Category Archives: Stress

Take Ten

Visualizing mindfulness (366/194 July 12, 2012)

Visualizing mindfulness (Photo credit: ConnectIrmeli)

You know, the mind whizzes away like a washing machine going round and round, lots of difficult, confusing emotions, and we don’t really know how to deal with that, and the sad fact is that we are so distracted that we’re no longer present in the world in which we live. We miss out on the things that are most important to us, and the crazy thing is that everybody just assumes, well, that’s the way life is, so we’ve just kind of got to get on with it. That’s really not how it has to be.

–Andy Puddicombe

Puddicombe is a former Buddhist monk and co-founder of Headspace. He writes for the Huffington Post and the Guardian on the benefits of mindful thinking for healthy living. He’s also pretty good at juggling (see video). He gave a TED Talk called “All It Takes Is 10 Mindful Minutes” about spending just 10 minutes a day on mindfulness meditation. Among its other benefits, this 10-minute break is an opportunity to observe our compulsions and to disidentify with them–if only for those few minutes. I think 10-minute habits can work wonders since the effects accrue over time.

I think the present moment is so underrated. It sounds so ordinary, and yet we spend so little time in the present moment that it’s anything but ordinary.

We can’t change every little thing that happens to us in life, but we can change the way that we experience it.

Here’s his full Ted Talk:

What if You Could Immunize Yourself Against Stress?

Reading a book

Reading a book (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It turns out that maybe you can, even though there’s no vaccine yet. The first trick is to differentiate between the stress you can control and the stress you can’t control—otherwise known as escapable and inescapable stress. A recent study involving rats and stress was reported in Scientific American’s Scicurious blog (It’s not the stress that counts, it’s whether you can control it).

A stress that you can control is a very different one from a stress that you can’t….[A] controllable stress is actually a good event. Not only does it blunt the impact of the stressor itself, it can be protective against the detriments of future uncontrolled stresses. Scientists call this “behavioral immunization” against future stress.

When you escape from the escapable stress, the neurons in your prelimbic cortex become more responsive (or excitable), and that seems to help us adapt to future stress. It’s sort of like building up good stress karma—a future reward for doing something we don’t necessarily want to do right now. Put the time in on the treadmill now and you’ll feel better and have more energy later. Mary Pritchard, a psychology professor at Boise State University who blogs for the Huffington Post, says this is called problem-focused coping.

If the stressor is something that is under your control (e.g., article to write, deadline to meet), when you encounter said stressor, you should do everything in your power to fix it (e.g., write the article, meet the deadline).


Everyone agrees that the least effective method of coping with stress is avoiding dealing with it by finding a diversion or by denying it even exists. An interim coping mechanism Pritchard recommends—which she refers to as an example of “emotion-focused coping”—is writing. This is something I’ve been doing for years with good success. Set a timer (5-10 minutes), get out a sheet of paper, and flow-write until the timer goes off. Keep your pen on the paper and let it all out. This can relieve some of the stress, and it might even result in some insight into the situation.

Pritchard also advocates reading as a coping mechanism.

For me, reading serves as proactive coping—upfront efforts to ward off stress. Reading time is me time, and depending on what I’m reading, it may relax me, make me laugh, or exercise my brain. The point is that it offers a little mental break—a mini siesta, if you will—and after I finish the chapter, I return to work, to life, more refreshed and able to cope with all of the little things that seem to pile up day after day.

Reading, especially reading fiction, lets us travel briefly to another world, a different time and place. I love the idea of using it as a means of coping with stress proactively. I’m going to start keeping a novel at the side of my desk and dip into it periodically during the day, rather than wait until I “have” time to read. Perhaps reading, like meditation, increases our resistance to stress over time.

So these seem to be the keys:

  • Build proactive coping mechanisms into your day.
  • Write when you’re too stressed out to think straight.
  • And if you’re stressing over something you can do something about, then by all means deal with it.

Related Posts:

Anxiety Redux: Zebras & Roller Coasters

American biologist and author Robert Sapolsky.

American biologist and author Robert Sapolsky. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since writing my post on The Limits of Anxiety last week, I had an opportunity to watch the 2008 National Geographic documentary Stress: Portrait of a Killer (on my computer, thanks to Open Culture). The program features Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky, author of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.

Sure, just about everyone knows that being in a continually heightened state of anxiety can lead to physical stress symptoms, some of which can be quite severe. But this is another case when knowing something—as in having good information that we believe to be accurate—and being able to do something about it is much easier said than done.

Knowing (Thinking center) is only the first step. The next step is accepting on an emotional level that what we know matters to us personally (Feeling center). The third step is taking action (Doing center).

Although the three Thinking types may be more prone to experiencing anxiety because of the nature of their personalities or temperament, anyone can be afflicted with chronic or prolonged anxiety. Given the problems we face on a personal, local, and even global level, maybe the surprise is that everyone isn’t totally paralyzed by anxiety. So kudos if you’re not!

However, anxiety and stress are insidious, and I think we all live with unrelieved stress to one degree or another. Chalk some of that up to the fact that—unlike zebras—we can imagine things that don’t yet exist. We can—and do—anticipate the future, envisioning many different potential scenarios and outcomes. Those are great abilities to have in terms of being creative or in brainstorming or in planning ahead. But they also make us vulnerable to conjuring up negative possibilities and then convincing ourselves those things are likely to happen.

Anxiety can become a way of life that ultimately makes it more difficult for us to think clearly or react appropriately to the circumstances or events in our lives. So we need to be able to recognize when we get on the anxiety roller coaster and find a way to interrupt the ride. Actually a ride on a real roller coaster might be the perfect interruption.

In the meantime, please watch the video.

You might also like How to Avoid Stress.

The Limits of Anxiety

Sure, everyone feels anxious at one time or another. There are situations and people and behaviors we’re quite right to feel uneasy or apprehensive about for all kinds of reasons. But the three Thinking center types know and live with anxiety on a different, more fundamental, level since anxiety (fear without a focal point) is their primary issue. Types 5, 6, and 7 each have a different focus for their anxiety (they fear different things) and deal with it differently, but all of them live with it to one extent or another.

Fear is a reaction to a perceived threat. It signals us that we’re in danger so we can react to the threat and save ourselves. If we succeed in saving ourselves, we’re no longer afraid because the threat is over. Anxiety, on the other hand, is a chronic state of worry. There’s no specific action we can take to resolve it because there’s no clearly identifiable threat. It’s kind of an anti-survival mechanism because over the long haul it can have deadly consequences. Continue reading