It's hardly news that life is stressful, a journey in which disappointing and emotionally difficult events will occur. Putting aside the inevitable ordeals of aging and sickness, we all experience the loss of loved ones, projects we've devoted years of effort towards can fail, shit hits the fan. It's not news that the world doesn't conform to our plans. The jolts of adrenaline and cortisol, which allow us to sustain vigilance and move quickly during demanding experiences, are natural responses to anything that effects our long term survival. A stress-free life is not possible.
And yet most of our stress reactions are entirely unwarranted. This is the unfortunate, habitually ingrained tendency to address the small frustrations of life, the mosquito bites of existence, as if they'll matter in the long run, that important stuff is really at stake. The grind of unavoidable frustrations is far too long to list, but to give some examples: being late for appointments, misunderstandings with friends, aggravating encounters with strangers, problems at work, travel inconveniences, etc.
Lets review how stress works. When we encounter a triggering experience--say, for example, a tense conversation--the body often reacts with a "fight-flight" response. The sympathetic nervous system is switched on by a region of the midbrain called the amygdala, which in turn release hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones that put us on "high alert," allowing us to deal with threats: the heart starts pumping blood to the outer limbs, heart rate increases, the digestive system halts, muscles contract in the shoulders, arms and legs, we stop producing white blood cells (that aid our immune response) and create blood cells (under stress the body prepares for physical injury).
Stress becomes a disaster, when we fail to “switch off” this activation by relaxing the body after a challenge has been addressed. (The HPA activation is only turned off when the body and breath relaxes.) Alas, in our busy lives we often move from one challenge to the next, stumbling across one external demand, responsibility or obligation after another: another email pops up on the screen. In short, we overlook taking the brief time necessary to deactivate and restore the body to a neutral state. As a result the breath, body and right hemisphere and mid-brain remain activated. Tension builds, our ability to regulate emotions begin to fail. Stress that continues without regular deactivation becomes distress, which leads to all kinds of problems: stomach ailments, high blood pressure, insomnia, hair loss, headaches, heart problems, the list goes on and on. Stress also leads to a greater dependence on, or addiction to, mood changing behaviors such as alcohol, drugs, shopping, food binges, etc as a means to relieve this underlying tension.
It's important to note that so long as we remember to switch off our stress activations when the external demand has been met, the long term effects of stress aren't particularly adverse. Unfortunately, many of us never learn how to "switch off." This process can be developed by a quick process I call the "Ninety Second Sanity Pit Stop." Here's how it goes.
Take the first exit available: When caught up in the narratives and dramas that trigger us--when we find ourselves rushed, our foot on life's gas pedal, impatient to the point of honking at others, etc--we pull away from the visual and audio sensations that agitate, such as the conversation or the computer screen. Sometimes we'll have to remind ourselves that a 90 second mental health break will not change the outcome, unless we're about to be trampled by wild animals, in which case continue running.
The first 30 seconds: Become aware of your out breath and extend each exhalation as long and smooth as possible, until they're at least three times as long as each in breath. Long out breaths activate the vagus nerve which, in turn, "switch on" the parasympathetic nervous system, deactivating the stress response. Don't worry about your in breath, as your body knows how much oxygen to take in.
The second 30 seconds: Find the muscle groups in your body that are most constricted and use each out breath to release and relax the tension. I highly recommend focusing on the areas where somatic emotions register, such as the abdominal muscles (fear), shoulders (feeling overwhelmed), the chest (abandonment) and the micro-muscles around the eyes (just about every emotion). Sometimes it helps to lightly tighten the muscles with the in breath, so that we can have a greater release during the exhalations.
The last 30 seconds: While keeping the breath in awareness, bring an image of yourself onto the mind's inner movie screen, where fantasies and memories play out. Holding the image, direct thoughts of kindness and compassion towards it: "May I be truly at ease." "May I find lasting peace." "I love you, keep going." Etc. These thoughts can be repeated with every out breath, or again and again so other thoughts don't intrude. When the ninety seconds are up, slowly open your eyes, and try, as you return to the busy stimuli of life, to keep some awareness on those outbreaths.
I recommend setting a timer on a smart phone or computer to remind us to take a pit stop every two hours at the very least; think of it as a spiritual refueling. I've used this tried-and-true method for quite a long time; its how I survived working in industries where other people succumbed to many stress related setbacks. I hope it will help others in their journeys.
April 9, Josh Korda, DharmapunxNYC