“My life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened.” French philosopher, Michel de Montaigne, wrote these words in an essay more than four-hundred years ago. Despite all the innovation in our world since then, one thing that hasn’t changed is the human brain’s fixation on hypothetical stressors. Recent studies show that as much as 85% of what we stress about never comes to pass.
It’s worth mentioning that stress is not inherently bad. Our stress response system has kept our species and ancestors alive for millions of years. The brain identifies a threat to survival, it responds by sending out chemical messages, and our body reacts with a physiological response. We pump more oxygen into our blood stream, our heart races to pump that blood throughout the body, we turn off non-essential functions like the digestion system, immune system, and the reproductive system. After all, to our primitive ancestors the need to eat, drink, reproduce, and fight illnesses didn’t matter if they were going to be eaten in the next 10 minutes by a predator.
But in more recent times, say the last few thousand years or so, the threats in our lives have started to drastically shift- We aren’t in physical danger anymore, we are in psychological danger. We may have to give a speech in public, present an idea to our team, sit in traffic on our way to work, study for an exam or test, or go on a first date with a new person. These things feel scary, they feel threatening. So, our body does what it is has evolved to do- it turns off everything non-essential and goes into preservation mode to combat them. The problem is it stays there. Our psychological stressors don’t have an end.
We wake up late, we sit in traffic the whole drive to work, we have meetings and deadlines at work, we have to get out on time, pick up the kids, plan dinner, go to games and practices, get ready for tomorrow, the weekend, next week, next month, next year, and on and on and on…
The truth is that at any given point in our day, our brain can find a threat, a danger, a problem, and it’s thinking, “I’m not safe.” So, the stress builds up and we have trouble with our sleep, our diet, our relationship, our work or education, and we can’t stay focused in any area of life. The brain has sidelined everything.
So, what do we do? We STOP it. STOP is an acronym for a mindfulness practice to help you break the cycle of fight/flight/freeze and ground yourself. It helps to show the brain that we are safe and allows it to de-escalate naturally. Throughout the day, if you sense that stress buildup is happening, commit to taking just a few minutes to try this practice:
S – Stop what you are doing. Put everything down for just a couple of moments.
T – Take a few breaths and just notice the sensation of the air going in and out of your lungs. Try to focus more and more on your breathing with every cycle and let some of that stress start to go for just a few minutes.
O – Observe yourself. Notice if you are tense in any parts of your body. Notice if you have strong thoughts or emotions. Remind yourself that all of these things are temporary and that they will pass- that you are safe right now.
P – Proceed with your day. If you have time, start by doing something right now to take care of yourself: get up and stretch, get a cup of water, go for a short walk, listen to a favorite song, reach out to a friend, etc.