5 ways meditation can help ease emotional stress
I find shopping at the supermarket pretty unpleasant at the best of times. All that choice, over-packaging, noise and brutal lighting just doesn’t appeal. When it comes to buying groceries, I’m a stealth shopper. Shopping list. Target aisles. In. Out. Done.
Now with COVID containment measures in place, which in Singapore involves ‘Safe Entry’ protocols of temperature scanning, QR code scanning to register entry and exit in malls and supermarkets and social distancing in aisles and check-out queues, my days of being a stealth shopper have come to an excruciatingly slow and masked halt. It is absolutely impossible to execute a quick shop and you do not want to be in a rush or running late for another appointment.
When the world was just starting to wake up to the prospect of a pandemic a few months ago, supermarkets around the world became the scenes of some pretty ugly displays of toilet paper wars, trolley raiding, and expressions of fear and aggression.
Stress is an interesting thing. While it is a necessary response of the system to deal with heightened events, threats, and complications, our system is not designed to cope with high-stress for prolonged periods of time. We’re all familiar with the more obvious signs when our system is in a prolonged state of ‘high vigilance’. Our immune function falters. Our sleep is disturbed. Our digestive system can get knocked out of proper function. Some of us see it in skin irritations, break-outs or dandruff. Libido can take a dive along with mental clarity. Our bodies reliably signal the state and call for attention.
Prolonged stress also signals through our emotional state and this can be far more subtle and so subjective that we may not be aware of it, until, for example, we have a tense encounter during a pandemic, in a supermarket!
This is exactly what happened with me a couple of months ago, with possibly the most exquisitely dressed, emotionally stressed woman I have ever encountered.
I had been out riding my bike to get a break from the screen and a full day of writing. On the way home, I decided to pop into the supermarket for some fruit and snacks for my constantly ravenous teenagers. Thankfully, I found what I wanted and proceeded to stand on the line of red tape on the floor to mark the safe distance from the person in front of me, in the check-out queue.
Only two check-outs were open and there were clear straight lines of places to stand. When the person in front of me stepped forward to approach the counter, from the aisle next to me, a woman emerged, infuriated with me. Her jaw was tight. A vein bulged in her neck. Her voice was very strained and through gritted teeth, she snarled at me, “It is NOT your turn…!”
The amount of anger emanating from her was palpable. I could almost feel the electricity cracking and whipping in the air between us….and I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about.
“Excuse me, I don’t understand,” I said, stepping back because, by the look on her face, I thought she might throw a jar of something at me.
“I was waiting here first. I was waiting here. I saw you walk past and into this queue. How dare you….”
Again I was very confused. I looked at the red tape marks on the ground and the straight line to the check-out from where I stood. Then I stepped around the aisle and looked at where she must have been standing. It was clear she had been queuing in a line to a closed check-out.
Her breath was very shallow. She had beads of perspiration on her forehead and she was seething. I dropped my voice and slowed my speech. I could see she wasn’t in a good place, and told her that it looked like she was queuing towards a closed check-out. She turned and looked at where she’d been standing, blushed slightly, and then turned to me and very deliberately looked me up and down from my head to toes and back. She seemed to feel highly insulted by this observation and clearly felt that I had deliberately taken her spot. She felt personally attacked by my actions.
I wasn’t in a rush and told her that she was very welcome to go next in line to the open check-out. Again she felt she needed to defend her position and be right. She again very angrily made the point that it was rightfully her turn, but with a flourish of her hand and slightly high-pitched voice she declined the offer and rolled her eyes. I insisted. She threw back her head, dismissed me and walked briskly to the check-out.
And in a beautiful twist, the check-out that this lady was queuing for then opened and a sweet teenage girl who had been standing behind the lady and had observed the whole exchange, popped her head out from the aisle and said with a smile, ‘You go. We can alternate!’ Both the teenager and I were out of the shop before the stressed lady…which I’m guessing would not have helped how she felt either.
It’s a small example of prolonged emotional stress that we are seeing play out on the world-stage currently. This interaction held all of the telltale signs of heightened emotional stress:
- Feeling anxious
- Inability to hold a different view
- Highly reactive response patterns
- Inappropriate anger and projected blame and criticism
- Defensive mindset/victim mentality
- Feelings of isolation or tendency to draw away through condescension or passive-aggressive responses
- Inability to lift one’s mood
- Physical tension and heat
Here are five key ways an established meditation practice helps with emotional stress:
1. The pause-point
The very nature of meditation is a practice of ‘paying attention’. With regular practice, we train the mind back from the reactive interface with life, into present awareness. This creates a pause-point between what we experience and how we choose to respond.
2. Regulated anger-arousal
Regular meditators are shown to have less stress hormones in their bloodstreams. One of the main reasons for this is the effect meditation has on the brain. Of the five main physical brain re-structuring that regular meditation causes, a notable one is the shrinking of the Amygdala, which is responsible for anger arousal. The plasticity of the brain is fascinating as it constantly reforms to support our operating mode. With pause-points established and the ability to see situations for what they actually are rather than through an emotionally-stressed filter, that ‘shoot from the hip and think later’ function of the brain becomes regulated, and the part of the brain that facilitates it actually physically shrinks. The resultant release of stress hormones into the bloodstream becomes regulated.
3. Holding different perspectives
Another fascinating brain change with regular meditation is the rebuilding of the Left Hippocampus. This is a part of our brain that literally gets eroded by high levels of stress hormones. It is responsible for memory and recall, and I’m sure all of us have experienced an inability to remember the shopping list or recall a name when we are under the pump. Another function of the Left Hippocampus is our ability to shift perspectives and change our mind. During high emotional stress, this ability is essential, whether you are feeling attached to your own viewpoint, or need to summon empathy for someone else’s.
4. Utilising the breath
The conscious use of breath is key in all meditation. Mindful breathing connects us with the effects of the breath on the system, especially in the immediate calming of high emotional reactivity. Once this awareness of the breath is established, our breathing becomes both a useful marker when we are over-wrought, by flagging as short, shallow and more rapid, and also a useful tool to calm the system and pause, listen and choose a response.
5. Cultivating empathy
Another wonderful effect of regular meditation is a rise in the sense of connectivity with others and life. This is facilitated by another amazing brain-change through regular practice. The frontal-parietal junctures of the brain are where conscious empathy is enabled, which is coupled with a felt emotion in the heart. This part of the brain also strengthens and physically ‘beefs up’ with regular meditation. There are also some beautiful meditations that utilise visualisation and mantra to deliberately cultivate the vibration of compassion in the system. By engaging in meditation in regular sits, these beautiful aspects are cultivated within us and inform how we respond in situations – such as mine described above.
With the softer, more expanded states that regular meditation brings, we tend to slip more into the felt flow of life too. There’s a right timing and field of opportunities that always surround us. However, it’s something we can miss when we’re bound in the tightness and separation of emotional stress. Just like the extra check-out opening and a sweet teenager appearing, in perfect timing!
If you wish to start mindful breathing and meditation for emotional stress, do get in touch and take our online introduction to meditation course, Return. You can also visit our website to explore courses and useful content to guide you along your journey to healing, self-discovery and mindful living.
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