Many of the diseases that plaque people in doctor’s waiting rooms are caused by their constant, chronic and inappropriate activation of the body’s fight or flight response system. The fight or flight response system is designed to save us during a clearly perceived present moment danger; escaping an attacker, saving ourselves from drowning, running out of a burning building and in the past, getting eaten by a saber tooth tiger. We now live in a relatively safe society, we don’t have to worry about a lion lurking around the corner when we leave our house. In spite of this, we are constantly activating this fight or flight response system when we don't need to and it’s making us sick. When we activate this fight or flight response, there are about 1,800 biological, neurological and immunological changes that happen in our body within seconds designed to make us super strong to save our lives. We are either going to stay and fight or flee. Some of the things we may or may not notice when this system is activated are an increase in heart rate, breath rate, muscle tension, blood sugar levels and hormone levels. Additionally, digestion and reproduction are put on hold and growth and healing stop. The reason for this: our body is not going to waste energy digesting a sandwich, when it needs that energy to fight or get away. I find it interesting that twenty years ago we couldn’t get Prilosec over the counter. Now we can get that and about 50 other medications to help with digestive issues. Additionally reproductive issues in both men and women are at an all time high, without a clear medical diagnosis of a problem. Couples are having a difficult time getting pregnant, something that should naturally happen when all systems are firing as they should. Lastly, diseases are grandparents have never heard of are popping up, particularly, autoimmune diseases. But why?
Our mind and bodies are completely connected to work together. We cannot separate our mind and body. One of the most beautiful examples of the mind body connection is what happens when we watch a scary movie. We know that what we are seeing on the screen is not real. We know that the woman in the movie running from the attacher is not actually going to be dead when the credits roll, however as she is being chased we experience an activation of our fight or flight response system. Our mind senses danger and our body reacts. We experience fear and anxiety and may even notice a rush of adrenaline moving through our body, when in reality, we are sitting comfortably in our living room safe from harm. As a society we are constantly stressing all day long. In fact, it’s become somewhat of a badge of honor to announce how stressed out or busy we are. What we don’t realize is that our lack of awareness of what we are doing, stressing in our minds, is actually what's making us sick. Our body cannot tell the difference between “I’m late for work and worried about getting fired, or I’m about to get eaten by a lion.” When the mind perceives danger, real or imagined, our bodies react. Some of us begin to activate this response before we even leave the house in the morning, by thinking about all the things we have to do during the day and then feeling exhausted by the end of the list. When we create stress in our mind, the body begins protecting us. As a result, we are constantly elevating our heart rate, breath rate, hormone and blood sugar levels. In short, this constantly stressing is making us sick!
Why Mindfulness Helps
Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to what’s happening as it is happening in the present moment with a sense of curiosity, inquiry and care. When we learn to pay attention in this way, we not only notice what is going on around us, we notice what is going on within us. This awareness allows us better manage ourselves during stressful situations and bring healthier, more appropriate choices to our present moment experience. Here’s how…
Imagine this scenario. It’s 5:30 p.m. you get out of work a little late and on the drive home begin to go over your evening to-do list. Make dinner. Remember to email your daughter’s math teacher. Take your son to piano lessons. Pick up your daughter from soccer practice. Laundry. Get the dry cleaning together for tomorrow’s pick up. Call a friend you haven’t been able to get to in a while before she disowns you. Finish research for a work project. Return email. Make sure the kids homework is finished. Fill out those permission slips for Friday’s field trip that have been sitting on the counter since last week. Bake brownies for the school’s bake sale. “Oh shoot, brownies!” Just then, you remember your’e out of brownie mix and swing over to Wegmans imaging you’ll just run in quickly, removing that task from your long list.
You enter Wegmans, determined to get in and out in a flash, grab a basket, b-line for the baking isle, grab what you need and hop into the express line. You are even feeling a bit feisty now about how quickly you're going to get things done. While in the line, you again mentally go over your to-do list, imagining when and how you’ll complete each one. Sensing the line is not moving along you notice yourself getting a bit frustrated and impatient. You distract yourself from the discomfort by going back over the list in your mind as if going over that list again and again is somehow going to help save you time. Overwhelmed by the list, you momentarily imagine how nice it would be to just collapse in a bubble bath but quickly distract yourself from that idea, knowing you have no business considering such a luxury. Although only a few minutes pass it seems as though you’ve been standing still forever. The line is still moving slowly and you begin to become more and more impatient. The discomfort intensifies as does your impatience. You begin looking for who’s to blame that this line isn’t moving. (In reality you are looking for someone or something to blame for the increasing discomfort your experiencing.) You quickly scan the baskets of the three people waiting in line in front of you and start counting their items. You mentally chastise the woman in front of you who has at least 10 items in her cart. “Come on lady, this is the seven item line.” As if those three extra items are going to make a difference. Your discomfort intensifies. As you continue to scan the line you notice an elderly woman in the line carrying her check book. You let out a loud sigh, which prompts the impatient gentleman behind her to roll his eyes and shake his head at you in agreement. Your inner judge continues “Who writes checks anymore? “Are you kidding me!”
By now your body is tense, your shoulders are at your ears and you're clenching your jaw when suddenly, the cognizant element of awareness that you’ve been cultivating in your daily mindfulness practice, sees what you're doing as you're doing it. This awareness allows you to recognize and acknowledge the true source of your stress and most importantly, gives you an opportunity to bring a more appropriate and healthy response to it. You’ve learned through this practice that it is not the extra three items in the basket or the two extra minutes it will take for that woman to write her check. In fact it has very little to do with any of that. In reality, it’s your relationship to the long list of things you have to do when you get home. It’s the fact that you are tired and feel like you never get a moment to yourself. It’s the pressure you put on yourself to do everything perfectly. Suddenly, this awareness provides you with some choices. 1. You can continue to stand in the line, stressing and blaming others, inappropriately activating your flight or fight when you're not in any real danger. 2. You can take a deep breath, unclench your jaw, lower your shoulders and activate your body’s natural relaxation response by simply paying attention to your breath. Since you have to wait in this line anyway, how you wait in the line is up to you. Mindfulness provides us a space to recognize what is happening outside of us and within us. This awareness is dependable, in low stake situation such as moving through the grocery line, to higher stakes situations such as dealing with an unexpected tragedy.
What is going on in our inner world has a direct effect on how we are going to respond to what is happening in our outer world. For example, two people may witness the same event, but have two completely different reactions to it. One person may be humored by what they witnessed and the other may be horrified. Their reactions are dependent on what is going on in their inner world. The same is true in the grocery line. The women behind you waiting in the same line appears to be smiling calmly as she waits for her turn to be checked out. So why doesn’t she appear to be stressing and getting impatient? Simply because she is not experiencing the situation in the same way...or perhaps she is just being mindful.
I hate laundry! These words would ring out loud in my head and sometimes out of my mouth every time I stepped foot into my laundry room and glared at the loads of dirty clothes piled up high. I would notice an immediately feeling of dread and exhaustion come over me. Ugh! I complained to myself. I dreaded that task and those piles. They never seem to go away. They are always there waiting for me, taunting me. I have such an aversion to laundry that sometimes I would pass by the room and give those dirty piles the middle finger. Screw you laundry! That felt good but the satisfaction never lasted long. It would be there when I returned and most likely would have grown in size. Doing laundry caused me to suffer…or so I thought...until I decided to pay closer attention to what was rising up within me and unfolding before me.
I turned the dryer on to freshen up the load I had abandoned days ago. As I turned and faced the unsorted pile of clothes on the floor I began to notice a very familiar, automatic stream of negative thoughts begin to play in my head. “Geez! Can’t anyone put anything in a basket?…Is it that hard?…It would really help make this hellish job easier for me.” My physical aversion to the task began to gain strength and I became aware that my discomfort immediately intensified when I noticed the socks. Ugh! Lots of sweaty, smelly gym socks not turned right-side-out! I continued to be aware of the steam of automatic thoughts as they played on. It was as if they had a life of their own. “How hard is it to turn your sock right-side-out? It takes all of two seconds! Now I have to put my hand in this smelly sock. Damn you guys!” There it was, the source of my discomfort! I felt unappreciated and taken advantage of. My discomfort reached its peak when I imagined my guys standing in front of the door, carelessly tossing their inside-out socks into the pile like little gremlins out to make my job miserable. Although this isn't true, it’s the story I was making up in my mind. It had to be someone else’s fault that I was suffering.
Our suffering is rarely what we think it is at first glance. It’s what we bring to the task that often goes unchecked and hijacks our present moment experience. We add to the suffering. This unawareness leads to creating stories in the mind that take on a life of their own and cause us habitual suffering. Imagine the mother who is upset because, due to work, is unable to attend a school event for her child. Already feeling bad, she blames work for being so demanding, gets angry at her boss, curses her husband for never taking time off, questions the job she is doing as a mother, compares herself to others and ends up in a suffering loop of guilt and self deprecation. Sound familiar? We all fall into these mind traps at one time or another, but by being mindful; inquiring and getting curious about what thoughts we are attending to, we can gain insight into ourselves and minimize our suffering.
I still hate laundry and when the piles get too high, I notice that familiar, automatic stream of negative thoughts begin to play in my head. However, being mindful allows me to notice this much sooner now and provides a space for me to make a different choice for myself. Instead, I intentionally bring my awareness to these thoughts and do my best to let them go by bringing my attention back to the simple task in front of me. It takes practice and a great deal of self compassion. Most of the time I'm successful in limiting my suffering. Nonetheless, I won’t pretend that every once in a while I don’t pass by that room, see a big pile of clothes and flip it the bird!
Be Mindful: Practice paying attention
Mindfulness requires very little planning. Every moment of our lives is an opportunity to practice. This week practice paying attention to where your mind is at. Be curious, inquire. Notice if you are thinking about the past or worrying about the future. Notice if you are present in your life or present in the story in your mind. If you find that you are lost in thoughts that may be causing you to suffer, simply acknowledge this again and again, gently, gracefully, compassionately. With continued practice, mindfulness may help you to find away out of your own suffering and offer you more moments of clarity and calm.