How To View Stress to Improve Health and Happiness

Kelly McGonigal presented a talk on How to Make Stress Your Friend that challenged the way we think about stress and the bodily response to stress. Her talk could have been subtitled, How to think about stress to improve your longevity. Kelly draws on research that demonstrates how we think about stress can impact negatively or positively on our physical and mental health during the experience of stress and beyond.

How we can view our bodily responses to stress

When we experience stress our bodies respond in predictable ways. Our heart may be racing or pounding, we tend to breathe faster, and we can break out into a sweat. How we view these bodily responses to stress determines the short-term and long-term effects of stress on our wellness, heart condition and longevity.

If we view these bodily responses as a positive response to stress, we are better able to cope with the current stress and future stressors. Kelly argues that our perception of these responses makes all the difference. We can view them as an indication that our body is preparing us and energising us for the perceived challenge that precipitated our stress. World-famous aerialist Nik Wallenda maintains that this positive perception of the bodily stress response enabled him to walk on a tightrope across a 400 metre gap in the Grand Canyon.

Kelly argues that we should view the pounding heart as readying us for constructive action; the heightened breathing rate is providing more oxygen to the brain to enable it to function better. The net result of viewing these bodily responses as positive is that we can experience less anxiety in the face of stress and feel more confident in meeting the inherent challenges.

Kelly points out that what is particularly amazing is that instead of the blood vessels in your heart constricting (as they do when you view stress negatively), the blood vessels actually remain relaxed when the bodily stress response is viewed positively. She notes that the relaxation of the blood vessels in the heart is similar to what happens when we experience positive emotions of joy and courage.

Stress makes you more social

One of the key effects of stress is that the pituitary gland in your body increases your level of oxytocin (known as the “cuddle hormone“) which tends to move you to strengthen close social relationships. This facet of the stress response prompts you to seek and give social support. Kelly maintains that your stress response “wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you”. It also stimulates you to reach out and help others in need – which, in turn, can increase your oxytocin levels. Thus stress can help us to accept compassion make us more compassionate.

As we grow in mindfulness, through meditation, research and reflection, we can learn to view our bodily response to stress in a positive light, reduce the negative physical and mental impacts of stress on ourselves and strengthen our commitment to compassionate action.

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Image: Sunrise in Manly, Queensland, taken on 1 July 2019

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

How Can We Manage When Our Daughter or Son is in Pain?


Susan Piver
, Creator of the Open Heart Project, addresses this question in response to an inquiry from one of her many followers. The danger when someone very close to us is suffering, is that we are tempted to take on their pain, to be so empathetic that we treat their suffering as if it is our own.

This identification with the sufferer was the very problem raised by Susan’s follower in relation to her daughter’s pain:

How do we prevent ourselves from hurting on behalf of the other person?…. Her pain feels like my pain, and makes me so upset and sad. 

Susan’s response is given by way of a brief input and a guided meditation. She asserts that you cannot prevent yourself from feeling the pain of someone close to you – to do so would stop you from feeling anything. You would effectively turn off your feelings to protect yourself but in the process destroy what makes us essentially human – the capacity to feel and be compassionate.

The damaging effects of closing your heart to pain

Susan uses the analogy of a gate which has two positions – open and closed. So our heart, or our feeling with and for another, tends to be in one or other of these positions – either open hearted or closed. Susan deliberately called her life’s work the Open Heart Project because it is essentially designed to help people to open up to the full range of their experience – beauty and darkness, happiness and pain, freedom and restraint.

Susan paints a graphic picture of the difference between an open heart and one that is closed by describing the difference as that “between awake and asleep, alive and numb, present and deluded”. She suggests, however, that you cannot just be totally identified with the other person’s pain – you have to be able to achieve a separation from the other’s suffering – not own the suffering of another. Richard Davidson describes this capacity as “social cognition” which his research into the science of compassion demonstrates is essential for the “balance and welfare” of the person observing the suffering.

Susan cautions that we need to be conscious of the “toll” that feeling for another’s suffering has on ourselves. In her view, shutting off our own pain to protect our self is really self-damaging because it numbs us. The way forward is to feel the pain but actively engage in genuine self-care, whatever form that can take for you personally (this could involve exercise, yoga, Tai Chi, meditation, prayer, time with family and/or friends, accessing social/professional support or a combination of these).

Managing through compassion meditation

One of the benefits of being able to manage the pain you experience when your daughter or son is suffering is that it lays the foundation, or “pathway” as Susan describes it, to genuine compassion for others. This capacity for genuine compassion can be further developed through different forms of compassion meditation. Daniel Goleman and his neuroscience colleagues have demonstrated through research that compassion meditation develops in people an “altered trait” that is evidenced through increased kindness and generosity.

Compassion meditation, often described as loving kindness meditation, frequently begins with extending kind thoughts to someone close to you, progressing to an acquaintance, to someone you have heard about or a group of people experiencing some form of suffering and finally taking in someone you find difficult. This expanding expression of compassion can be underpinned by self-compassion meditation.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become increasingly aware of, and sensitive to, the pain and suffering of those close to us. If we shut off these empathetic feelings, we can numb ourselves to the full range of human experience and prevent ourselves from expressing our feelings. Active self-care is essential to manage the personal toll of being empathetic and maintaining an open heart. Compassion meditation can build our capacity to sustain compassionate action not only for those closest to us but to everyone, whether we like them or not.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Compassion: Exploring “Where Does it Hurt?”

Tara Brach in presenting during the encore of the Mindful Leadership Summit, discussed the nature of compassion and how to develop it through mindfulness.  Tara’s talk was titled, “Radical Compassion: Awakening Our Naturally Wise & Loving Hearts“.  She highlighted the fact that our limbic system (emotional part of our brain) often blocks our compassion.  She offered a short meditation to help us to get in touch with understanding ourselves and to free up our “naturally loving” and compassionate heart.

Perpetuating the “Unreal Other”

Tara spoke about our tendency, and her own, to negatively impact close relationships through treating the other person as an “unreal other”.  This involves being blind to their existence and needs because of our pursuit of our own needs for reassurance, confirmation of our own worth, sense of power and control or many other emotional needs that arise from our desire to protect our self-esteem.   This preoccupation with fulfilling our own needs leads to judging others, instead of showing compassion towards them.

At the same time, we are captured by the “shoulds” that play out in our minds through social conditioning.   The “shoulds” tell us what we should do or look like, how to behave or what to say.  These mental messages perpetuate self-judgment which, in turn, blocks our sensitivity to the needs of others and our compassionate action.  Mindfulness can help us to get in touch with this constant negative self-evaluation and open the way for our compassionate action.

The difference between compassion and empathy

Tara pointed out that compassion arises out of mindfulness, whereas empathy engages our limbic (emotional) system.  Too much empathy can lead to burnout, resulting from taking on the pain and suffering of others.  She points out that neuroscience demonstrates that compassion and empathy light up different parts of the brain.  Compassion engages the neo-cortex and is linked to our motor system – compassion is about understanding another’s pain and taking action to redress it.  Empathy is another form of “resonance” but it results in immersion in another’s pain.

A short meditation: “Where does it hurt?”

Tara offered a brief meditation to help us to get in touch with how the limbic system sabotages our compassion.  The meditation begins with recalling an interaction that upset us or made us angry.  Once we have this firmly in our recollection, we can then explore what was going on for us. What made us angry and what does this say about our response?  What emotions were at play for us?  Were we experiencing fear, shame, disappointment or some other emotion?  What deeply-felt, but hidden need drove this emotion?  If we can get in touch with this emotion and the need underlying it, we are better placed to be open to compassion.

Once we can get in touch with our own needs and how they play out in our interactions, we can begin to understand that similar needs and reactions are playing out for those we interact with.  Tara points out that we all have “a foot caught in a trap”.  For some, it may be the weight of expectations or anxiety over doing the right thing; for others, it may be grief over a recent loss or the pain and stigma of sexual abuse.  Once we move beyond self-absorption, we can recognise the pain of others and extend a helping, compassionate hand.   We can ask them, “Where does it hurt?, and we can be more sensitive to their response because we have explored our own personal hurts.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can better understand ourselves, our needs and the hidden drivers of our emotions and responses in interactions with others.  This will pave the way for us to be open to compassionate action towards others, including those who are close to us.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of eliola on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Self-Compassion Can Transform You

Over the last couple of posts I discussed how self-compassion can free us from the bonds of self-judging and explored some of the challenges involved in self-compassion meditation, including breaking through our defences and denial.

In this post, I want to share two stories told by Tara Brach of how self-compassion can transform our lives.

From prison bully to freedom

Tara Brach has worked extensively in prisons teaching mindfulness to prisoners.  In the course on the Power of Awareness,  she tells the story of a woman in prison who was a tough bully and very mean but who came to one of her 6 weeks courses.  During the course she heard the words of the poem, Please Call Me by My True Names by Thich Nhat Hanh.

These were the words of the poem that broke through the defences of the woman prisoner:

I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.

In the preamble to the poem, Thich Nhat Hanh explains that had he been born in the same place as the pirate and lived in the same demeaning conditions, he would have been the pirate.  He goes on to explain that this realisation releases our compassion towards ourselves and others.

The woman prisoner realised that she too was suffering through the circumstances of her life and this realisation enabled her to be kind and compassionate to herself, to stop viewing herself as “bad” and to refrain from acting out her hurt and suffering through meanness to other prisoners.

Tara Brach explained that often we block self-compassion by telling ourselves that others have had it worse, so we should not be acting out our own suffering and pain.

From self-loathing to self-compassion

Tara Brach tells the story of a woman who knew that her ex-husband abused her daughter.  She could not face the pain of this knowledge, so she turned to alcohol to hide her shame, anger and self-loathing.

Her transformation came when, in desperation, she sought the advice of a priest who showed her (by drawing as small circle on her hand), that she was living in a small destructive circle of anger and self-aversion.  She had cut herself off from truly living and experiencing the world around her because she could not face the pain within.  The priest placed his large hand over hers to symbolise that there was a larger field of kindness and forgiveness that she could access to free herself from the tyranny and blindness of self-loathing.

As she meditated thinking of the hand of mercy covering her narrow circle of life, she came to realise that kindness and self-compassion lay within – it is inborn and accessible if only we are open to it.

Through meditation we can grow in mindfulness and come to the realisation of our own pain and suffering that blocks our self-compassion.  If we persist with meditation practice, we can open our hearts to innate kindness towards ourselves and be more present to the beauty of the world around us.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of Curriculum_Photografia on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.