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You can’t change the fact that stress will show up in your life, but you can learn to change the way you respond to it. Mindfulness educator Sherry Yasay reports

From a very early age, most of us learn to label ‘stress’ as negative or bad. To find out if this is true for you, stand in front of a mirror. Now think about the word stress, or if you’re feeling daring, think about exams, university applications, a recent pay cut or even better, someone at school or work – a teacher or fellow student, boss or colleague – who stresses you out.

What do you notice? Do you see any sudden changes in your facial expressions? Are you frowning? What about verbal reflexes? Do you find yourself sighing, groaning or even growling? How about your body language? Do you feel any tightness or pressure in your body? And do certain thoughts instantly pop up? Maybe you even see someone’s face. Maybe your mind automatically jumps to a specific memory.

As you stand in front of the mirror, you may not feel you are doing much, however just by taking the time to understand how you react to the word stress, you can gain real insight into how you function. Do you see how one simple word alone has the power to impact you both physically and mentally? Most of the time, these reactions happen so fast, they’re so automatic, we aren’t even aware of them, that is until we really try to be.

To handle stress, we need to understand how we react to it and what our triggers are. (We all have these triggers – you know the ones that give you an immediate headache or a knot in your stomach or make you feel like you want to run for the hills.) By noticing what emotions show up when we feel stressed and by seeing how our bodies react, we can regain control. Becoming self-aware gives us the power to change the way we respond to stress – and to build resilience to it.

Become resilient
What does it mean to be resilient? Resilience is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. It follows that a person who is resilient has a positive relationship with stress. They have a clear understanding of what they need to do to face challenging times and, in some cases, thrive. Someone who is identified as demonstrating or having resilience is able to ‘roll with the punches.’

The key difference between someone who is resilient versus someone who is not, is that resilient individuals work positively with stress and are able to identify and call on the resources and support they need to bounce back. In fact, the more resilient we are, the less stress we experience – we have developed the knowledge and self-awareness to navigate life’s many ups and downs.

It’s never too late – or too soon– to become resilient. Resilient children find it easier to manage the negative effects of stress; it doesn’t leave them feeling anxious or uncertain. They feel free and safe to experiment with new things through trial and error. This in turn allows them to develop a growth mindset, embracing a ‘can do’ attitude. Children come to understand that the most important question to ask themselves is not did I win or lose but what did I learn from this experience. They recognise that perceived failures are a part of life.

Rewire your brain
In order to understand how we can build resilience, we first need to understand how stress impacts our brains. We all know that stress can have detrimental effects on our bodies, but how does it affect our brains? A negative mindset to stress is most commonly highlighted by three main reactions. The first is that the mind overthinks challenging situations. This in turn leads to higher levels of stress and it results in a snowball effect of obsessive thoughts and anxious ruminating.

Photos by Baljit Gidwani

As our thoughts become chaotic and we replay scenarios in our minds, the third reaction kicks in, which is tunnel vision. Our overwhelming bombarding thoughts cause our brains to stress so much that we go into panic mode. Tunnel vision is induced by fear. When we get stuck in the fear zone, we find it difficult to see the bigger picture and the positive, creative possibilities in front of us. As our perspective shrinks, so too does our tendency to connect with others. We tend to play into our worst-case scenarios and we often feel disconnected. This feeling of isolation can lead to further anxiety and an inability to cope.

So how can we avoid falling into this cycle of negativity and self-doubt? Well, we can teach our brain new tricks. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s amazing capability to change and adapt to suit our needs. If we rewire our brains to handle stress differently, we become better able to cope with challenging people and situations. And how do we rewire our brains? Through mindfulness. Afterall, you cannot change what you are not aware of.

Practise mindfulness
Mindfulness is a practice that can help us become more attuned to our bodies and minds. We simply take a moment to check in with ourselves and ask: What am I feeling right now? Where do I feel it in my body?

By strengthening our minds through this simple yet powerful practice, we become aware of the subjective experience of stress; we realise that stress is simply part of the human experience. We grow our ability to step back and acknowledge our stress without labelling it as bad or negative. From there, we can make the transition from reacting emotionally to responding logically.

Cultivating a mindfulness practice and learning to integrate it into our daily lives builds and nurtures resilience – we become observers, open to and inquisitive about our own thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations. The self-awareness that mindfulness brings allows us to recognise difficult emotions, and the thought patterns and bodily sensations that come with them. Through this self-awareness, we begin to understand how to balance and reduce the negative impact of stress, so that we can respond positively to it and work with it.

A consistent mindfulness practice can help us see things in a different light. For example, instead of mulling over a stressful situation and spiralling into negative thinking patterns, we can intentionally shift our perspective. Mindfulness helps us step back and gain clarity; it allows us to practice the pause. We learn to put aside defeatist questions
like: Why is this happening to me? And instead, we start to ask ourselves: What can I learn from this experience? What is life trying to teach me?

Now have another look in the mirror and another think about stress. But this time instead of getting stressed out, be curious and open about how your stress is showing up – take the opportunity to practice mindfulness.

5 ways mindfulness can help you beat stress

1.Understand what your stress triggers are

2.Become aware of how stress shows up in your body and what thoughts it brings up

3.Step back and gain clarity – respond to your stress, don’t react to it

4.Shift your attention away from obsessive negative overthinking

5.Reflect on the positive outcomes that could result from the situation you find yourself in

DB resident Sherry Yasay is a licensed mindfulness educator and the founder of The Mindfulness Community, a platform promoting mindfulness practices. She works with children and adults both one-to-one and in groups. For information about classes in DB, contact Sherry at 5967 5170 or [email protected].

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