We often regard stress as something to be avoided. Ultimately though, stress is inevitable…from the moment our alarm clock rings, we experience a “fight or flight” response and continue to experience stressors for the remainder of our day.
Although people generally regard stress as negative, stress is actually adaptive in that it helps us to strive for and achieve our goals. When an elite sprinter is in the starting blocks, stress elevates the blood pressure and heart rate, enabling the runner to reach top speed quickly. Upon realizing I have a deadline, I experience a stress response and am motivated to stop procrastinating and get to work.
Ultimately, the problem may not be that we experience stress, but that we don’t recover from it efficiently. Recovering quickly from stressful situations may help us to harness the power of stress. In addition, people who recover more quickly from stress are known to have better physical and emotional health outcomes.
This ability to recover quickly from stress is sometimes called resilience. People who are more resilient are more able to quickly return their body to a relaxed state. Researchers are finding that mindfulness practice is one way to bolster resilience. Studies at University of California, San Diego are showed that mindfulness training can people in high-stress positions like elite athletes and Marines to more quickly reduce their physiological stress response. Another study with “normal” people who were put into a stressful situation (periods of breathlessness) found that those with low resilience had less awareness of their body, but more brain activity indicative of distress. Researchers concluded that the key to coping more effectively with stress involves bodily awareness, which can be developed via mindfulness practice.
The body scan meditation is a way to increase resilience by tuning into the body in a curious, non-judgmental way. Being more engaged with your body will help you to notice when you’re holding on to stress and release it when it’s not helpful to you. Try the body scan once a day for a week and see if you notice any changes in the way you respond to stress.
(Thanks to Kelsey Banes for this article!)