Your brain is brilliantly wired to react to life-threatening danger. When it perceives a threat, your core brain instantly shifts into “survival mode,” sending a cascade of stress hormones like adrenaline into your blood stream. This flash stress response enables you to deftly dodge wild beasts, harsh weather, and famine. And when your life isn’t threatened, which is likely the vast majority of the time, you’re brilliantly wired for calm.
In fact, “calm” is your brain’s normal default setting. It allows your physiology to run smoothly in a state of “rest and digest.” This relaxed calm gives you a sense of internal composure and emotional balance. When you’re humming along in calm, you are serene, focused, and content. And after any "survival mode" stress reaction, your brain is also wired to automatically recover this calm state.
But what if you’re feeling moderately stressed-- perhaps on edge, high strung, excitable, irritable-- with no recovery in sight? You may even harbor a chronic feeling of anxiety. Maybe you can’t exactly put your finger on it, but you just feel in danger all the time, as if an axe is about to fall. How can this be? After all, you may not even recall a time when your life was truly endangered.
Perpetual moderate stress is a result of modern life, which can keep you in “hyper-alert mode.” That's because even though you’re not running from the occasional wild beast, you have daily responsibilities and obligations to meet, accompanied by deadlines, due dates, and gridlock. Even though you’re not struggling with harsh weather, you’re separated from the rhythms of nature and exposed to electric lights that keep you awake too much of the time. And even though you’re not concerned with averting famine, you create long to-do lists, endure longer commutes, and experience the longest lines whether you’re at the store, in airport security, or “on hold” with the health insurance company. Technology itself gives us all the impression that the more balls we can juggle in the air and the faster we can juggle them, the more accomplished, successful, rich, and popular we will be.
Unfortunately, when moderate stress is perpetual, a moderate amount of stress hormones are coursing through our veins, and we aren't equipped with an automatic reset button that shifts us from hyper-alert back to calm.
As a result, your brain can get stuck there, resulting in that feeling of chronic stress and anxiety. And while it can help to simplify your life and resist hyperextending yourself, if your default setting is “hyper-alert” what you really need is a way to get your brain's default setting back to "calm." But how can you accomplish that?
In a word, mindfulness.
Research shows that practicing mindfulness can actually change your brain, strengthening structures and connections that boost your resilience in the face of stress.
In short, practicing mindfulness calms your brain’s reactivity and recovers your brain’s strengths.
If you are new to mindfulness, you may feel skeptical. After all, how can you become mindful when you feel like you’re out of your mind? But your first move is simple: try this meditative breathing exercise, which you can learn even when you feel like you have very little brain space to spare. To do this, here are 10 easy steps:
Set aside ten minutes (or more) for this exercise. Practice this meditative breathing at least once daily, and over time, you may notice a perpetual calm replacing your perpetual distress.
If you continue to struggle with anxiety in spite of meditative breathing or other efforts to become mindful, you might benefit from a brain-based, neurobiological therapy like neurofeedback, which can effectively train you to regulate your brain, or EMDR, which directly reduces the effects of trauma on the brain. Particularly if you’re feeling “stuck,” you may need to pursue this kind of therapy first, before you can summon the energy to learn mindfulness skills.
Or you may simply need to add to your mindfulness toolbox. Next week’s post will look at more simple practices you can do to soothe your brain back into calm.
The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself From Chronic Unhappiness, by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal, and Jon Kabat -Zinn
A Calm Brain: How to Relax into a Stress-Free, High-Powered Life, by Gayatri Devi
The Mindful Way Through Stress: The Proven 8-week Path to Health, Happiness, and Well-Being, by Shamash Alidina
Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: The Acclimed Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping, by Robert M. Sapolsky