Finding the “Stress Sweet Spot” with Mindfulness (Part 1)

Good stress? Yes, there is such a thing…

This article is will show you how to get more of the good stress and less of the bad stress.

by Rushi Vyas

Stress is an inevitable part of our lives.  Physiologically, that is why we have a fight-or-flight system.  The body knows stress will come and it has to be ready for it.

Other than for basic survival, stress can be beneficial for motivation. 

I know for me, setting deadlines whether for articles or getting business ideas off the ground, takes me from ideation to action.  That’s a good thing, otherwise I would just be drifting off in the creative world of ideas all the time without actually creating anything.

But it’s not always good. 

Feeling too much stress, or having a negative relationship to the stress in our lives, leads to many diseases both mental and physical:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Heart Disease
  • GI problems
  • Immune system deficiencies
  • Sexual dysfunction

And those are just a few of the dis-eases that are strongly correlated to mismanagement of stress. [1]

Using Stress to Create Opportunities for ‘Flow’

Thinking about how we manage stress made me think about professional athletes and performing artists. Many of the athletes that we marvel at in sports from dance to the Olympics, astound us because of the things they are able to achieve under an intense amount of stress; not only the physical stress, but the psychological stress of performing in front of a large audience under bright lights, or representing an entire country. We hear the phrase, ‘she’s in the zone’ very often and there is a name for it in psychology: flow. [2]

Flow’ is a term coined by Dr. Csikszentmihalyi, that describes the altered state of consciousness individuals enter into when they’re ‘in the zone.’ Through Dr. C’s research, he identified some main characteristics of this flow state:

  • Focused concentration on what you are doing in the moment.
  • Clarity on what needs to be done.
  • Loss of sense of time.
  • Knowledge that the activity is doable.
  • Intrinsic motivation to do whatever is being done.
  • Autotelic activity (activity that is rewarding in and of itself).
  • Perceived opportunity/challenge that stretches existing skills. [3]

All of us have experienced Flow (flow-state) at some point in life, even if we’re not athletes or artists.

Maybe it’s that time at work where you were “in the groove” with tasks for the day and they seemed to flow effortlessly.  Perhaps in a presentation in front of an important audience or class, and you rocked it.  Most of the time, you don’t control it and it seems to just happen. As a poet describes in Dr. Csikszentmihalyi’s work:

It’s like opening a door that’s floating in the middle of nowhere and all you have to do is go, turn the handle, open it, and let yourself sink into it.  You can’t particularly force yourself through it.  You just have to float.  If there’s any gravitational pull, it’s from the outside world trying to keep you back from the door. [3]

So what does this have to do with stress?

Much of the research done in Flow psychology has explored how we can recreate these moments more often in our life.  They seem to correlate with moments of intense happiness.  Are there certain trainable characteristics we can develop to experience the almost bliss-like state of flow in everyday activities?

The findings in this area have real implications for how we manage stress.  One of the top findings in flow research is that it is not “easy” activities that allow us to get in a state of flow.  Actually, people experience much more happiness doing activities that require a difficulty of about 10% above their existing skill sets. [4]

Humans like stress. We like a challenge.

It’s just that we want that challenge to be something that stretches our existing skill sets and seems doable.  Studies have shown that if a task is too easy, we lose interest.  If a task is too difficult, we also lose interest and motivation. [5] But that optimal point, of something that is just out of our comfort zone, is actually our favorite state to operate in.

Applying flow research to our conceptions of stress, it is clear a “stress-free life” is not actually what we are after. Stress is required for growth. Growth is something humans seem to be wired for.  If we develop a more keen self-awareness and an objective awareness of our life circumstances and the stressors around us, maybe we can cultivate a better relationship to the stress.

Through bringing our attention back to the moment, we can gain clarity on why stressors are in our life, whether or not we want to keep them, and what action we should take. If we’re mindful of our own self-talk we can start taking action that will allow us to cut out unnecessary stressors while having some semblance of fun with the stress that we choose is worth having in our life.

just-breathe-slowly-mindfully

How does Mindfulness Help?

Mindfulness and meditation can significantly increase our capacity for managing stress.  Thankfully, with the popularization of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programs across the country and world, there is abundant research supporting why. [6 & 7]

Mindfulness practices:

  • Increase our moment-to-moment awareness
  • Lead to perceiving life experiences more vividly
  • Decrease our emotional reactivity to situations
  • Develop a greater capacity for objective awareness of our own thoughts
  • Allow more accurate perception of our own experiences and external stimuli [7]

(sounds a little bit familiar to the typical traits of a state of flow, right?)

 

Mindfulness has been shown to increase the likelihood of Flow. (6)

In addition, mindfulness has been found across many studies to:

  • Decrease ruminative thinking (often negative self-talk)
  • Decrease trait anxiety
  • Increase self-compassion
  • Increase empathy [8]

Take Away: Mindfulness will not take away your bills, nor will it (directly) throw more money into your pockets.  Mindfulness will allow us to develop greater awareness of our own thinking.  What we do/think right now determines whether we add unnecessary mental stress to our lives, or develop the awareness to take action to utilize that stress in a productive way.

Let’s do a little mental exercise together to start applying mindfulness to the stressors in our lives.

Make a list of the things in your life that are stressful.  Take a few minutes to pause, think about this, and do it alongside me.

List of Stressors (example):

  • Family relationships
  • Freelancing without a steady paycheck
  • Managing money and bills
  • Loss of a loved one
  • Getting into shape
  • Not being listened to by people at work
  • Balancing time for myself with other obligations to people and work
  • That one thing your ex did two weeks ago that’s gnawing at you like a cow lost in the desert who stumbles upon a field of grass
  • A minor fight with a sibling over grocery shopping that turned into a week of the silent-treatment

I don’t know what your list said, but I imagine many of our lists revolve around similar stressors.  Family, relationships, work, finances, health, balancing time for leisure and self around all of it…

Some of them are short-term, others are long-term, but these occupy much of our time throughout the day.  Again, the trick isn’t to get rid of stress.  Our goal is to bring mindfulness to each stressor and how we react to it.  By doing this, we can better identify the stressors that are worth it to us, let go of stressors that aren’t, and find that balance of how to use stress to stretch our skill sets in effort to allow us to enter a flow state.

These three phases can help us relate better to each individual stress: Acceptance, Planning, and Action.

We will talk about these three phases in Part 2 of this article: More Good Stress, Less Bad Stress (Part 2)