Slow Is Smooth
Slowing down and practicing mindfulness can help lower our stress levels and provide us with a tool to better handle feeling overwhelmed. Two simple practices we can try include going for a walk outside and doing yoga. Mindfulness is a skill, so daily practice is key.
At some point in our lives, we’ve all experienced moments when we are overwhelmed. Too many things to take care of and not enough time, or enough of us, to do the taking care of. We then can become irritable and snap at our kids and partner, or yell (with some colorful language) at the driver that just cut us off. We can come home and zone out with Netflix and our favorite snacks for company. Often, we resort to going through the motions and not really engaged with what we’re doing, because if we did slow down to take the moment in, we would either snap in anger or collapse in exhaustion.
So far in this module, we have talked about hope molecules and different types of exercise. But what happens when we’re overwhelmed by life? How can movement and exercise help, both to cope and to feel more refreshed? Let’s face it, on some days, we lack the energy to do anything beyond our most pressing responsibilities, let alone do any type of formal exercise routine.
In module one, Marcus talked about the practice of meditation. Now, we’ll expand on the topic of mindfulness and go over ways to incorporate mindfulness into our daily activities. And as this module is all about movement, we’ll focus on slower movements that lend themselves to mindfulness practice. Sometimes, what we really need is to slow down and take a break from thinking about those things that stress us out. Mindfulness is just the tool that can help us with that.
Let’s begin by reviewing what stress is. Stress comes in two general forms – external and internal – and can be experienced as both positive, called eustress (1), and negative, called distress. Let’s say we have an upcoming trip that we’re excited about and we have all this energy to pack and take care of last-minute-to-do things. That’s eustress; its source is external (the trip) and how our bodies respond is how we internally experience it.
The other form of stress is negative stress, which can come in the form of a one-off event (acute) or constant pressure (chronic). The top five common sources of stress include work, money, family responsibilities, personal health issues, and health problems affecting one’s family (2). Although some amount of stress is normal and good for us, in 2015 alone, roughly one in four Americans reported being under “extreme stress.”
This is not surprising considering how the average full-time worker puts in about 47 hours of work per week (3). Not only that, but as a nation, we take fewer vacations than other countries. For example, only half of the people who get paid vacation take the full amount each year (4). We even seem to shun the idea of taking breaks; we forfeit unused vacation time every year (5) and many of us stay at our desks to eat lunch (6).
Feeling chronically stressed out and overwhelmed is not good for our health or our moods. Chronic stress affects whole bodily systems like immune function and gastrointestinal health (7). It even impacts our thinking. For example, not getting enough breaks during the workday limits our capacity to engage in deep work and to be creative. The research of workplace psychology professor Kimberly Elsbach has found that “mindless work” – like walking and eating lunch outside – can enhance creativity (8). And as we know, walking and engaging our muscles release chemicals that boost our moods, too.
Feeling chronically stressed can also contribute to tension headaches, irritability, and anxiousness. When we look at how we react to and experience stress, we can see three major factors that influence our response: our sense of control over it, our ability to handle the challenge, and how supported we feel in our lives. Later, we’ll focus on how to build that sense of support, so for now, we’ll center on the first two factors – how much we feel in control of the situation and how adept we are at handling it. When it comes to the experience of stress, one could say that “stress is in the eye of the beholder.” What we deem stressful and how we respond to it is very much an individual experience.
In order to better understand this individual response and how mindfulness can help, let’s do a quick review of nervous system arousal. “The Polyvagal Theory” (9), as proposed by Stephen Porges, PhD, provides a useful reference in understanding how the nervous system responds to what is happening around us.
Nervous system arousal has a lot to do with how safe, or unsafe, we feel (10). Let’s use a traffic light analogy to illustrate this concept.
In a traffic light, there are three lights: green, yellow, and red. Green means go and life is good. We can joke around and laugh with friends, smile at others and engage in chit-chat with the person next to us in line. Our bodies feel at ease: our muscles feel loose and relaxed, our heartbeat is regular, and our breathing flows evenly. Overall, we’re feeling fairly comfortable and most importantly, safe. This is the green zone, a state where we can relax and be ourselves.
Now, let’s say we’re home and we hear a loud noise coming from the garage. A typical first response would be to pause and tune into the noise so we can judge what our next response should be. This assessment space is the yellow zone. The body is scanning for threats and making a determination of the best response. The flashing yellow light symbolizes “caution up ahead.” If we were to look at animals, it would be the cat crouching down and perking its ears to the sounds of another animal. In the garage noise example, we’re assessing our surroundings: is that sound dangerous? Can it be ignored? In these moments, our instincts for survival and safety begin to take over, our bodies preparing to handle potential danger.
This moment of caution could be over in seconds. With the danger passing, our bodies begin shifting back to the green zone. If we were holding our breaths or tensing our muscles, our breathing would return to normal and we’d relax. Our heart rates, which may have started to elevate, would begin to return to baseline. We may feel tension easing out of our shoulders and we may begin to think about what we want to eat or what we want to do next. Once again, we’re back to the green zone, back to feeling safe and okay.
However, if events escalate, we go into the red zone. In our examples above, a second louder “boom” follows and we smell something burning from the garage. Or our partner starts yelling and waving their finger at us, just like they did the last time we argued. In the red zone, our survival itself can be at stake and, most importantly, our sense of safety is threatened: whether that comes from loud noises or fighting with our partners.
The red zone comes at a high price for our bodies. If we respond in an active way by engaging in the “fight or flight” response – yelling back at our partner or running all out to get away from danger and to a place of safety – our heart rates speed up, our pupils dilate, our hearing changes, we are energized and ready to move.
Sometimes, the threat is so great that we don’t have the option to fight or flee. Our bodies can then downregulate and engage in the freeze response. In animals, this would be “playing dead” and chemicals in their bodies would help them to not feel pain. The predator may relax their hold on them and turn towards something else, providing the animal a chance to escape (11). In humans, the freeze response can involve passing out or defecating. In milder cases, we may zone out and breathe shallowly as we wait for what’s happening around us to be over.
The purpose of the red zone is to keep us alive, it’s not meant to be lived in on a consistent basis (12). These red zone moments strain our systems. It takes time for our bodies to get back to the calm green zone of feeling safe and okay. There can be little choice as to how and when we engage in this high-alert zone, our bodies can seem to go there all on their own. We may feel the beginnings of a panic attack only to find ourselves in the midst of one. We may not even recall what we just did or exactly what just happened.
What’s more, when we are feeling overwhelmed, we typically go from green to red even quicker, the yellow zone being just a momentary blip. When we’re overwhelmed, we tend to revert back to familiar choices and reactions. We beat ourselves up over our actions and criticize ourselves for not doing something different. This would be like asking a tiger not to pounce on its prey. When we’re already in the red zone, it is very difficult to execute a new skill that we’re still learning. Our best bet is to capture the moments leading up to the red zone and take actions that bring us down from yellow and back to green.
So how can mindfulness and movement help us return to the green zone and keep us there for longer? What can we do when we are feeling overwhelmed and stressed out by life?
Mindfulness involves paying attention “to the present moment with openness, curiosity, kindness and flexibility.” Practicing mindfulness can help us identify the signals leading up to feeling overwhelmed and provide an opportunity to calm our bodies. By being aware of what our bodies are doing (when we notice our hearts speeding up, our hands tightening, and our eyes narrowing), we can choose to walk around the room or do slow breathing techniques with extended exhalation to help our bodies return to the green zone. Once back in the green zone, we are more friendly, we’re able to give our kids a hug if they need it, and hear what our partner is saying and express compassion. The green zone is where change happens because life is more manageable.
Mindfulness has many other benefits. It can make us happier, slow down cognitive decline as we age (13) and decrease our sensitivity to pain. It can also improve symptoms associated with anxiety and depression, help us feel more positive emotions and make us feel less stressed (14).
So how can we practice mindfulness? You can read up on some tips here. As for developing an individual practice, we can do it both formally and informally. Meditation, for example, is a formal way of practicing mindfulness. So are practices like watching or counting the breath, body scan meditations, noticing inner sensory experiences, or being attentive to what’s around us.
We can take this practice of mindfulness into daily activities. When out walking, we can bring attention to our bodies. Notice the breath coming and going, feel how our feet make contact with the ground with each step, or feel the slight breeze grazing our cheeks. We can practice mindfulness during small pauses in our day. In between sets at the gym, we can pause to notice our heart rate and feel the beads of sweat down our backs, or take a few moments to look around the room to notice the different colors and the various people present.
We can also deliberately slow down our movements to pay closer attention to what we’re doing. Whether it’s doing the dishes or cleaning the car, paying attention is a key component of mindfulness.
To help us deepen our mindfulness practice we can try yoga. With its emphasis on focusing on the breath and developing body awareness, a regular yoga practice can enhance our self-regulation skills (15) and be a helpful stress management tool (16). Yoga can make us learn to manage our arousal states – green, yellow and red – and help shift our bodies back to green.
Another tool at our disposal is spending time outside in nature. Spending time in nature can help us feel happier, think more clearly, and even feel more connected to life and a sense of purpose (17). Exercising outdoors, as opposed to indoors, can increase our sense of enjoyment (18). Because positive emotions can boost our immune system (19) and increase the chances that we’ll do an activity again, exercising outdoors can be a great stress relief.
And if we’re taking time to soak in our surroundings and to notice our bodies, we can be practicing mindfulness, too.
So, next time you’re feeling stressed, go for a walk outside, do some yoga or take a moment to pause and notice your breath or how your body feels. By slowing down and paying attention, we are practicing mindfulness. Over time, as we strengthen our ability to notice and observe, we can better track our bodies as they go from green to yellow to red and back down again and have more opportunities to pause and choose a different way of responding.
We may also notice that we’re not as overwhelmed as we once were, that life is more manageable and we’re beginning to find more moments where we’re connected to joy, purpose, and meaning.
Mindfulness is a practice, so keep working on it. In the next lesson, we’ll talk about developing habits, but for right now, slow down, eat lunch outside and go for a walk to your local park. Sometimes, what we really need is to slow down and take a break from what’s going on inside our heads.
Noticing Green, Yellow, and Red
- Track your own nervous system arousal. What does being in the green zone feel like? Yellow zone? Red zone? As you notice how you experience the different states, notice: 1) the circumstances leading to the event, and 2) how your body responded. See if you can track the spectrum of body arousal.
- What tools and practices help you stay, or return to, the green zone?
- Spend some time in nature or engage in your favorite slow movement.