Hey, tell me the truth—how stressed have you felt this last year?
I’m a toxicologist and stress management speaker (and coach), and I’m not ashamed to tell you that I’ve never been as stressed out as I have been this past year.
In all fairness, this has been an unprecedented time. Never before have we had to deal with this much change, uncertainty, disruption, pain, loss, and suffering as we have in 2020.
Our life as we knew it has changed.
How are we supposed to handle and adapt to all these new life circumstances and overcome so many adversities without burning out?
The truth is, we aren’t!
We’re collectively and individually struggling, as we’re not physiologically designed to handle this much change at one time without running into trouble.
We can see many signs of our collective struggle in the increase of so many alarming statistics since January 2020. The number of adults reporting anxiety or depression has increased and so have, substance, domestic, and child abuse and of course the suicide rate. These factors have increased the demands on addiction and mental health professionals at the same time that they are dealing with their personal pandemic-related struggles.
So, are we doomed to an avalanche of suffering or is there a different way to deal with all this stress?
Well, It’s Mental Health Awareness Month and as the founder of Myndzen (an unconventional stress management organization), it is my mission to help change our minds to improve our wellbeing and performance, so we can thrive in a stressful world without burning out.
So, I want to offer you some insights based on the most common questions and struggles that I’ve helped people with in 2020.
Because, in spite of the pressure and strain we’ve experienced, living through a pandemic, I do have some good news.
We can change our mind to be happier, stronger and more resilient!
And when we change our mind we can relate to life situations more wisely, so that we’re in control of how we feel and function.
So, if you’re tired of feeling overwhelmed and exhausted by the endless worries, anxieties, and fears that seem to completely take over your life without your permission, then I would like to invite you to change your mind about stress.
Why change your mind about stress?
“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”
Hey, look, I think you have a beautiful mind.
It’s the part of you that creates, innovates, imagines, and quite literally creates your reality.
Everything you are, what you do for a living, what you studied in college, how you parent, and how you show up in your relationships, are all the result of something you once thought!
The caveat is that in order for your mind to support all these amazing aspects of you, it has to be free, uncluttered, and spacious.
And what our mind has been trained to do really well (from both our collective evolution and our personal history) is to try to predict and forecast potential, future catastrophes.
This results in your mind getting overwhelmed with endless worries, anxieties, and fears, who appear to be running your life on auto-pilot without your permission, causing a lot of problems!
What we think the problem is
When life does not go according to plan, the struggle is real.
And without much thought, we believe that the cause of our problems are all the things that stress us out (that we have no control over).
We, therefore, spend our life trying to get to a different place, where we think we’ll be able to relax and enjoy our life more.
For example, we hope we can get to a place where we’re not dealing with a pandemic, we don’t have to wear masks, we’re able to travel, hug, and be with the people we love, and we don’t have to deal with the pain and grief of loss.
And on a personal level we also live our life in a constant effort to get someplace else as well; perhaps to a place where we have a nicer body, an amazing connection with our partner, or where our teenagers cooperate with us.
Now, don’t get me wrong, all those things are important and we all need to do our part to create healthier relationships with our selves, others and the world we’re a part of.
But, there are two specific issues with this way of thinking.
- We’re relying on external things that we can’t control to feel good internally.
- We can’t create healthier bodies, relationships or communities, or realize any goal, when our brain is hi-jacked by stress!
And I know all too well how easy it is to fall into that way of thinking!
I lived most of my life thinking that stress was the price I had to pay to be successful, and that only someday (when I had accomplished enough and was good enough), could I finally relax and enjoy my life.
But living my life with my brain on stress mode, relying on external things I couldn’t control for my stress relief, didn’t serve me well.
Although I checked off all my educational, professional, and financial goals at a relatively young age (and even synthesized cancer drugs in the laboratory), not only did I not find fulfillment, but instead I burned out and suffered a significant spinal injury as a direct result.
This unfortunate turn of events happened because I made a critical mistake:
I thought that external things I had no control over were the cause of my stress, and therefore, I kept looking in the wrong direction for stress relief. I looked outside of myself, instead of inside.
I needed to change my mind!
What is the real problem with stress?
Give me any problem you’re struggling with, and I can show you how the root of that problem is stress!
But to be honest with you, one of the main reasons we’re having such a hard time solving our stress related problems, (like insistent worry, emotional eating, difficulty sleeping) is because we’re looking in the wrong direction!
The root of our problems with stress, (what stresses us out) are not all the things that are happening out there that we have no control over (like the trajectory of the pandemic, what others are doing, or the economy).
The root of our problem is how we relate to those stressors. How long we allow other’s actions and the stress of the world, to make themselves at home in our body and mind impacting how we feel and function.
In fact, the real problem with stress involves a “series of unfortunate events” that results in us over-using our stress response far longer than what we’re physiologically designed to handle, without harming ourselves!
The first component of this problem is how our brain and nervous system have been shaped for our survival.
Have you noticed that even when nine out of ten things go well on any given day, we can’t help but fixate on the one thing that didn't go according to plan?
Well, that’s because our brain has evolved with a strong negative bias and a very high efficiency in looking for threats and mobilizing our systems for defense.
Yet on a day to day basis, our amazing brain’s efficiency in looking for trouble to prepare us to fight, flee, or freeze, means that without our intervention, our default brain wiring will fill our minds with worries, 95% of which will only ever happen in our minds!
The second component of the problem is that when our brain gets stuck on stress mode, we temporarily lose access to the brilliant, problem-solving part of our brain. And, by the way, this only happens for energy efficiency. Our brain only shuts down its evolved methodical regions to ensure all your energy and functions are directed to your large muscles to address the threat (regardless of whether it’s real, or our fears about the uncertainty of the future).
The third component of the real problem with stress, is that without the inside view of how stress affects our brains’ functioning, we mistake that compromised state for a personal flaw.
We then judge and criticize ourselves, which is perceived by our brain as a threat to our self-concept, which inadvertently keeps us entrapped under the spell of our stress response.
So, as you can see, stress is not the real problem and, quite frankly, neither are you!
The real problem is that our brain has been hardwired to reflexively react when things are different from how we would like them to be; which means we get stuck under the spell of our stress response, sometimes for hours, sometimes for days and sometimes for years.
But can you now see how we’re rigged by evolution to have no peace of mind?
And at this point you may be thinking: “Ok Tzeli, If the real problem with stress is how our brain has been shaped to over-react to (real or perceived) threats, how would changing our mind change things for the better?”
Well guess what?
Your mind’s attention can change your brain!
The Nobel prize-winning concept of neuroplasticity has revealed that changing our mind can actually change our brain in very favorable ways.
We don’t have to live our life by the default, reflexive reactivity we have evolved with for our survival.
We can change our mind, which will in turn change our brain and our lives for the better.
Now, the fact that our mind can greatly influence our body, isn’t something new.
The Ancient Greek philosophers offered us much wisdom about how we can work with our minds to support the peak performance and functioning of our bodies.
But 2,500 years later, science caught up with what the Ancient Greek philosophers had been saying all along.
Our brain, sitting comfortably inside our skull, relies on our mind and our senses to assess what’s happening out there in the world.
So, it can determine whether it should mobilize us to fight, flee, or freeze, or whether it’s safe for us to relax, connect, invent, problem-solve, and express our full potential.
In other words, as incredible as your brain is, the software of your brain is your mind!
The mind is what regulates energy and information flow. (Dan Siegel, 2010)
If we allow the default-mode of our mind to run our life without our permission, our mind will give the marching orders to our brain to mobilize us to fight, flee, or freeze, creating what we call stress.
And the thing is, our mind shapes our brain and our brain shapes our mind.
So, the more our mind’s attention and power is used to worry, ruminate, and fear, the more nerve cells fire and wire together in our brain, increasing our brains negative bias and its efficiency in activating our stress response.
Unless we choose to change our mind!
A practical view of how to change your mind about stress
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that created them.” Albert Einstein
I know I’ve shared with you a lot of information, but at least now know the truth: stress is not the real problem an neither are you. The real problem is that our brains efficiency in identifying threats and mobilizing our systems for defense, results in us over-using our stress response beyond our capacity to do so without harming ourselves.
But you also know that the most effective way to get in the way of the default reactivity and rewire your brain to be happier is by changing your mind!
But if you’re anything like me you may be thinking,
“All this sounds great, but when my mind is going nuts I can’t control it! How do I take all this science and wisdom and apply it in my life to change it for the better”?
Because I came across the same challenge, through myndzen, I made it my life’s mission to organize the extensive mind-body research into a practical framework that you can customize and apply in your life as you’re living it, without having to move to the Himalayas!
But you don’t have to follow the myndzen stress management framework to change your mind and your life for the better!
I want to leave you with the premise of the myndzen (unconventional) stress management method; It offers you a different view of stress and a different stress management goal; You can use them as your guide, to become a scientist in your own life, and to populate your unique GPS map to the less stressful and more fulfilling life you’ve always wanted.
You can change your mind about stress.
Changing your mind involves offering it something else to do than what our past conditioning has trained it to do. and it begins by guiding its attention to a different perspective.
So, we’ve all heard stress being described as “the epidemic of the century” (World Health Organization).
I want to invite you to change your mind about stress right now!
If we review the actual definition of stress by the father of stress, Dr. Hans Selye, stress is simply the adaptive response of your body to change.
When things are different from how we want them to be, our brain will activate our stress response in order to redirect our energy and functions to support us, to meet the demands for change and stay safe from threats.
Stress mode, is just a different way our bodies use our energy and functions to rise to demands for change and stay safe from threats.
It only becomes maladaptive when we over-use it; when we allow external stressors to make themselves at home, impacting how we feel and function beyond our adaptive capacity.
However, contrary to popular belief, (that we have no control over our stress level, like when dealing with a pandemic), the way our stress level increases, happens in a very methodical way: what we think, determines how we feel, which determines what we do.
And naturally, without our intervention, our brain’s evolution, and our personal history, will lead us to worry, ruminate catastrophize, and drain all of our energy to try to predict and forecast all the things that may go wrong in the future.
But do you see what I see?
The space between how things are and how we would like them to be is our opportunity to change things for the better!
How we relate to situations that are not aligned with our ideal version is 100% within our control.
We can change our mind about our stress management goal.
What is the most challenging aspect of your life at the moment?
The uncertainty of the future? A shaky economy? Social injustice? How carelessly others are responding to coronavirus? Or have the restrictions of the pandemic placed a lot of strain in your relationship with your significant other, or your children?
Now, take a deep breath and ask yourself: What about this situation (specifically) is challenging for you?
You may notice that as difficult as any life situation may be, what’s keeping us up at night, is not actually the situation in and of itself, but what we think about the situation.
If for example working from home with your spouse has caused disconnection between you, the disconnection in and of itself is something that’s within your control to remedy. The thoughts about the potential demise of the relationship however, are what fill your mind with worries, anxieties and fears right?
So, what if instead of depending on all those external things that we can’t control to change in order to feel better internally, we instead focus on cultivating our ability to deal with external challenges without allowing them to overwhelm us or derail us?
You can shift your internal state by what you allow your mind’s attention to focus on!
And changing your mind comes down to giving your mind something else to do rather than worry, fear, ruminate, or catastrophize.
For example, when we’re too stressed to think straight and we relate to our diminished cognitive functioning via self-judgment, we can train our mind to replace it with self-compassion.
When we feel overwhelmed by our brain’s negative bias, we can gently guide our mind out of that state by offering it a gratitude practice.
There are countless resources, practices and strategies that science has revealed can support us to change our mind and rewire our brain from its evolved stress mode to its beautiful optimal functioning state.
Mindfulness, meditation, neurolinguistic programing, and mind mapping, are just a handful of ways science has shown are highly effective in changing our minds to improve our wellbeing and happiness; the list is endless.
But it all begins with choosing to create some space between us and our thoughts so we don’t get overwhelmed and derailed by them, and wisely respond to life situations instead of reflexively reacting (that’s what mindfulness is all about).
And, once our mind is on board with this new approach of responding to stressors (where instead of depending on things we can’t control, we take back control of how we respond) we can then open the door to also working with our body and emotions to further boost our internal, resources and resilience against stress.
Bringing it all together
I know we’ve been misled to believe that things outside of our control have to change, for our life to become less stressful and more satisfying.
But in reality, the happiness and balance we’re looking for out there, can only be found within.
If you’re in a positive state of mind (let’s say when you’re in love and someone criticizes you or you don’t get the promotion you’re after), you feel disappointed but you also let it roll off your back and move on with your day.
Yet, if you’re feeling overwhelmed and defeated and you’re running on empty, a failure, a mistake, or an adverse circumstance can really take you off balance.
I know we’re all struggling to find ways to deal with the new world that living through a pandemic has plopped on our lap.
And we’re all trying our best to discover a tiny thread of a silver lining, that we can perhaps pull out, and, dare I say, bounce forward to an even better reality.
But I hope in your journey, you will remember that changing your mind about stress and harnessing its power to help you live the life you’ve always wanted is really important.
You know why?
Because you’re really important!
You matter; the quality of your life matters.
You have a purpose to fulfill and gifts to share with the rest of us in this world, and I know that you cannot do that when your (beautiful) true nature, your amazing brain and energy are hi-jacked by stress.
But I’m here to tell you that taking your power back from stress is 100% within your control.
And it all begins with you choosing to change your mind, one thought, one breath, one practice, and one day at a time.