Stress has fallen into a largely negative hole. Everyone is experiencing it but trying to avoid it. They are having thoughts that stress is completely undesired and is harmful and even damaging to us.
Certain levels of stress are completely within our ability to endure or even excel in. Feeling stress can be great for focusing in on specifics, getting a task done and prioritising what is important at that time. We can leverage these aspects of stress for productivity and efficiency in work or family life. Nothing like a deadline to kick start a bout of concentrated work and when we complete it we get a dopamine hit as a reward. This is acute stress, it is how we face up to many of our challenges and is important in reaching our goals. After bouts of acute stress we need rest. Quality rest post stress is the part many struggle with.
Stress becomes harmful when it becomes chronic. I’m using chronic carefully here, it doesn’t mean a life sentence but this is how the literature refers to persistent, long bouts of stress. I’ve read and personally seen far too many examples of “chronic” conditions dissolving with only fundamental changes so it’s not a term I like throwing around.
It can often be hard to figure out when your stress has become chronic. For that, we need to remember the importance of rest after bouts of stress. My guideline is – when you notice stress starting to regularly impact your quality of sleep, you need to audit your lifestyle and/or mindset.
Why Sleep? Normally if we have an event that we perceive as stressful, after the event we will rest, our heart rate and breathing rate will come back down and our bodies are able to metabolise any cortisol, adrenaline or lactic acid that the event has caused. Sleep is a great time for this process of recovery to happen. Sadly, in addition to stressful events, stressful thoughts and fears about potential events or scenarios are becoming a constant for many. This behaviour is not letting our body and mind recover, rather it is keeping us in stress mode.
When you start getting poor quality sleep you know your sympathetic nervous system and beta activity in the brain are dominantly playing on repeat. They are queued up for the next bout and are being fueled by your attitude to upcoming events. Tiredness starts to become another factor into this mix which fuels the need for more stress hormones to keep the performance going.
While reframing what you perceive as stressful can require self development work, therapy etc. in the short term meditation can play a positive role. People often laugh at me when I say they need to meditate twice a day for 20 minutes to undo the feelings of stress. Especially people suffering from chronic stress at the time. When we are stressed time is warped, our eyes dart around collecting more frames per second than when we are calm. We are hyper processing our environment for threats, even benign things become potential threats. Normal sounds become annoying, lights become harsher, people become agitating, communication becomes tiring. If we are spending long days at a stressful job, then coming home to a stressful environment and then not sleeping properly, our mind is continually in a state of focused concentration which keeps the nervous system aroused.
In order to move away from focused concentration so our nervous system can relax, we need relaxation techniques such as meditation.
How Meditation Helps You Recover
Closing Down your Eyes
When your eyes close down we are reducing the stimulus being absorbed by the nervous system, the eyes no longer need to be darting around and the pupils will relax.
Relaxing your Awareness
We move away from focused attention to relaxed awareness, we are just gently resting our awareness on an anchor which decreases the beta (high frequency) activity in our brain.
Slower Breath Rate
During meditation your breathing will slow down, slower breathing communicates to the nervous system that there is no urgency. Deep, slow breathing can also be used to help you settle into meditation.
Changing the Environment
Moving away from the external environment to our internal one limits our nervous system’s field of awareness. We can even start visualising peaceful scenes or settings because the subconscious mind doesn’t recognise the difference between real or imagined visuals.
These factors give the nervous system a chance to switch from sympathetic to parasympathetic. The heart rate slows down and the body and mind can start recovering (this even happens if you have a thought filled meditation). Having these periods of rest during the day will lead to better quality sleep. Your fast paced life needs these blocks of time to rejuvenate cells, balance hormones and store information.
During a good night out the band or DJ will play plenty of uptempo, fast songs but will always mix in a few slower tunes to let you catch your breath. If your sleep is being impacted, you need to play a few slower tracks during your day. Add meditation to your playlist and move to a slower rhythm at intervals to increase your resilience longer term.