Monday mornings are so blah. At the end of every week I promise myself I’ll use the weekend to get more organised, but then Friday night rolls around and all I want to do is party. When I say party, I mean put on my tracky dacks, order takeaway and curl up on the sofa in the foetal position. Despite my best intentions, I never use the weekend wisely to set myself up for a smooth week.
I start Monday feeling tired and stressed. I’ve been doing mindful meditation for a couple of years now (not always consistently) and have really dropped the ball in the last week. Every time I do drop the ball I really feel it. So, I thought I’d go back to basics and look at what stress is and what makes me feel it.
According to Openground Mindfulness Training (a fantastic Australian organisation that teaches the 8 week mindfulness course – MBSR), in order to feel stress, we need two things:
A. The experience that a change is needed, or that there is a demand to meet
B. That one doesn’t have the resources to meet that demand.
A person’s ability to handle stress relies largely on the way they view these two things and the way they appraise the stress. Two people may look at the same A and B and see that it’s not that big a deal and conclude that they can handle it, while another may appraise it as a huge deal – kind of like the glass half full/empty thing.
If we appraise it as a big deal, our stress response becomes activated and we resort back to the very primitive flight or fight response. When we were cavemen (or women) this was really important. If we were in danger the stress response would activate and it would help us to survive. During the response our muscles and bones become aroused, our heart rate increases, our vision narrows, we sweat, our hearing becomes more sensitive and a stress hormone is released. All of these responses are great if you’re out and about trying to create fire and hide from woolly mammoths, but they’re not that useful in the 21st century western world.
Our bodies are programmed to read stress the same way, so effectively we may react to someone cutting us of on the highway the same as our ancestors did when they were fighting for survival. Over time, these stress response can take a terrible toll on our bodies and mental health.
The response I find the most interesting is the tunnel vision. It helped us once to focus on the main threat we faced in order to overcome it. It seems relevant for me because when I interpret something as stressful, it’s really hard for me to step back and see the bigger picture. The stressor becomes bigger than Ben Hur. This doesn’t help matters. You would think our brains would have evolved better than that.
Enter mindfulness: It helps at every level of the stress response. Initially, it helps with the appraisal. Because it promotes awareness, when an issue arises mindfulness helps to appraise it realistically and clearly. It helps to avoid that tunnel vision and see the problem logically and with curiosity instead of falling down the rabbit hole with the problem, unable to step back without attachment to it.
Mindfulness also calms down the part of the brain that controls the flight or fight response. Scientific studies on long time meditators show that this part of the brain (the amygdala) is actually smaller than in non-meditators. It helps to strengthen positive neural associations so that it becomes easier and easier to calm down the fight or flight response.
Even though I have little to no understanding of the anatomy of the brain, I like thinking of the physiology involved. It helps me identify when the stress response has been engaged and then to use my breath to control it. Really, though, the most effective way meditation helps is by daily practice. It sets up a clear mind that can view potential stressors with clarity, thus assessing them realistically without having to engage the stress response at all.
The problem I find is that when I meditate regularly I start to feel so good that I get cocky and neglect to continue regularly. I skip a day and then think, “That’s OK, I don’t need it, I’ll just miss one day.” That often becomes two and before I know it I’m reacting to a bit of spilt milk at breakfast as if there’s been a major breach in national security and I’m in charge of the counter terrorism division (sorry, I’ve been watching too much Homeland on Friday nights in the foetal position).
There I am standing at the kitchen bench, gripping the edges with white knuckles, taking deep breaths and reciting maniacally, “There’s no use crying over spilt milk Kate, there’s no use crying over spilt milk Kate.”
Maybe that’s just me? So, it’s back to the drawing board! I’m going to aim to meditate every day this week and by Friday night I’ll be ready for a more productive evening and weekend. Or not!
Enjoy your Monday