Mindfulness Stress Management: Get Off Autopilot and Kick the Past Out of the Present
Jacquelyn Ferguson, M.S.
Doesn’t it bug you when you habitually react defensively to your critical boss, a dominating parent or whomever? You swear you won’t let her get under your skin then, bam! It happens again. Why can’t you get control over yourself?
Conflicts usually have less to do with the person in front of you whom you assume is causing your distress and more to do with her triggering a painful memory from your past usually involving an important person you believe hurt you. You project onto the present situation your past fears. Practicing mindfulness can help you break your historic patterns even in the midst of difficult emotions.
Meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as, “Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
- Paying attention: Most operate on automatic pilot rather than paying conscious attention to the present moment and your place in it. You get distracted, worry about the future and react automatically to unfolding events, especially when stressed.
- On purpose: Paying attention to this moment requires conscious effort and is the opposite of operating on automatic pilot.
- In the present moment versus reacting out of difficult, childhood emotions pulling you back to habitual reactions.
- Non-judgmentally: Stress triggers judgmental assumptions like, “You’re unfair,” creating more conflict. Negative judgments imply your desired outcome, “You should be fair.” You probably want the other person to change but they’re beyond your control. Mindfulness allows you to evaluate situations from an emotional distance. You observe your emotions and reactions as they arise without trying to control them. Eventually mindfulness allows you to see stressors as less major and more as a passing, unwanted experience.
Mindfulness is not:
- Detaching emotionally from events; you remain responsive.
- Submissively accepting whatever happens; you won’t lie down and play dead in the face of conflict. Non-judgmental mindfulness allows you to respond to difficult situations with consideration and focus rather than compulsion or addiction.
Ask revealing question about defensive reactions
When psychological pain is triggered by present-day situations it activates largely unconscious childhood memories, which activate their associated emotions and your instant defensive reaction. The stronger your pain the faster you react leaving a millisecond between the triggering event and your habitual reaction to it. No wonder it’s so difficult to change defensive behavior.
For example, your boss condescends to you and you verbally respond more aggressively than you want. Could the real problem be that your boss is triggering some unresolved childhood issue? And could identifying it loosen its grip on you?
Ask this revealing question to discover if your boss is truly your stress or if he’s triggering an earlier source:
- “Who or what from childhood could trigger this same reaction in me?”
Maybe your father was condescending. Now, as an adult, whenever an authority figure talks down to you your instantaneous, aggressive reaction pops out.
Mindfulness can break outdated and often embarrassing reactions by noticing what’s going on before, during and after the triggering event. This expands the space of time between the event and your reaction to it. Eventually your defensive reactions are reduced in intensity, duration and frequency of so you can respond in a more thoughtful and productive way.
To become more mindful:
1. Focus on the present moment, particularly on your breathing; in and out, in and out. With practice paying attention to your breathing allows you to observe unhealthy patterns and catch yourself becoming emotionally hooked. Now you’re closer to changing your response.
2. Non-judgmentally observing your habitual reactions diminishes adding more fuel to the emotional fire. Consistently, bring your drifting attention back to your breathing. Instead of criticizing yourself for getting defensive simply acknowledge that you sometimes respond to your boss this way. Notice:
a. What he does that triggers you (his derisiveness);
b. Your aggressive response;
c. The resulting fear that you’ve overstepped the line;
d. Followed by worrying that he’ll punish you;
After an episode, contemplate the unpleasant emotions and physical sensations triggered earlier. Observe your thoughts and feelings that exacerbated your stress and guaranteed your defensive reaction.
3. You have only the first seconds of a triggering event to nip the escalation of overwhelming emotions in the bud. Remember, the less you judge yourself – or him – the less intense your feelings become. Don’t try to change your emotions, just observe them for what they are: habitual, immature and unhelpful, albeit normal.
Mindfulness stops mental hi-jacking
It’s common that when particularly painful childhood memories are triggered your thinking speeds up and sometimes even veers out of control.
Your mind is crammed with thoughts of the future and memories of the past along with their associated feelings, drowning out the present moment. When stressed, you think more and faster leaving your mind anything but calm. It requires an incredible amount of energy to live inside our heads!
Mindfulness can help stop this mental hi-jacking.
When very stressed, consciously notice how you leap-frog from one difficult emotion to the next chased by a torrent of negative thoughts, feelings and memories. It’s the observing that helps slow down, therefore calm, your mind and emotions. Simply witness your individual thoughts. Engaging in your inner dialogue speeds up your thinking. Mindfulness settles you down allowing you to choose what to think.
Practice focusing on the present moment to expand your awareness. Whenever you meander into the past or future, gently return to the present. Here’s a great meditation technique to help you.
- Sit comfortably with your eyes slightly open and looking slightly down. Use a soft focus on anything in front of you. Next, allow your mind to notice only what you sense: what you see, hear, feel, smell or taste in each moment. Your goal is to use your inhales to count from one to ten while focusing only on what you sense. Inhale one, exhale; inhale two, exhale, etc. Any time something other than what you sense in the moment pops into your mind you must start your count over again at one. You may be surprised to see how long it takes you to reach ten. This isn’t easy.
The more difficult this is for you the more you can benefit from calming mindfulness.
Conscious awareness of thoughts coming and going, sometimes calmly sometimes like a storm, helps you relax and not worry so much about the stormy ones. Mindfulness makes the present moment clearer and less congested with unnecessary mental clutter. It makes it more difficult for negative thoughts, feelings and memories to overwhelm you. You can experience difficult situations and memories and still have enough mental space left over to keep your challenges in perspective.
Mindfulness also helps emotional wellbeing
It’s easy to block out painful emotions and operate on autopilot. Addictive behavior may be a warning sign that this is occurring habitually. Mindfulness allows you to face your emotions versus running from them.
According to Ronald Alexander, Ph.D. and author of “Wise Mind, Open Mind: Finding Purpose and Meaning in Times of Crisis, Loss and Change” mindfully handling stress lessens reactivity and allows you to focus more on a stressor’s big picture. Remember, automatic, defensive reactions tend to come from your inner child likely putting your focus on the stressor’s details.
Alexander says, “The key to dealing with stressful situations, especially for those who take things personally, is to develop a deeply grounded core rudder so that no matter what size of wave one encounters they can recover quickly and proceed with more focus.”
He says mindfulness practices affect your brain’s amygdala, the area responsible for regulating emotions. When the amygdala is relaxed your:
- Heart rate lowers;
- Breathing deepens and slows;
- Body stops releasing cortisol and adrenaline into the bloodstream, decreasing the potential damage chronic stress places on your body;
Over time, mindfulness meditation, Alexander says, “thickens the region of the brain responsible for optimism and a sense of well-being. This area is also associated with creativity and an increased sense of curiosity, as well as the ability to be reflective and observe how your mind works.”
In stressful situations he encourages you to take your pulse of the here and now by answering these questions:
1. What do I feel right now?
2. Do these feelings benefit me? Do anxious and fearful emotions lead me to insights, or do they cause conflict, hold me back, and distract or weaken me?
3. If what I’m experiencing is in response to another person’s behavior, what’s the evidence that her actions have little or nothing to do with me and are, instead, the result of what’s going on inside her own mind?
4. Can I depersonalize the situation?
5. How can I nourish myself at this difficult time?
Develop Mind Games to enhance mindfulness
Changing stressful behavior can itself be stressful, not to mention difficult. Part of the reason for the difficulty is that when you’re stressed your reaction time speeds up. The more stressed you are the faster you react.
Creating a Space of Time between the stressor and your reaction to it allows you to respond differently and mindfully. It gives you a millisecond to discipline yourself to change from your typical and unproductive reaction to something more effective.
Mind Games can create this Space of Time. Not the idea from pop psychology decades ago where you manipulate others’ minds but rather you play a little game inside your own head to stop your own automatic and ineffectual reactions.
Mind Games don’t solve problems. Their intended use is to give you power to change. Here are some examples.
- Instead of reacting emotionally to your aggravating co-worker, take a deep breath or two immediately to stop your defensive reaction.
Mind Games work best when you personalize them to your situation.
- A woman was easily intimidated by her very aggressive, loud boss. In fits of pique he threw insults at her and others. She came to the belated conclusion that his rudeness said more about him than about her and decided she needed to keep his insults from sticking to her. So she imagined a protective plexiglass shield slipping into place in front of her resulting in his insulting words dripping down the glass therefore not sticking to her.
- When my older stepson moved in with us I found myself being overly critical of him. I disliked this reaction but he’d do something and I would automatically pounce. I tried deep breathing, looking for humor in the situation but nothing worked well. One day as I was about to criticize him, an image popped into my mind that worked as a Mind Game from that day on – mostly anyway. I pictured my mother and father watching their dear sweet daughter being so hard on this child. That’s all I needed. It stopped me in my tracks. It would create a Space of Time so I could walk away from the situation.
Effective Mind Games are limited only by your own creativity. Try an image, thought, humor or just use deep breathing to stop unproductive reactions. Create a Space of Time to increase your opportunity for change.
Be patient because this, like anything, takes time. Plus it doesn’t always work. If it increases your success rate at stopping undesirable behavior even a little, it’ll be worth the effort. Perfect this skill and you’ll finally be able rid yourself of some of those embarrassing, immature reactions.
Mindfulness stress management
Being mindful, especially when stressed, requires practice to bring significant relief and freedom from repeating old, painful patterns at work and at home. Start by practicing with less stressful situations then move up to the more challenging ones. And pursue practices that cultivate mindfulness like yoga, tai chi, deep breathing and enjoying nature. These calm you and allow you to choose healthier responses versus defensively reacting, facilitating better relationships.
About the Author
Jacquelyn Ferguson, M.S.
In 1976, after returning from 2½ years in the Peace Corps in Colombia, South America, Jackie earned her Master’s degree in Community Counseling/Psychology from her home state of Minnesota. She then worked for several years as a Program Director at a mental health center. In 1982 she founded InterAction Associates, her management development, coaching and training firm.
For over 25 years Jackie has designed and presented keynotes and workshops on stress management, diversity, customer-service and communication skills.
Her mission is to inspire you to live a conscious life of personal responsibility in your relations with yourself and others, which she weaves into every presentation to help you “wake up” to your responsibility in making your desired changes.
Literally hundreds-of-thousands of people throughout North America, the United Kingdom, Australia and points in between have benefitted from her programs.
Look for her recently published book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple, at www.letyourbodywin.com.
Jackie is also a Professional & Stress Coach helping people achieve more success with less stress.
You can request her weekly emailed column, Stress for Success, published in a Gannett Newspaper.