Have you watched your stress lately?

This week, the participants in the MBSR course I’m teaching had permission to go out in the world, experience stress when it showed up and then react with their natural habitual reactions. In other words, they didn’t have to create a pretty response to stress. The only requirement was to be mindful of how they react to stress.

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Try this yourself. Notice how your body reacts with muscle tightening, tension, sweating, feeling hot, or a change in the heart rate or breathing pattern. What are the consequences to your reaction to stress? Perhaps verbal and non-verbal communication alters relationships. Denying, repressing, distracting or fleeing the scene can be a temporary relief but also brings other ramifications.

Tara Brach, a Buddhist meditation teacher speaks about the acronym RAIN, which can be helpful when working with habitual stress patterns.

R: Recognize the stressful situation

A: Allow the experience to be here (It doesn’t mean you have to like it)

I: Investigate your experience with curiosity and kindness

N: Non-identify and don’t personalize the experience

Here is an example from class. A Charge Nurse noticed her patterns of stress often came when she had to deliver unpleasant news, such as informing a nurse of a patient request to not have that nurse assigned to them. Here is how RAIN comes in handy.

R: She recognized she felt stressed, feeling tension in the shoulders and feeling her heart beating faster.

A: She allowed the experience to be here even though she didn’t want it. She didn’t ignore it or distract herself from dealing with it.

I: She investigated her experience. I don’t want to hurt this person’s feelings. This is awkward. I hope she doesn’t resent me for telling her this. The nurse is now more conscious and aware of her own thoughts and emotions.

N: How can I make this not about me? This is the sweet spot for this nurse since many of her stressful events are personalized when the circumstances are beyond her control. Reporting the facts as a weather report can be helpful. Patient doesn’t feel comfortable. This nurse needs to know. Clear and direct communication is needed. My role as the Charge Nurse is to address this issue. I’m making the best decision with the information and resources I have.

We establish our patterns of reacting to stress to survive. We continue to use them and function on autopilot in these habitual ways. It is worth having a look at whether these patterns are truly working for you. If you had a close friend going through a difficulty, would you advice them to approach their situation the way you do?

Here’s an example of a very deep well-established pattern of approaching stressful situations by “sucking it up”. This pattern is alive and well among healthcare workers. Sucking it up has served me well in productivity, efficiency and “getting it done” but it hasn’t always been in my best interest.

About five years ago, I received a call at work that my aunt had been run over by a tractor-trailer in New York City. I immediately felt shock and sadness and tears welled up in my eyes. I mentioned it to some co-workers and booked a flight for that night. Then I tucked it all away, neat and tidy and got back to work as I had so many times before when faced with tragedy as a nurse. My habitual response: I’ll process it later but for now, I will suck it up. I’m sure at the time I had my reasons to stay at work. Perhaps I was being a martyr or didn’t want to waste precious PTO. A few more hours of work wasn’t going to kill me but could a lifetime of this pattern kill me?

It is only through bringing kind awareness to investigating my habitual response to stress that I am now able to incorporate self-compassion as well. When wisdom walks hand in hand with compassion, it makes a great pair. I’d like to think my family has met our quota for pedestrian or bicycle accidents with vehicles but if we haven’t, I’m definitely taking the day off with any future call.