Updated: Apr 5, 2022
What are you most aware of right now? Is it thoughts in your mind that are most vivid in your experience now - memories of a fun weekend or dread about what might happen if you’re not able to make the deadline for an important project?
Or perhaps you’re aware of physical sensations in and around the body - an aching neck after a poor night sleep or a stiff toe from that uncomfortable shoe?
Or are sounds more apparent in your awareness right now? Sounds in the foreground or the background - a certain pitch, acoustics and volume of sounds in your environment? Stress awareness month has begun, and although it’s something we should be aware of every day of every month, it’s often too late once the penny finally drops and we say with conviction: “I’m proper stressed” or “I’m completely burnt out to the point of exhaustion.” At this point we may have already seen a decline in our concentration or ability to complete tasks, poor sleep leading to tiredness in the day and maybe even consuming more unhealthy substances like alcohol or foods. I’d highly recommend Stress Management Society as an informative go-to resource for understanding stress, how it can affect us and thankfully, how we can counter (even prevent) the harmful impacts that stress can lead too. Given stress is not bad per se, it’s vital to be aware of how a natural response to a daily challenge can lead to more serious damage. For me it’s about coming back to the fundamentals - cultivating awareness of what is present now is the basis of eventually becoming aware enough to know when stress arising in the body or the mind. How are we able to become aware of our reactions to environmental stressors, or when we are stressed, if we’re not aware of how we are right now or what’s most alive for us right now - like a baseline understanding of our thoughts, behaviours and habits.
And it begins with becoming aware of how much we live life on autopilot mode - this mode of being which according to researchers at Harvard, is said to be 47% of our waking hours. This mode can be useful when it helps us think and move efficiently with little effort and use past experience to solve problems of new situations, but has clear drawbacks when it comes to present moment response to stressors...
When locked into this mode of doing we actually have no choice over how we think or behave, we’re prone to making wrong assumptions (based on past experience which may have no bearing over now) and continue to repeat thought and behaviour patterns that no longer serve us. Our past conditioning makes up the programming which enables the autopilot to function - so when on this mode on we’re literally living out a set pre-programmed instructions that have been hard-wired over many years - Dr. Joe Dispenza puts it perfectly:
“95% of who you are by the time you’re 35 years old is a set of memorised behaviours, skills emotional reactions, beliefs, perceptions and attitudes that functions like a subconscious automatic computer program.”
Stress can be described as a condition (or feeling) experienced when a person perceives that “demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilise.” Dr. Richard Lazarus, who coined this description is well known for his work on stress - appraisal of, and coping with.
The key word here for me is ‘perceives’ - another way of looking at it is that it’s a person’s perception which determines the level of stress that they experience or how much impact the stressor has on the individual. Which means it’s different for everybody because we all have a unique perception of the same stressor and environment.
So in stripping this back further - in becoming more aware of the thoughts that frequent the mind, feelings we experience, and bodily sensations, from moment to moment, we afford ourselves the possibility of greater freedom and choice. Each we time we choose a new response to a habitual thought or feeling, we create new new neural pathways in the brain - leading to the opportunity to respond more mindfully and creatively to stressful situations.
It starts with awareness, with this increasing awareness, we can step out of the automatic modes of behaviour that may dominate our life. The more that happens, the more we realise that we have choice about what we are automatic about, and what we bring awareness to. So, whilst we will continue to face stressful triggers, we have the capacity to train ourselves to have power over our response to these triggers.
Here is an exercise to try in order to step out of automatic pilot mode; to cultivate awareness and reconnect with the present moment.
3-Step Breathing Space:
This is a short practice and is in three (roughly) equal parts - each about a minute long. You can be more flexible with timing as you become more familiar with it. You can also listen to the audio here:
STEP 1: BECOMING AWARE
Begin by purposefully adopting an erect and dignified posture - alert and comfortable, allowing the body to ground you in this present moment.
Then ask: “What is going on with me right now... in thoughts ... in feelings ... and in bodily sensations?”
Notice and acknowledge the experience, your body, emotions and thoughts, and stay with them for a few moments, allowing all feelings or experiences to be present, to be as they are.
STEP 2: GATHERING
Now gently focus your full attention on your breathing, by bringing your attention to the movement of the breath in your abdomen. Experience fully each in-breath and each out- breath, as they follow, one after the other.
The breath can function as an anchor to bring you into the present and help you tune into this moment. Each breath is happening right now, and only now.
STEP 3: EXPANDING
Expand your awareness of your abdominal breathing to include the whole body, and the space it takes up, as if your whole body is breathing.
Have a sense of filling the volume of your body. Have a sense of the space around you, too.
Hold everything in awareness.