What do you resist?

It is part of human nature to avoid unpleasant events. This week in the MBSR course I am teaching, the participants did not fully embrace documenting their unpleasant events – no surprise there! The previous week, it seemed effortless for most of them to record the pleasant events. It’s 100% normal to turn away from the unpleasant. It’s a form of self-preservation and sometimes it’s very wise to do so. If only we were Barbara Eden in I dream of Jeanie, folding our arms and blinking our eyes to remove ourselves from a stressful event. It is not living in reality if we consistently turn away from the unpleasant, undesirable, “not what we want” kind of experiences, we are essentially denying our reality.

I invited my niece, Colleen to live with me for a year in San Francisco after college graduation. Six months into this little adventure, we are both enjoying it. She (like myself) prefers the reality of pleasant events and resists the unpleasant. That became very evident when the grace period for her student loans expired this week. While we sat down to do a budget, she was overwhelmed and walked away saying “I don’t want to deal with all this money stuff – I hate this!” While most of us don’t have the luxury of escaping back to college life or the genie bottle, we have to find the courage to relate to the stressful events in our life. When we deny our circumstances, they don’t correct themselves on their own. Fortunately, Colleen recognized this and found a way to face her anxiety and created a manageable budget. I assured her that it was a lesson she would continue to deal with throughout her life.

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Resistance is a wakeup call. In bringing awareness to those aspects of our daily life that we habitually resist, we have the opportunity to begin to transform them. Here’s the deal: Once we identify or “name” the unpleasant event, we have the opportunity to change our brain chemistry and our stress response. Research studies have shown that people trained in mindfulness have thicker pre-frontal cortexes of the brain, an area responsible for decision making and modulating appropriate emotional responses and have less activity in the amygdala, our threat detector in the brain.

If you feel like experimenting with pleasant and unpleasant events, try it out this week. Simply name the experience. For example:

Looking for a parking spot - Unpleasant event

Were you aware of unpleasant feelings while this was happening? Yes or No

How did your body feel (in detail) during this experience?  Hands gripping wheel, sweating, headache, tension in my neck, and shallow breathing.

What moods, feelings & thoughts accompanied this event? Frustration, worry that I would be late or I would disappoint others.

What thoughts are in your mind as you write this down? I bet if I gave myself more time, I wouldn’t have been this stressed out. Why was I so worried about that? It wasn’t a life and death matter.

This week, I encourage you to have a look at what habitual patterns you deny, repress, turn away from, or distract yourself from. Perhaps you can find the time to do the short little exercise and ask yourself those simple little questions. 

Finding your feet in the whirlwind

photo by bottled_void

photo by bottled_void

This week I taught a class called Striking A Balance With Stress In Nursing.  Most nurses would agree that a typical day in the life of a nurse is stressful, regardless of the specialty. The advances in technology, electronic charting and hospital mergers may benefit institutions and provide efficiency here and there, but it is often at the expense of pulling nurses from patient care.

We discussed the physiological and psychological impacts of the stress response.  Often we feel overwhelmed in the midst of a full-blown stress response.  The ability to find a place to rest in the midst of the experience can bring a sense of peace.  But how does one do that in the thick of things?

If you are able to break down the experience and feel the sensations in your body, simply “name” or identify what that felt experience in the body is.  For example: There may be a conflict with a co-worker or perhaps your patient is receiving news of a terminal diagnosis.  You may be overwhelmed and want to flee, yet your role requires you to stay present.  Simply note what is happening in your body.  I’m feeling heat, I’m feeling an elevation in my heart rate, I’m noticing my mind feeling scattered, I’m noticing a sense of sadness or watery eyes.

photo by Emilian Robert Vicol

photo by Emilian Robert Vicol

What can be helpful at times like this is to connect with your feet on the ground.  Even unlocking the knees and creating a slight bend in the knees can shift the energy to the lower body. Often when we are anxious, our energy moves up to our head and it can be helpful to simply feel the feet rooted on the ground.  Some people may also find it helpful to simply touch the wall.  It may seem silly, but it is an act that changes your sensory input and take you out of your place of overwhelm.

photo by THOR

photo by THOR

Ultimately, we all need to use discernment to know when caring for ourselves means removing ourselves from a difficult circumstance.  If we have the strength and courage to simply stay, bring our full self to the experience, we can find the capacity in our heart to be open to anything.  The strength is not found in protecting the heart with a hard shell.  It is found in the courage to show up with the vulnerability of an open heart that has the capacity to receive anything.

Upcoming classes on workplace toxicity and careers in nursing