One of the most fascinating and surprising things I discovered when I began to study stress and its impacts on the individual and the organization, was that I was creating my own stress by my thinking and perceptions. Up until that time, I had imagined that stress was coming from someone or something out there—the people, situations, or events that were happening to me.
I had known that taking care of myself and having healthy habits could reduce my stress. What I had never thought about was how if I changed the way I perceived the world and the people in it, I could lower the stress in my life, and stop creating so much of it.
I have written about the fact that often we are living in the past, or the future, and this is one of the biggest reasons we create our own stress. It is not enough that a stressful event happens to us; we often analyze it, ruminate over it, and rethink it over and over. (If only I had said something different. What if I had done something else instead? What did everyone think about me when that happened?) In addition to focusing on the past, we can also build quite a TV novella in our minds about what might be, how bad an outcome could be, and catastrophize events both large and small.
When you think this way, you trigger the same bodily response as if you were being physically threatened or harmed. Your body literally does not know the difference between perceived threats and actual threats. This stress response is designed to help protect you from harm, but think about how often you can accidentally trigger it. Do it often enough and your stress can lead to both short-term and chronic health issues.
By becoming aware and observing your state of mind and body, you can learn to practice mindfulness to bring yourself back into balance. With as few as fifteen minutes a day, you can elicit the relaxation response discovered by Dr. Herbert Benson, MD, founder of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
So start to notice when you are working yourself up and practice a mindfulness technique to bring yourself back into the present (usually quite safe) moment. This will help your body experience the benefits of the relaxation response.