What Is Stress?
We often refer to stress as an emotion, but it is actually a much more complicated phenomenon. Stress is, in fact, a complex mix of emotional, physical and behavioral responses. Feeling "stressed out" is your body's way of saying, "I cannot cope with this challenging situation."
But stress is not always just a result of something negative happening to us. It can be something that takes us out of our usual routines, or something that creates more responsibility or work for us—even something very positive and exciting, like planning a wedding or adjusting to life with a new baby.
Having some level of stress is a necessary and positive thing. Stress can be motivating and can enhance performance—ask any athlete or stage performer!
But too much stress is a bad thing. Chronic stress causes health problems such as high blood pressure and heart disease, as well as immune deficiencies, which can make it harder for your body to fight infections. Chronic stress also causes memory and concentration problems, and can lead to depression and anxiety disorders.
Why Am I Stressed?
Once you are aware of your physical, emotional and behavioral signs of stress, the next step is better understanding where the stress in your life comes from. In finding stress's root causes you can manage it more effectively and lead a healthier life.
Consider the following to pinpoint the stress in your life:
Are you concerned about your marriage or a relationship?
Do you have concerns about your children, parents or other family members?
Are you overwhelmed with balancing the demands of work and home life?
Are you being pressured by your in-laws or other family members?
Do you forsee financial difficulties in your near future?
What Is Mindfulness?
Do you live in the moment and without judgment? Or do you float along on auto-pilot, unaware of what is taking place around you?
By paying attention to our minds and bodies, we can begin to take more control and "switch off" the autopilot and increase our mindfulness—this simply means noticing things as they are right now in the present, including things we usually take for granted like our breath, body sensations, perceptions and emotions.
Using all the exercises suggested here, learning to be fully aware of our body sensations and our thoughts and emotions—whether they are pleasant or unpleasant—can help us deal with our stress more effectively. Acknowledging present moment reality as it is actually is the first step toward transforming that reality and our relationship to it.
The Body Scan
The body scan is a mindfulness meditation practice. It can help you become more familiar with your own body; learn to work effectively with body sensations and feelings of discomfort, pain and stress; and cultivate increasing powers of concentration and relaxation. The one key to this practice is to simply notice and accept whatever is present in the current moment—sensations, moods or thoughts.
As you go through the practice, try and focus clearly on each area of the body, noticing whatever arises. If you realize that you have become distracted, simply pick up from where you drifted off...
Begin by sitting or lying down comfortably. Gently close your eyes. Become aware of your body: Notice your posture and feel the weight of your body supported by the seat beneath you. Bring attention to the natural flow of your breath. Try not to change it or deepen it in any way—simply notice it.
Try following the full cycle of breath, noticing the breath entering the nostrils on an inhale, filling the lungs, and continue following the breath as it makes its way out of the body on an exhale. If thoughts intrude, simply notice them, and gently refocus your attention on the breath.
Maintaining this focus, bring your attention to the toes, noticing any sensations that may arise—perhaps feelings of tension, temperature, tingling. Rest your attention here for a few moments, exploring the entire surface and structure of the toes.
Now direct your attention to the balls of the feet, the arches, the heels, the ankles, becoming aware of all sensations. Then bring your attention to the shins, the calves, becoming aware of the bones, the skin, the muscles, continue noticing...
Bring awareness to the knees, the thighs, the pelvis, the buttocks—noticing. As thoughts or emotions arise, notice them and then return to the body scan.
Become aware of the entire back body, the placement of the spine, the shoulder blades—noticing. Bring awareness to the front body, the abdomen, the lungs, the rib cage, noticing the rise and fall of each breath, perhaps sensing the beating of the heart. Note the intimate connections of the systems of the body. Become aware of the arms, the hands, the fingers—noticing...
Be aware of the throat, the jaw, the tongue, the face, the brow. Now bring your awareness to the crown of your head. Take a moment to feel the body as a whole. Return your attention to the breath, and notice the effect of the practice.
Allow yourself to feel relaxed and complete, right now, in this moment...
Live a Meaningful Life
As you become more mindful of what you are feeling and where it is coming from, how do you start building a more fulfilling—and less stressful—life? By examining what your priorities and understanding what gives your life meaning. Think about what your life would look like if you could organize it by your deepest values and priorities.
Check out the list below to evaluate your life values, and then pick at least one that you would like to work on. Set a goal and an action plan for how you can live this value more authentically.