How To Stay Calm + Focused In The Midst of Chaos + Beyond

June 4, 2020

We are living in unique times. We are treading uncharted territory and it’s a shared experience. We are collectively being called to learn new skills and make quick-thinking important decisions whilst we are collectively exhausted at the same time. Never have we been more connected while disconnected simultaneously.

In this world of chaos we have lost our connection to the deepest aspect of ourselves, which is to be silent, to listen, to connect. To illustrate further, not so long ago I believed I couldn’t sit with myself, nor go silent. I was extreme with my fitness regime, I ate healthily and I believed I was healthy. However, the reality was quite different. I was sleeping badly, often fatigued and slowly burning myself out. Until one day I went for a run and the batteries ran out. I could barely walk home and the days that followed brought me to a full stop.

“I can’t run anymore”

I remember being so upset that I couldn’t practice hill sprints, off road running and speed drills on the treadmill. I kept repeating in my mind, “I can’t run anymore.” I said it so much that one day it slowly dawned on me it was a metaphor to how I was living life. I couldn’t run anymore from my emotions, behaviours, relationships, negative self-talk and lack of respect for my body. I got the message.

I began to slow down and listen to my body’s needs. I researched the mind-body arena, reading books by renowned teachers, listened to audio practices, went to guided classes, but nothing seemed to work or stick. I felt frustrated by the process, it didn’t resonate and I was close to giving up. Luckily, I found a teacher who taught a structured, thorough, in-person course with a technique from a mindfulness meditation tradition that was rooted in science and understood mind-body connection. The first sessions were challenging, but after a couple of weeks I was sleeping longer than three hours, which was my normal at the time, and I felt calmer and more in control of my thoughts and emotions.

By experiencing silence and presence my mind and my body started to repair, rejuvenate and heal. My depression started to lift, I learned to process sadness, the fear and anxiety began to dissipate, and so much more. All I had to do was close my eyes, focus on my breath and be present. Mindfulness meditation became my source, relieving me from my darkest and deepest wounds and it helped me to to be more compassionate towards myself and to others.

The fight or flight response

The body’s response to stress is known as a “fight or flight response,” an immensely important survival strategy when the body is under perceived threat. Our muscles tense, heartbeat and blood pressure increase, perception turns to tunnel vision, and the body tries to get rid of unnecessary weight i.e. the contents of the bladder and bowel. This reflex enabled our primeval ancestors to either take flight or stand and fight. That way, one could escape the danger, or face it head on.

But stress due to heavy workload, our relationships, symptoms of disease, sleep deprivation, or worries about the future don’t cease to exist after a short sprint or a short battle. It’s the slow cooking day-to-day accumulative stress that we have less control over that’s problematic to our health as it has the tendency to become chronic. And from my own experience (and counselling others) it is evident that each of us has a tipping point.

Cortisol: the stress hormone

Cortisol is a hormone made in the adrenal glands and released during stress. Cortisol affects many functions of the body. It can help control blood sugar levels, regulate metabolism, help reduce inflammation, increase white blood cells, and assist with memory formulation (1, 2). It has a controlling affect on salt and water balance in the body and helps control blood pressure. All of these functions make cortisol a critical hormone to protect overall health and wellbeing.

Short term stress is not a problem in itself. However, like everything in nature, stress has two sides and time and again research confirms that long term stress contributes to hypertension, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammation of the gut, skin disorders, head, neck and back pain, autoimmune disease and allergies. Because stressed nerves communicate with our immune cells and disturb the signalling molecules and messaging cycles.

A lack of sleep as an indicator for stress

Sleep is the most delicate sensor of stress. In fact, about 15 to 20 percent of Americans suffer from sleep deprivation and insomnia as a result of everyday stress (3). But ensuring that stress doesn’t arise in the first place is becoming more and more difficult for all of us. Stress is aggravated when we feel we have no control over things, for example, it’s why so many high achievers suffer from burnout – often due to sleep deprivation and multi-tasking with little to no time for relaxation.

Meditation as medicine

It’s hardly possible to lead a life without stress. Life presents itself with challenges and this is where meditation comes in. While it’s strongly linked to the pillars of a healthy lifestyle: daily movement, a nutrient dense, whole food diet and sufficient self-care, meditation focuses on the inter-relationships between the psyche, the immune system and the nervous system. To achieve this it exercises mental techniques and uses the breath as a resource to support the body’s abilities of self-regulation and self-healing.

The fact is, every time you meditate you are naturally medicating. During meditation the body creates chemicals and hormones that bring us into balance, whilst decreasing hormones that we have over-produced because of stress. In a nutshell, meditation creates healthy chemistry and hormones.

Here are some of the chemicals produced during meditation that help us thrive:

  • DHEA – counteracts stress and increases lifespan
  • Serotonin – regulates sleep and appetite
  • Dopamine – the feel good chemical, which plays an important role in mood, energy, attitude, happiness and motivation
  • GABA – the calming neurotransmitter, helping us to relax
  • Acetylcholine – for processing information and memory
  • Endorphins – the feel good chemicals our bodies release when we experience pain
  • Melatonin – the body’s master sleep hormone is boosted

Mindfulness meditation: the recipe for stress reduction

Over the past ten years, mindfulness meditation has spread widely. With mindfulness, you’re not concentrating on anything, nor are you repeating any specific words or mantras. Instead, you are silent and aware. You are aware of what is happening in your body, in your thoughts and feelings – without judging anything.

Mindfulness mainly uses two techniques: the body scan, where the entire body is scanned from head to toe with the aid of perception. Over time, it becomes possible to feel where pain and blockages are actually located. The second technique of mindfulness meditation, is awareness toward the breath. A considerable number of studies have been able to prove the great effectiveness of mindfulness meditation on stress reduction in the treatment of many chronic diseases. They show a clear healing effect or relief of symptoms in chronic pain, depression, and stress (4).

In my own health journey, mindfulness meditation has been truly beneficial. The interruptions of “noise” enabled me to push aside anxieties about the future and return to the present, to the moment. This in turn reduced tension, relieved physical and emotional pain, and improved the functioning of my immune system (5). When I first started practicing, the most incredible effect for me was although the pain from RA didn’t actually disappear, it was perceived as less debilitating. It follows that meditation not only enables us to deal with pain better, but leads to a real reduction of pain perception in the brain – the actual place from which pain originates (6).

Mindfulness meditation is incredibly soothing, particularly for those with chronic disease, since it trains us to deal with symptoms that cannot be eliminated through therapy alone. And the fact that lifelong complete health is not attainable for most people is what makes meditation so valuable. It’s not for nothing that stress researcher Jon Kabat Zinn entitled his first book, Full Catastrophe Living. Chaos, grief and illness are a part of life. Meditation can help us to learn to be happy and experience joy in spite of this realisation.

Here are four reasons why meditation is worthwhile:

  • it causes the parasympathetic “relaxation, rest, relax, digest response” in the body to activate, as opposed to the sympathetic “fight or flight response”
  • it helps us find balance in our severely accelerated lives
  • it sharpens our ability to concentrate and focus
  • it is medication for the soul and can have a comforting effect in the way we approach our everyday lives

How to get started

Focusing on the breath is the best way to get started. In my daily practice, I like to focus on alternate nostril breathing to first quieten my mind and then switch to belly breathing to connect to my body. This is something that has evolved over time and by no means the only way, but may prove to be a useful start point in your own journey.

Try to find time for it on a daily basis. Mornings are better than evenings, because the brain is not so overloaded. And you’ll be better prepared for your day and will suffer less stress. I often try to bookend my day with a short practice in the morning and another at the end of the day. Start with ten minutes, but then seek to increase the duration if you can.

Find a comfortable seated position – kneel on your feet, sit in a simple cross-legged posture, or sit straight on a chair. Light a candle, burn some incense (I love white sage or Palo Santo), set your timer and go. Don’t wait – meditate.

The key to a sustainable effect

From my own experience with mindfulness meditation I know this; if you fully commit to it, you can free yourself from even the deepest worries and distance yourself from what is troubling you. Of course, pain and grief remain, but they don’t drain you of energy so much. And finally, mindfulness is connected to basic virtues: a curious attitude, compassion, empathy, joy and patience. Amen to that.

“We take care of the future best by taking care of the present now”

– Jon Kabat-Zinn

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Resources:

Books

Full Catastrophe Living, Revised Edition: How to cope with stress, pain and illness. Jon Kabat-Zinn. Piatkus. 2013.

Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment and Your Life. Jon Kabat-Zinn. Sounds True; Reprint Edition. 2016.

Coming To Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn. Piatkus. 2005.

Falling Awake: How to Practice Mindfulness in Everyday Life. Jon Kabat-Zinn. Piatkus. 2018.

How to Breathe: 25 Simple Practices for Calm, Joy, and Resilience. Ashley Neese. September Publishing. 2019.

Audio

Guided Mindfulness Meditation – Series 1, 2 & 3. Jon Kabat Zinn. Click here.

Digital workshops

Breath work: Ashley Neese – click here

Apps

Headspace: Meditation & Sleep

Insight Timer: Meditation for Sleep & Anxiety

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References

(1) Firdaus S. Dhabhar, “Effects of Stress on Immune Function: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful,” Immunologic Research 58, no. 2–3 (2014): 193–210.

(2) Shira Meir Drexler and Oliver T. Wolf, “The Role of Glucocorticoids in Emotional Memory Reconsolidation,” Neurobiology of Learning and Memory 142 (2017): 126–34. (ref 3)

(3) Maurice M. Ohayon, “Epidemiology of Insomnia: What We Know and What We Still Need to Learn,” Sleep Medicine Reviews 6, no. 2 (2002): 97–111.

(4) Paul Grossman, Ludger Niemann, Stefan Schmidt, and Harald Walach, “Mindfulness based Stress Reduction and Health Benefits,” Journal of Psychosomatic Research 57, no. 1 (2004): 35–43.

(5) Jenny Gu, Clara Strauss, Rod Bond, and Kate Cavanagh, “How Do Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy and Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction Improve Mental Health and Wellbeing? A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Mediation Studies,” Clinical Psychology Review 37 (2015): 1–12.

(6) David W. Orme-Johnson, Robert H. Schneider, Young D. Son, Sanford Nidich, and Zang-Hee Cho, “Neuroimaging of Meditation’s Effect on Brain Reactivity to Pain,” NeuroReport 17, no. 12 (2006): 1359–63.

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