Adapted from Dr. Ronald Alexander’s new book, Wise Mind, Open Mind: Finding Purpose and Meaning in Times of Crisi... (New Harbinger Publications, 2009).
Stress is primarily caused by external triggers and how we deal and process it depends upon our constitution and temperament. People who handle stress mindfully will tend to be less reactive, are more macro focused on the “big picture” and have a thicker skin. Those who are micro focused on the little details are usually more reactive and thinned skinned. Historically, men with their higher levels of testosterone tend to be more competitive and are taught through activities such as sports to look at the overall strategy of the game while women who are genetically wired to communicate emotions generally are more sensitive and empathic. But in today’s economic climate stress can take a toll on even those who normally are able to let things roll off their back. The key to dealing with a stressful situation, especially for those who take things personally, is to develop a deeply grounded core rudder so that no matter what size of wave one encounters they can recover quickly and proceed with more focus. One very effective tool to keep grounded is to develop what I call “mindstrength” through a mindfulness meditation practice. Mindstrength is the ability to very quickly and easily shift out of a reactive mode and become fully present in the moment, experiencing the full force of your emotions even as you recognize that they are temporary and will soon dissipate.
A Mindfulness practice can affect the amount of activity in the amygdala, the walnut-sized area in the center of the brain responsible for regulating emotions. When the amygdala is relaxed, the parasympathetic nervous system engages to counteract the anxiety response. The heart rate lowers, breathing deepens and slows, and the body stops releasing cortisol and adrenaline into the bloodstream; these stress hormones provide us with quick energy in times of danger but have damaging effects on the body in the long term if they’re too prevalent. Over time, mindfulness meditation actually thickens the bilateral, prefrontal right-insular region of the brain, the area responsible for optimism and a sense of well-being, spaciousness, and possibility. This area is also associated with creativity and an increased sense of curiosity, as well as the ability to be reflective and observe how your mind works.
I’ve found that my patients who are in a stressful situation benefit from answering the following questions, which is like taking the pulse of the here and now.
- What do I feel right now?
- Do these feelings benefit me in any way? If I feel anxious and fearful, do these emotions lead me to insights, or are they completely unwholesome responses that cause conflict, hold me back, and distract and dis-empower me?
- If what I’m experiencing is in response to another person’s behavior, what’s the evidence that that person’s actions have little or nothing to do with me and are, instead, the result of what’s going on inside his own mind?
- Is there anything I can do to help myself depersonalize the situation?
- Are there practices I can use to nourish myself at this difficult time?
Mindfulness meditation and other disciplines such as martial arts, tai chi, and yoga are excellent ways of quieting the rational mind and opening up to the intuitive mind and its link to the numinous creative force. Through this connection one is able to build their “mindstrength,” learn to stop their reactivity, and focus on the big picture.
Ronald Alexander, Ph.D. is the author of the widely acclaimed book, Wise Mind, Open Mind: Finding Purpose and Meaning in Times of Crisis, Loss, and Change
. He is the Executive Director of the OpenMind Training® Institute, practices mindfulness-based mind-body psychotherapy and leadership coaching in Santa Monica, CA, for individuals and corporate clients. He has taught personal and clinical training groups for professionals in Integral Psychotherapy, Ericksonian mind-body healing therapies, mindfulness meditation, and Buddhist psychology nationally and internationally since 1970. (www.openmindtraining.com