April is Stress Awareness Month. We cannot understand or manage our stress without awareness; how aware are you?
The word ‘awareness’ really resonates with me because it is at the heart of mindful living. In today’s digital and always ‘on’ world, I think it’s fair to say that we all know what stress is and what it feels like to be stressed, but how aware are you of when stress hits? Are you aware of what your own signature signs of stress are and what your own personal triggers are? Are you aware soon enough to be able to help yourself and manage your stress more effectively, or do you blindly crash on allowing the stress to continually affect you? Stress can actually be our friend, if we can learn to respond to it in the right way. The problem is quite often we are so consumed by life that we operate on autopilot, with little awareness of what is going on in front of us, in our mind and body. Simply, we cannot make a positive change if we do not have awareness of what needs to be addressed in the first place. Read on for my top 5 tips to manage stress with mindfulness and how to cultivate better awareness of it.
“Stress-related absence has increased over the last year in nearly two-fifths of organisations” with heavy workloads remaining the most common cause (62%) but with an increased proportion blaming management style (43%).”
As reported in the latest CIPD Health and Well-being at Work Survey 2019
I commonly coach people who are feeling stressed and unhappy at work, resigning themselves that it will always be that way because they truly believe there is no other choice. The combination of mindful awareness and CBT in the Mindful Based Cognitive Training (MBCT) mindfulness course leads individuals to a point of acceptance of things that cannot be changed and better awareness of the things that can . For example, there might be elements of our job we do not like, people we do not like having to interact with or coming to terms with stressful events of the past. Those things cannot be changed but how we relate to them is completely within our control and can positively impact our stress by simply taking a different approach, an approach with mindful awareness and acceptance of ‘what is.’
Transport for London (TfL) reduced by 71% the number of days off for stress, anxiety and depression among employees who attended a mindfulness course.
Get in touch for a discussion about how MBCT Mindfulness could be integrated into your well-being strategy to support all levels of your organisation or if you are interested in attending the next public 8-week group MBCT Mindfulness course starting on the 7th May in Windsor at firstname.lastname@example.org
Here are my 5 top tips for becoming more aware of and managing your stress
1. Stop and Check-in
When was the last time you stopped and checked-in to see how you’re doing? Have you done it today, in the last week or month? This common ‘pocket mindfulness practice is known as a ‘Breathing Space’ and one of the founders of MBCT, Mark Williams, likens it to checking-in to see what the weather pattern of the mind and body is like right now. Only by stopping every now again to do this gives us the awareness of how we are doing and what we need to do to keep us going in a healthy way. Try this:
Set a regular reminder on your device to stop and take stock. 3 times a day is a good start, e.g on waking, at lunchtime and arriving home from work.
If possible, close your eyes and ask yourself, “What thoughts are here, what emotions are here and what bodily sensations are here, right now”, as best you can without judgement or wishing things to be different than they are.
After that, try to narrow your focus and give all of your attention to the physical changes and sensations of breathing. When the mind wanders, which it will as that is perfectly normal, firmly but gently bring your attention back to the breath for few cycles, as many times as you need to.
When you feel ready, widen your awareness to take in all sensations within the body and surroundings around you. At this stage you may feel able to take a different perspective about something, feel a little calmer, more able to prepare for your next activity.
2. Are you confusing thoughts with facts?
Quite often we unnecessarily, unwittingly and unconsciously prolong and increase our stress by ruminating about events that have or have not happened yet. It’s very common to catastrophise, to make our own interpretation of events by mind reading what someone else is thinking or crystal ball gazing into the future, all of which has a physical and emotional impact on the body. Those thoughts are so automatic, there is nothing we can do about them but it is helpful to know that thoughts are not facts but simply mental commentary of the mind. We can’t stop them coming but we have total control over how we relate to them. Try this:
Become aware that you are having this type of thought pattern. Awareness is always the first step and the more you practice the sooner you will notice.
Next, use some gentle CBT to question your thoughts, “Am I confusing a thought with a fact here, am I mind reading, how do I know this to be true, am I over-generalising, is it always like this and does this really always happen to me” for example.
Doing this takes you out of automatic pilot and into ‘observer’ mode, switching activity in your brain away from the part involved with stress and into your more logical frontal lobe, ultimately lowering your stress response.
3. Know your triggers
Does that weekly meeting bring you out in a sweat? If so, how do you plan for it to minimise your stress? Try this to gain insight into what your signature signs and triggers of stress are:
When you notice you have experienced an unpleasant event of some kind at work or at home, tune in to how your mind and body reacted to it in that moment. Did it trigger unhelpful cycles of thought, a clenching of muscles or butterflies in your stomach, perhaps? When you are more in tune with how you react to stress you will be more aware to the signals your body is giving you that you are stressed at other times, giving you an opportunity to do something about it.
Continue this exercise over a period of time to provide insight into how your daily activities affects your mood and behaviours and will probably surprise you too.
When you have a clearer picture of what your triggers are you can plan for them more skillfully. Maybe you need to factor in more time to prepare, or do a Breathing Space (Tip 1) to steady yourself beforehand. With better mind/body awareness you’ll be much more equipped to help yourself and actually do it.
4. Make yourself a priority
We’ve all heard of the expression, “you can’t pour from an empty cup”? Making ourselves a priority isn’t something that we have been conditioned to do, yet it is vital to be able to give the best of us to our jobs, families and responsibilities without burning out. We cannot sustain a high level of performance by constantly pushing ourselves to the edge of our limits. I have witnessed people burning out in front of my eyes during my days on the trading floors in the Investment banking world.
An expert on burnout, Professior Marie Asberg says,