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Finding mental freedom and kindness in the midst of stress

Did you know that stress is something you do? You might be surprised by this question. Isn't stress something that occurs when something unexpected or threatening happens? Something that happens to you, rather than you playing an active role in it?

Of course, part of a stress reaction is biologically programmed, and completely automatic. Your heart that starts beating faster when you hear a sudden loud bang, for example. This kind of physical reactions are meant to help you survive in life-threatening situations, and they are (almost) impossible to change.

Mental habits

However, a large part of how you react to stressful situations are actually mental habits – or patterns. These have formed over many years until they became become just as automatic as the physical reactions. And you have forgotten that they are your own 'creations'.

For example, let's say that you get stressed when you have too much work and there's not enough time. How does this happen? Perhaps first a thought comes up, saying "I will never get this done" and you feel a knot in your stomach. Then you decide to give it an extra push, but you notice that you can't fully concentrate because you keep worrying that you will run out of time. Is this a pattern that sounds familiar? Or do you perhaps have a different pattern?

In control or not?

When you zoom in a little closer, you can recognize that there are two kinds of elements in these patterns: ones that you can control, and others that you can't. Learning to distinguish these is crucial to deal better with stress.

For example, the fact that you get a knot in your stomach is not something that you can control. You can't just decide that you don't want to have that knot. Nor can you stop thoughts from coming up, or simply stop worrying (that would be great, wouldn't it?). Even if you already invested a lot of energy in trying to stop these things from happening, they don't disappear that easily.

You can, however, decide how you want to deal with these thoughts, sensations and emotions. In this example, you decide to give it an extra push, without really considering how you truly feel about the situation. This sounds like an automatic, and even inevitable reaction. What else is there to do? There is so much work to be done, and so little time.

But is that reaction really helpful? Maybe the result is actually the opposite of what you are trying to achieve. Instead of being more efficient, you can't concentrate and you lose time. This is how you do stress – how you behave under stress. It may not be fully conscious behaviour, but it is still a ‘choice', based on something.

Underlying beliefs

It can be worthwhile to consider what beliefs are underlying this behavioural pattern. Do you feel that you simply must work hard? Do you have to achieve your targets at all cost? Or else what? Will you fail, not be good enough?

These are actually very common beliefs. If you take a closer look at your own stress patterns, you might discover some variations on this theme as an underlying cause. Beliefs such as "you should always be strong" or "it doesn't matter how you feel" are all expressions of what mindfulness teacher and author Tara Brach calls the ‘trance of unworthiness'. The idea that somehow we are not good enough by just being ourselves, that somehow we have to prove ourselves – all the time. Isn't that extremely exhausting?

Bringing awareness and self-kindness into the mix

When you start recognizing these underlying beliefs, you can see them return over and over again in various situations.

When you notice them coming back, perhaps you can take a moment to pause instead of just blindly following them. Take a moment to acknowledge the effect they have on you, how they contribute to the stress you are already feeling – and consider that they are just beliefs. You didn't consciously choose them, but along the way you started believing them. Although they go a long way back, keep in mind that you have some freedom: you don't have to believe them, nor follow them.

By practicing mindfulness and self-kindness, you can come to the deep realization that you already are enough, that you don't have to prove yourself, even if your own thoughts tell you otherwise. Which doesn't mean that you should never work hard again – it's not about being lazy.

By practising mindfulness, you  learn how you can find more freedom in dealing with your own thoughts and beliefs. You will also learn to bring this attitude of self-kindness more deeply into your life.

So what's the result? Although your final behaviour might still be the same (occasionally working harder), the attitude with which you do it, has changed. Instead of being harsh on yourself and just pushing yourself no matter what, you have acknowledged how you truly feel and you made a deliberate decision based on what the situation requires. Sometimes that is working harder, sometimes it's you needing a break. This is mental freedom: clearly seeing that difference and making conscious choices about your response to the situation at hand.