It’s National Stress Awareness Day. Taking the theme literally made me wonder – is it helpful to be aware of stress?
My conclusion: “It depends!”
It depends on what you bring your awareness to, and how you do it.
Say you’ve just been landed with an additional big project, or someone just said something cruel about you in a big public meeting. Each time you remember the details of the stressful event, your stress level will actually increase!
Of course, if there’s something in your circle of influence that will make a difference in the future, then it’s well worth taking action. Ruthless prioritisation, crossing something off your to-do list or renegotiating a few commitments will definitely help. Giving feedback to your nemesis may well help, especially if you wait until you’ve both had time to calm down! This reminds me of the serenity prayer: “May I find the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”
But there’s another, more radical, form of awareness that can be even more helpful. (It’s counter-intuitive, but bear with me: this is one of the fundamentals of mindfulness practice, a big part of what makes it so effective.)
Bring your awareness to the experience of stress in your body. Where do you feel it? Tension in your shoulders? Narrowing focus of your eyes? Tensing of the muscles in your legs? Shallow, rapid breathing in your upper chest?
The way you explore these sensations makes a big difference. See if you can be like a young child exploring rock pools on the beach, or a curious scientist exploring a new and unexpected phenomenon:
“Where is this sensation, exactly?”
“Does it have an edge, a shape?”
“Where is it most intense? Where is it less intense?”
“Is it static or changing?”
“What else is associated with this? Thoughts? Emotions? Other sensations?”
Take a few moments to explore the details in this kind and curious way. What happens? What’s the effect? (As I write this I notice it having an effect in my body. My breathing became deeper, and my left shoulder just relaxed a little too. But that’s just me – what about you?)
So that’s my suggestion for stress awareness day: bring some awareness to the sensations of stress in your body, in a kind and curious way, and just see what happens.