Week 4: What is stress? Pasted Graphic 1

In this session we will look at how we respond to stress. Stress is not just the events in our lives, but the way we deal with them. Different people respond to the same events in different ways. By now we have explored some useful practices, and we will see how they can be applied in daily life.

Pasted Graphic 2 Responding rather than reacting

Naturally we all think our view of the world is accurate and correct. However our moods, our sensations, our thoughts, our experiences, all shape the way we view the world. There is nothing wrong with that. However, sometimes we jump to conclusions that can be inaccurate and unhelpful.

Mindfulness can help us examine our perceptions, enabling us to be less reactive and more responsive to the things that are going on in our lives. That does not mean being detached from the world. Rather, it means waking up to our reactions, and sometimes learning to respond more effectively.

In the exercise below, we will examine a simple and common experience, and look at how people in the group respond to the situation.


Close your eyes.

Imagine you are walking down a street. Across the road you see a friend walking towards you. Naturally you wave at them and smile. They continue walking and do not look at you. There is some traffic, so you cannot cross the road towards them.

How do you feel? Do you notice any sensations in your body? What thoughts are coming to mind?

Feelings Pasted Graphic 3

When we first come into contact with an object or a thought, there is a feeling tone associated with that contact. That feeling seems to be immediate. So, when we taste chocolate, there is an immediate feeling of liking or disliking the taste. Our sensations can be divided into pleasant sensations, unpleasant sensations, and neutral sensations. Often we are oblivious to neutral sensations.

In mindfulness practice, either in formal practice or in day-to-day activity, we try to come a little bit closer in awareness to the immediate feelings associated with sensations that arise. There is good reason for this. Like a snowball rolling down a steep mountainside, our initial feelings are often added to rapidly, and can become an avalanche of emotions. So liking can quickly turn to desire, and maybe even an unhealthy thirst for more feelings of the same type. Similarly, dislike can quickly turn to aversion and even hatred.

Our minds work so quickly that we often do not notice the move from our immediate sensations and feelings through to stronger emotions. That move in itself can be harmless. However, sometimes it can be very unhelpful, and occasionally harmful. Often we are only aware of the development of emotions when they become very prominent.

Examples like the raisin exercise can show us that we miss so much of our experience. Automatic pilot can guide us blindly through the day, and we can miss out on much of the journey. Mindful movement can bring much more in touch with the sensations in our bodies, and help us notice any areas of holding or tension that we block out of consciousness. Formal meditation practice gives us a space in which to look more carefully at how our thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations are linked and how they develop.

The intention to come closer to our raw experiences, and notice more carefully the development of our emotions based on our initial feelings, can be very helpful in working with strong emotions. It is the development of awareness of our immediate feelings that is a core part of bringing ourselves into the present moment and learning to respond to situations rather than react. It is not about blocking out negative feelings, but understanding more fully what is there before we act upon them.

Once you have started on the journey, this level of awareness will grow, sometimes slowly, sometimes a little faster. This is why mindfulness encourages regular formal practice to strengthen our awareness, and encourages mindful activities during the day to integrate that awareness into our daily lives. Then throughout the day using the breath as an anchor for our attention, either as a periodic reconnection with the present or in a more formal way with a three step breathing space, can give us a little space to deal with daily matters more effectively and with less wear and tear on ourselves.

Pasted Graphic 4 Body, Feelings, Thoughts, Actions

We often have a limited view of ourselves. Our body, thoughts, feelings and actions are much more tightly linked than we think, and they all respond to or engage in different ways with the environment.

Consider a day when you wake up tired and in a weary mood. Perhaps you had a broken nights sleep. Your thoughts are likely to be more negative on such a day. Your body might feel heavier, and you might be a little more snappy with people, or at least you are likely to be less cheerful.

Imagine a happier day, when you have had a good nights sleep. You are more likely to meet people with a smile. You may be lighter on your feet, and you may greet challenges with a lighter heart.

Take this a little further, have ever noticed how on days when you feel down the world seems to gang up on you? On days where you are happy the world seems to go more smoothly, and the bumps are easier to ride over? There is no magic in this. Smile at people, and they are more likely to smile back, frown and you will get more scowls. If you hurry things or are distracted, you are likely to make more mistakes. Take more time, and you are more likely to do things well.

We often feel that if only we could change our environment we would be happy. Sometimes that is true, but changing our response to the environment can also be very helpful.

As we become more mindful, we get a better sense of how external events impact on our thoughts, feelings and body sensations. We become more and more aware of how things are interlinked. With that skill, we can start to come off automatic pilot and learn to respond.

Mindfulness is not intended to encourage particular strategies beyond awareness. A kind awareness itself can be very helpful. However, that awareness begins to allow the ability to respond rather than react, to see the bigger picture. Waking up to body sensations, to feelings and how they link into thoughts, is often enough to give an opportunity to respond rather than simply react. You might feel angry or hurt by something, but by acknowledging the whole experience you may choose not to lash out, or if you still need to respond in a firm way you might do so without losing control.

Your Stress Barometer

We often hold stress in particular areas of the body. For many of us it is in the shoulders, but it might be in the lower back, the legs, the tummy area. Now you are familiar with the body scan, you might be more aware of exactly which areas of your body are most reactive to stress.

Where is your stress barometer?

Try checking in with that area throughout the day. Do not make an effort to change it, but bring some kind attention to it. If you have time, just stay in awareness of it for a few moments. Note how it changes through the day, what the sensations are, what thoughts seem to be linked to it.

I did not expect this …

Bringing our stress more fully into awareness at first can be quite challenging. Our natural tendency is to run away from difficult situations, or to block them out. Switching to automatic pilot and letting our minds drift off elsewhere is one strategy. Turning towards it can be a little daunting.

It is common during an MBSR to find the body scan in the early weeks brings into awareness aches and pains, and often a great deal of emotional resistance. Working with that patiently and persistently is a skill that we can develop and also apply to stressful situations.

So, be prepared for surprises. But with all practices, take care of yourself. It is good and helpful to find our edges. It is not so helpful to push beyond our edges or to hurtle towards them. Go gently with yourself.

The physiology of stress

The effects of challenging events can be immediate, but the after-effects can be long lasting. The response of the body to threats stimulates hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. These are intended to raise our abilities to deal with challenges, often referred to as the fight or flight response. That is all positive.

However, either as a response to a very traumatic event or to continuous events, there can be changes in physiology that raise the levels of certain hormones, putting us on high alert for much of the day. That can increase reactivity, damage our sleep patterns, create a feeling of anxiety with no immediate cause, lead to depression, and even trigger cardiac and vascular diseases. Once someone gets locked into such reactivity and heightened sensitivity, it can be very hard to break the cycle.

Research is beginning to show that mindfulness practices can be very effective at reducing stress response. An understanding of the mechanisms involved is starting to develop. There is enough evidence for the NHS to recommend mindfulness for prevention of depressive relapse under certain conditions, demonstrating that it is comparable to or more effective than drug therapies.

The understanding of mind-body interaction is evolving, and there is growing evidence that the mind, and practices such as mindfulness, can change our physiology just as our physiology can influence our minds.

Establishing a regular sitting practice
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Practice is a word used in mindfulness to cover many things.

Practice is something that we can do all the time as we try to become more mindful in our day-to-day lives. By simply being more present each moment of our lives, we are practising mindfulness. In this way, our lives are our practice. We can only live in the present, and as we notice more and more our tendency to worry about the past or the future, and bring ourselves into the present moment, we become more and more mindful.

Practice is commonly used as a term to cover specific exercises such as meditation, body scans, mindful walking, or any specific activity that we set out to do in order to develop our skills in mindfulness. Although it is possible to improve mindfulness in day-to-day life without such exercises, most people find a formal practice useful, and it enables them to develop their skills if they set aside regular time to practise formally. Even the Buddha, on achieving enlightenment, continued to practise meditation regularly. Just as an Olympic athlete needs to continue to train, so someone who has developed a high degree of mindfulness in day-to-day life can benefit from a regular practice.

For those new to a meditation or mindfulness practice, finding space and time to do such practice can be an enormous challenge. It can seem as if it is just another thing to do. With busy lives, it is often the taking care of ourselves items that drop off the agenda.

Ideally finding a regular time in the day where you can be quiet, alone, undisturbed, and settled will help you develop a good formal mindfulness practice, and on this course you are encouraged to find 45 minutes over a day to follow practices. Many people find the best time for a formal sitting practice to be early in the morning, before the challenges of the day begin. Some people like to practice morning and evening, to set up for the day and to clear up at the end of the day. However, one regular time is a good start, and two regular sessions is a great aspiration. It is best to plan the meditation or mindfulness exercise, and put it into your daily schedule at the same time each day. Aiming to practise formally at least six days a week, and doing this continually, is the best way to develop practice.

In time, many people find that they look forward to their practice, and miss their practice when they cannot find time in a crowded schedule. It can become like brushing your teeth, freshening your mind, and something which you notice if you miss. More than that, people can begin to find that practice means they are less tired and harassed the rest of the day and so more effective, and they find themselves less involved in distractions. What seems like an added burden on our time can actually be a huge benefit.

Home Practice

  • On alternate days do some form of mindful movement for about 30 minutes - yoga, walking, simple stretching, or whatever suits you.
  • On alternate days do the long sitting practice on the CD.
  • Introduce the three step breathing exercise into your day as a regular activity at least three times.
  • Whenever a stressful situation arises, if possible use the three step breathing space to respond either in anticipation of an event or after an event.
  • Check in with your “stress barometer” from time to time.
  • Whenever you find yourself agitated or stressed, spend a little time examining how that arose. See if you can get closer to the original feeling that triggered the reaction. Notice the sensations in your body.
  • Continue with your unpleasant events diary. Notice any changes in the way you are dealing with stressful events.
  • Review where you are in the course using the guide below.

Mid-Course Review

Answer these questions for yourself. Write them down below.

  • What have you found helpful so far?
  • What have you found particularly challenging?
  • What are you still hoping to find from the course?
  • If there is one thing that stands out for you so far in terms of your learning, what is it?