Stressors are events or things that make us stressed, and modern life can be full of them. They can be external such as work, relationships, home, travel and so on, or internal such as existential worry or grief. (Some stressors can be ‘positive’ such as getting married or being promoted.) For many, life is so busy and packed with stressors that they rarely get the chance to truly relax.
When we encounter a stressor we have a stress reaction. Known also as ‘fight or flight’, this reaction goes back to our cave-dwelling days and involves a complex physiological process whereby the body gets ready to get into combat or to escape (or in some cases to ‘freeze’). Faced with a dangerous threat (such as a hungry tiger) the body mobilises its resources: heart rate increases so that blood can be pumped more quickly to muscles and the body releases hormones to increase energy and repair damaged cells. Energy is diverted away from non-essential functions such as digestion, reproduction and fighting disease. Though this reaction is useful – and vital – in certain situations, in modern life it is often triggered when we are not in immediate danger and by a wide range of everyday events. Thus, people can be stuck in an almost continual stress reaction.
Over time, this prolonged ‘fight or flight’ state has a detrimental impact on health and can lead to impaired immune response, sexual dysfunction and digestive disorders. Such problems then become stressful in themselves, creating a vicious cycle. Often people try to fight the stress reaction with various coping mechanisms (medication, substances, TV and so on) and this leads to further trouble such as burnout or breakdown.
The practice of mindfulness can help reduce stress. This works on two levels. Firstly, taking time out to meditate provides a period of calm and relaxation in which to recover and recuperate. Secondly, meditation is a training in awareness; by becoming more aware of present moment experience we can begin to perceive things more clearly. In this way, it is possible to become aware of a potential stressor in the moment and (as practised in meditation) notice thoughts and feelings that arise, allowing them to be there, non-judgmentally, which in turn helps one to take appropriate action. According to mindfulness pioneer, Jon Kabat-Zinn, awareness allows us to move from an unconscious stress reaction to a conscious stress response. Mindfulness helps to bypass or curtail the stress reaction, allowing the body and mind to function more healthily and physical ailments to heal.