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Positive Stress?

Shortly before I give a presentation, I often feel a rumbling in my stomach, quickening pulse, and energy running through my body. These physical reactions help me a

chieve a specific goal, an engaging talk. Mindful awareness taught me to pay attention to my body’s experiences.

In many situations, I found it helpful to notice where in my body I felt emotions. Talking from my heart or my stomach became comfortable and authentic. As a result, I was more present and accepting of myself. I also was more open to the experiences of others.

Neuroscientists refer to my experience before a presentation as stress. Stress is the body’s reactions to change. Although often thought of as wrong or something we shouldn’t experience, stress serves a vital role in health. Short-term stress enlivens our senses, makes us more social, and heightens our attention to details.

Research shows that when we think of stress as a good thing, it energizes us and helps us perform better. Positive stress can help an athlete before the start of a competition or someone in business to close a deal. We can build a positive mindset about stress. For example, I say, “Thank you body for getting me ready to give a great presentation!”

Last week, as I prepared to give a talk on Growing Awareness, an unsettling feeling in my gut kept poking at me. Reframing my body’s response as positive was not working. The restlessness grew. A desire to cancel the presentation emerged. I felt my stress level rising. What was happening?

According to Dr. Dan Siegel, founder of the field of interpersonal neurobiology, negative stress evokes a pattern of fear-anger-sad-helpless reactions. The primitive regions of the brain activate stress. Our bodies respond to negative pressure with fear-based survival responses. Sensing danger, our bodies prepare to react with fight|flight|freeze reactions.

Practicing how to move within the feeling and experiences of stress, I found it helpful to befriend my uncomfortable feelings. Rather than pushing away unusually intense emotional responses, I decided to accept whatever was showing up. I opened up towards what was unconsciously creating one adverse stress reaction.

Sometimes I find it helpful to think of the stress I am carrying as a bucket. When too many things fill the container, I am no longer able to stay balanced. With compassion and self-kindness, I looked at the bucket.

Eighteen months ago, my husband was diagnosed with cancer. I took a sabbatical during the first part of his treatment. About a year ago, I returned to writing and speaking. It brought energy and intellectual excitement. I was using my wellbeing journey to share with others mindful awareness.

But recently, my husband’s treatments stopped working. We searched across the country for clinical trials. A new intervention required us to live away from home for a while. Self-kindness and compassion revealed the depth of sadness and uncertainty about my husband’s cancer.

With the presentation in a few hours, I decided to show up with all of my experiences. By changing my perspective, I shifted towards viewing these experiences as challenges rather than fight|flight|freeze stress reactions. I trusted in the humanity and compassion of the group; after all, it was a session about mindful awareness and self-compassion.

The presentation was a success.

Here are tips from Dan Siegel, MD, for using mindful awareness to shift the mind away from automatic and unhelpful stress responses.

1. Befriend your body’s response and experiences by practicing mindful awareness.

2. Practice self-compassion – rather than fear and stress.

3. Become aware of toxic stress and early attachment relationship experiences that can, even as an adult, ignite primitive stress responses.

4. See relationships as resources for dealing with stressful situations.

5. Think of the self as MWE = Me + We, an interconnected source of strength and love.

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