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Reframing Stress

Words from Flow member, founder of Insight Timer, and meditation teacher Nicholas Plowman.

It is said that “there are no stressful situations, only stressful reactions.” In times of rapid, unexpected change it can be a little annoying to have our valid, mostly-normal, stress reactions labeled with throwaway conclusions like the aforesaid statement… so I propose two things.  

First, we find a way to reframe the implied challenge.  Instead of calling a situation “stressful” we can shift our thinking and label it as “demanding.”  Rather than running the narrative that we are just “coping” or “surviving” a “stressful” situation, we gently remind ourselves that we are responding to a series of challenges or demands, which enables us to claim back the high-ground; this is empowering.  We find strength in the framing of words and therefore how we perceive the situation that we find ourselves in.

Second, we work on how to respond to life’s demands.  An analogy that is often used in the meditation game describes the “conscious cinema.”  Put simply, our life is a blockbuster movie but how good it is will depend on where we are sitting in our cinema.  In the first few rows or, as is often the case, with one’s face up against the screen, our movie is no good at all.  It’s just an overwhelming mass of distorted colours and sounds.  In order to cope with the demands this close to the screen, we are most likely self-medicating (alcohol, drugs, nicotine etc.) and are less likely to appreciate, or are unaware of, what is going on around us in the present moment.  Any meaningful connections to friends, family etc. are all a faint whisper and anything ‘beautiful’ comes at the bottom of a bottle, recreational drugs, or day-after-day of obsessive work.  Run this model for long enough and the stress, tension and fatigue that has accrued in our nervous system from the constant state of flight/flight (or freeze), coupled with an unhealthy lifestyle, and we will be removed from our cinema earlier than we would otherwise have expected i.e. we die, or get chronically ill etc. 

However, there is a spot in our conscious cinema that is mostly pleasant and enjoyable.  From this place the demands of our lives are met in an appropriate way and we are available for all our relationships in a healthy manner.  Living a balanced life, we will have engaging and fulfilling relationships with our friends, family, food, social media, our work…  We are enjoying the aspects that make up the film of our life.

How do we get ourselves back all those rows?!  Going for the big bang (for example, going away on retreat once a year) rarely lasts, mostly because it’s unsustainable in that our nervous system, our physiology, needs to be brought along for the ride.  We can make the sweeping decision to be alcohol free for thirty days (which brings us back in our conscious cinema, momentarily) only to fall off the wagon in a blaze of glory (thereby smashing headlong into the screen at the front of the cinema). Why?  Our intellect gets ahead of our body and when the urges become too great we give in, quickly (solid goal, poorly executed), because our nervous system is still processing the long-term effects of a continuous heroine-like drip of adrenaline, cortisol and other stress-induced chemicals.

So, we get ourselves back in our conscious cinema by adopting small, incremental, daily techniques, which slowly but surely offset the “stress set” with what we call the “bliss set.”  These include endorphins, serotonin and dopamine, which our brain secretes when we adopt practices in our lives like meditation, regular exercise and high-grade experiences.

As the saying goes, “How do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time…” – so we can apply the same analogy to making changes in our daily lives.  For me, this involves implementing some of the following daily techniques, gently and over a period of a few weeks.  

  1. Twice-daily meditation: I practice (and teach) Vedic Meditation.  This is a twice-daily, 20-minute mantra-based practice, which is taught in-person.  A lot of the traditional meditation techniques are only taught in-person.  However, if you can’t get to a teacher for the next little while there are plenty of online options, which include apps (Insight Timer, Headspace & Calm, which are the three largest by users and content offerings) or web-based tools (Insight Timer & YouTube).  There is also a myriad of live meditation offerings now available via Instagram and Zoom.  I particularly enjoy Eddie Stern’s daily pranayama instruction (www.instagram.com/eddiestern) – he is a well-known Ashtanga teacher in NYC whom you can catch during our evening in Sydney or replay it when you wake the next day.
  2. Change your State:  This is a simple direction to get the heart rate up and get the blood moving.  Tony Robbins loves this one.  I find if I can jump on the spot for 25 jumps to the north, south, east and west, my mood will have shifted immediately, which provides motivation for other activities. 
  3. Support the body & digestion:  Two easy ones… a) scrape your tongue with a metal tongue scraper upon waking and before drinking anything; this removes Ama, which is the toxic, white viscous substance on your tongue.  In Ayurveda, the removal of Ama is a key principle of daily living.  This is also supported by b) drinking/sipping hot water throughout the day as it gets everything moving and is a gentle start to our daily hydration whilst also removing impurities from our system.
  4. As my work pattern has changed recently, I have made a few changes to my day.  As I’m less caught up on the “9-5” routine, I have been experimenting with different times for doing things.  I wake up 30mins earlier (5am) and get out in the dark with my dog.  If I wake in the middle of the night, I get up and walk outside to take in the night air.  As I’m at home each afternoon, I will read and rest in the early afternoon (even with two teenage daughters and 3-month old baby girl!)  Instead of watching Netflix etc. until late, I am going to bed at 9.30am and reading again (which improves the sleep cycle).  As with all experiments, I am open to changing how my new day hangs together.

Modern living brings with it more and more challenges, none as demanding as what we are all now experiencing as a collective.  I invite you to consider adding a few of these practices into your daily routine to help ease this period and see how you go. 

Nicho Plowman: Vedic Meditation Teacher & Co-Founder, Insight Timer.

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