebra who was fretting so much about the lions and how much her life sucks? Well, I’m happy to report that she has been adopting our Mindfulness for Zebras approach and is feeling much calmer, is getting restful sleep, and is more energized to run, play, and eat as she pleases.

Be well and live mindfully,

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