Stress: My Out-Of-Body Experience

*Edit: An altered version of this article appeared on Www.Everyday-Mindfulness.Org :)

Last Thursday I made a terrible yet, in retrospect, hilarious mistake: I decided it was a smart idea to check my phone during the 5 minute break of the stress reduction course I am attending.

Here I am paying for an 8-week course on how to be mindful with myself in times of stress and can’t leave my phone in my purse for a mere 2.5 hours. That alone speaks for itself. It’s a tedious habit. Just quickly checking, making sure. No thinking involved. (On a side note, on Life and Chinese Food there is an excellent post about this tick of ours, but I am still not “courageous” enough to follow the suggestions).

What happened next was a curious and, I must say, kind of useful blow of fate: The screen lit up with a text by my colleague informing me that our superiors had sent us an important email (I mean, technology these days!!) which perhaps requested my “proactive reaction.” He had just wanted to let me know so I wouldn’t be taken aback… And that’s how it all got rolling.

Having a faint idea of what this might be a about (something potentially involving a law suit), my heart started racing, my blood pumping. He had meant well, but the text did the exact opposite of what its sender wanted — from feeling at peace, vitalized, and centered due to the first half of the course I instantly went to panic gripping me. I have to be honest: my usual reaction would therefore have been tending to the matter immediately, no matter where or what I was currently doing. It’s like a really powerful force within me kicks in and swooshes everything out of my way so I can blast through and do my thing. The other day I basically hung up on my mother whom I see twice a year because she lives on a different continent. I am ashamed of it, but that’s the kind of “measures” I take when the bosses lift their eyebrows. Perhaps some of you can relate.

This time, however, I couldn’t take any action because, ironically, I had no time; I was forced to return to my little yoga mat in that beautiful room with that glowing candle.

It was out of the question to prolong the course break to do the exact opposite of being mindful, that much I knew. And so I more or less reluctantly sank down on my spot with my thoughts miles removed from the sanctuary I was actually sitting in, knowing I was probably going to spend the remainder of the course waiting for its end so I could FINALLY fix the problem. So I could check my phone. Then my email. Then think about the reply. Or should I not reply tonight? Was it really this urgent? You can’t tell me that these super important people actually care enough to check their mail after 9 tonight. I mean, my problem is probably a tiny fraction of their day; they’ll probably see my email tomorrow morning and shrug. This was all part of their pathetic little power play, really. They just wanted me to feel…

“Stress,” started the instructor. “Let me first elaborate on what happens to your body when you are experiencing acute stress.”

No need to explain, sir, I thought. Just look at me and you’ll know, because I am in fact having a quiet little nervous breakdown here, all by myself, amidst your fine circle here, and none of you even know. Gone was the amazing experience of the 20-minute breathing meditation we’d just done before the break — I had been so touched, it had gone SO well. Gone all the calmness in my center, the place of peace and quietude I had found during the first half of the evening. Instead, I was positively freaked out. A life-sustaining energy had been released that I now wasn’t allowed to burn off, and as a result I could barely sit there.

“With acute stress, before anything happens, your system registers something that you perceive as a threat.”

My breathing stopped. A threat. That’s actually true, I pondered. I hadn’t thought about it like this before, but yes, my system had registered a threat. I had gotten a message that warned me of something that might be bad. On top of it, I couldn’t go and figure out HOW bad it was. Obviously, this was a threat.

“The trigger itself is actually neutral — this is important! — but your brain interprets it as a threat. Once that happens, a series of things occur. Energy will be directed towards your muscles and your bones; you will feel instant tension in your tummy, your legs, your hands, your jaw. You are getting ready for a fight or flight reaction.”

Why, indeed. Now that he was narrating my experience, I could tell that my entire body was tense as an overcooked steak. Well, this is practical. The course always encourages us to step outside of ourselves for a minute and observe with great interest and curiosity what things do to us. What does anger do to me? Where do I feel it? What does impatience feel like? Now, this was what I call an opportunity: I was at that moment experiencing very acute stress and someone was giving me an exact catalogue of the physical reactions this triggered in me. Certainly a funny coincidence.

“Your immune system will, in that moment, shut down almost completely. Your cell renewal. Your digestion. All of it, shut down. Once you register danger, all of your body’s energy will be directed towards either attacking it or running because essentially, your system — harking back thousands of years — perceives this as a life or death type of thing. Your pulse rate will rise dramatically, your breath will quicken.”

Check. Check. Check.

This is, to weave in a small excursion, why chronically stressed people tend to have more infections and are constantly battling a cold (weakened immune system). It is also why their skin will age quicker (slowed cell renewal) and why they tend to have upset stomachs (indigestion). Lastly, it is also one of the reasons why chronically stressed individuals are more prone to heart problems. I learnt this quite a while ago, but it was a whole different thing being caught in the middle of it acutely, with someone pointing a finger at everything that was happening to me.

“Your cognitive functions will be kept at a minimum,” the teacher continued. “Calm, logical thinking will be turned off, instinctive behavior will kick in. You will notice your thinking becoming very narrow, cyclical, and your vision tunneled. This is, by the way, why it is physically IMPOSSIBLE for people with exam anxiety to actually think straight; those regions of their brain are quite literally turned off!”

Oh my. Yes. My thoughts had been going in circles. Finding a solution had been impossible, being caught and having to remain incapacitated in this room. And still, even though I knew there was no escape, because I was experiencing this… stress, I couldn’t let go. My system was bound in a repetitive spell of I need to make this right, I need to make this right, I need to make this right. NOW. If only I could make this right, right NOW. Why doesn’t he just get to the POINT. This had been the chant, and now I could see it. It was very interesting to see.

And in seeing, I suddenly found myself outside of me. Poor me, shrunk down on my little yoga mat. My system giving me a heart attack. I was hot, furious, fear-stricken. My thoughts grinding. I could see myself and felt with me. What a thing to go through just because someone wrote me a text message. Calmness started to settle. I felt safer again. I was here. In this room. I had gotten a text, not a death threat. Huge difference. HUGE.

Except that my gazillion-year-old system couldn’t tell the difference. Which is okay, because stress is technically not a negative thing — it is, on the contrary, very necessary and useful, but not over long periods of time. Stress is designed to be a short-term life-saver. Once the tiger is gone and we are up that tree, our bodies actually want to return to normal. Our energy is supposed to flow back into all the parts where it was drawn from; our stomachs, our immune system, our cell renewal, and also the rest of our brain, so it can take proper care of itself. So our digestion runs smoothly, our thinking is clear, dead cells are removed and replaced with fresh ones, intruders are fought off.

Lastly, the teacher went on to explain one more mind-blowing thing: he said that, once the neutral trigger (stressor) was registered as a threat and our fight or flight system got running, the reaction differed drastically depending on our personality. He showed us which brain regions were responsible for that step. Somewhere behind our forehead, our personality, our memories, and our patterns form. And that is where we generate common reactive patterns; a lot of which are learnt. Some might freeze. Some might attack. Some might get demonstratively cool about things. These are often, deep down,  learnt things. Which also gives us a say in it.

It fell like scales from my eyes, this was MY pattern — for the first time in my life I saw it so, so clearly: I am the girl who will go to any length to be… perfect. One-hundred-percent reliable. Who will do whatever it takes to let nobody wait; even outside of my regular work schedule. Even in my anti-stress course! Even if it’s about something people don’t actually give a damn about. Even if it concerns people that I actually don’t care for. Why? I’ll have to figure that out. But.

It surely was illuminating.

And — it was also ENRAGING. In the end, I sort of found back to that sanctuary. Sort of, because — having been able to detect this pattern — I was now observing myself being angry. (Aaand the process starts all over again… How does it feel? Where do you feel it? What does it do with you? It feels tense. In my throat. My stomach. My upper chest. My jaw. My eyes. It makes me want to punch someone. Perhaps I should also attend an anger management course right after the mindfulness-based-stress-reduction thing).

You could say that I went from one “bad” thing to the next; but the way I understand mindfulness, what is should go unjudged. Emotions are neither good nor bad; they surely FEEL good or bad, yet they have no inherent value, they are simply the inevitable reaction to the movements of the world around us (see my tiny post “Feelings”). In mindfulness, nothing is done with the beginning intention of change; it is simply taking a welcoming interest in what is at the moment, whatever it is. Whether it FEELS pleasant or unpleasant.

The purpose of stepping outside of yourself and observing things with curiosity yet without the immediate plan to change anything is to first of all realize THAT things are happening. THAT you have perceived something as a threat, even if it’s a text message. THAT your heart is racing, your blood is rushing, your ears are humming. That your thinking has become narrow, your breath pressed, your muscles tense. These things so often go down automatically that we often don’t even know they are happening. And they are weirdly interesting.

But as long as we are unaware of their existence, we have no choice. Because automated thought processes take over; we will act out of instinct, not out of who we choose to be.

Only in becoming mindful do we get to decide about the next step, because we interrupt the chain reaction of stress.

When we treat our body as a “plane for perceiving sensations,” as our teacher calls it, and take an honest and non-judgmental interest in it, that’s when we can step outside our racing minds for a moment.

Try it the next time you undergo stress. Or, to be more exact, fear. Or shame. Or anger. It is a very strange, peculiarly intriguing experience. If you can, pull your attention away from your thoughts and, just for 30 seconds, zoom into your body. What is happening where? Chances are that, before you’ll know it, you will hear your thoughts, but you are not so much IN them. You will be able to say: I am thinking these things because I am terrified. How would I approach this matter if I weren’t? How bad is it REALLY?

When our teacher asked us for a concrete example of acute stress, I raised my hand.

And what is the moral of the story? For the rest of the night I refused to check my email (ME! The perfect girl!!). I lit another candle at home and took the night off as I imagined did my superiors. This was, when seen a bit more objectively, not all that pressing, was it. They could wait. The world wouldn’t end if I replied the next morning during work hours. I was not a working machine, after all. I had a LIFE.

And when, after taking a few deep breaths and centering myself, I did check my email the next morning, things were not even half bad.