How Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Is a Game Changer
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Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a game changer for me. I don’t deal well with stress so there’ve been countless nights where I’m lying in my bed crying with my stomach and neck muscles so tense, they’re aching. The worst part is watching my mind racing with thoughts like, “You’re a horrible person who deserves to die. I can’t do this. Everything is too much.”
MBSR isn’t about relaxation but this can be an awesome side effect (finally, a side effect I can get on board with). It’s about taking the moment as it is, no matter how stressful, with curious awareness instead of judgement. In the 8-week course I’ve been taking there is a formula that’s at the heart of mindfulness. Suffering = pain x resistance. Basically, this means that pain is inevitable in everyone’s life but it’s when we resist the pain that suffering is the outcome. MBSR teaches you to sit with the pain and just watch and accept it without the expectation of change.
Turns out there’s science behind this. MBSR was created by Jon Kabat-Zinn who is a professor of medicine with a Ph.D. in molecular biology. Research has proven that MBSR helps to alleviate stress, anxiety, depression, and chronic pain. It brings together cognitive behavioral skills, mindful movement (yoga and walking) and meditation.
What’s the connection between stress and our body/mind?
People of the cave man era generally dealt with stress by either fight (take on the tiger trying to eat them) or flight (run and hope the tiger eats someone else). And while this was mandatory to stay alive, those of us in the current era have held onto this way of dealing with life’s stressors, both big and small. While it’s helpful when a building is on fire, it’s a bit of an overreaction when someone cuts us off on the drive home from work.
The flight-or-fight response causes oxygen to rush to our large muscle groups and shuts down bodily systems that don’t seem essential to kill the tiger. These include the digestive, immune, and reproductive systems. Then the brain decides it’s time to create a ton of cortisol and adrenaline which increases heart rate, temperature, blood pressure, and sets off so many other alarms. After the threat is over you become exhausted and rest until the heart rate, temperature and blood pressure return to normal and your other bodily systems come back online. This takes about 20 minutes. In life threatening circumstances this is imperative but if we start to respond to all of life’s stressors, like the jerk who cut us off, the acute response becomes a chronic one and your body just ain’t down with that.
When the acute stress response becomes chronic it can lead to headaches, chronic pain, frequent illness, decreased energy and insomnia, fertility issues, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, low sex drive, and increased risk of heart attack, anxiety, and depression. This list is exhausting to write so imagine how exhausted your body is when you live this way every. single. day.
How do we generally deal with this chronic overreaction to stress?
Through maladaptive behaviors such as overeating, spending too many nights binge watching Netflix, drugs, sex (as a distraction), and overspending. The list is as long as the number of people reading it.
So, how does MBSR help?
Well, let me tell you how it’s helped me.
MBSR is teaching me is to regulate my stress response so that I’m not always primed to kill the tiger or finger the driver. Instead, it’s given me the space between stressor and response to decide how I want to react. Instead of trying to numb myself by shoving down double stuffed Golden Oreos (the best!) or binge watching serial killer cult documentaries (also the best!) maybe I sit and just take deep breathes for five minutes.
MBSR has been truly amazing in decreasing my anxiety and depression. My brain is calmer and little stressors like having to go grocery shopping or make dinner have become so much easier. But most importantly, the loud and incessant voice in my brain still says awful things 85% of the time but there are now moments of, “You are such a strong person. You can do more and handle more than you think.” All I really want is to not hate myself and I never thought this was possible. Just sitting with and accepting what I feel, think, and who I am at that particular moment has given me the space to re-evaluate my relationship with myself. Man, if I can just take half of the energy I use to fight my self-hate and apply it somewhere productive imagine the things I can do.
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