Experiencing fear is part of being human. It was built into our operating system to keep us safe.
When our lives are threatened, our stress response triggers us into ‘fight or flight’ mode to quickly expel the danger from our presence.
These short-bursts of fear are essential for our survival.
But, What Happens When our Fear is Constant?
While short bursts of fear are meant to keep us safe, living in fear does the opposite…
When our sympathetic nervous system (‘fight or flight’) is triggered for long periods of time, we feel its detrimental affects.
Our bodies are not meant to sustain this mode for long.
Our bodies CANNOT sustain this mode for long.
So, what actually happens to us as a result?
Fear Reduces Our Body’s Ability To Function
In ‘fight or flight’ mode, our body suspends energy that is needed for other parts of the body. It directs all energy towards the perceived threat.
When the threat disappears, our body returns to normal, sharing the energy among the body’s systems.
But when the threat does not disappear…
When we are always fearful of something….
Our stress response hoards that energy.
It leaves nothing for the rest of the body to function properly.
Our Immune System Takes a Hit.
Our immune system doesn’t receive any energy to produce the cells it needs to keep our bodies safe.
Our ability to fight off diseases and infection is reduced significantly!
We become prone to illness.
The Whole World is Living in Fear…
And while there is lots to be afraid of, accepting a life of stress is not serving anyone. It does not serve YOU!
People are afraid because they want to stay safe.
But fear is what is preventing safety…
So… What Can We Do to Keep Our Fears at Bay?
Here are a few tips to get you started!
Tip #1: Turn off the News! Although the news is supposed to keep us “informed,” it also sends constant messages of worry and fear into our brains. The news turns fear into a part of our subconscious.
I promise, it will not kill you to turn off the news every now and then… in face, it might SAVE you!
Tip #2: Social Media Detox! I get it, social media is another way we stay “informed,” but constant scrolling on social media is another way of penetrating more fearful news into our brain and subconscious.
It also promotes comparison. We compare ourselves to others. We get depressed over all that we lack. But, we see only the “best” of peoples lives on social media – not necessarily their REAL life…
Tip #3: Get Outside in Nature! Reconnect with the real world! Being in nature, we get out of our own heads and away from our fears. Nature takes us to the present moment.
Nature also triggers the parasympathetic response, which is the opposite as our stress response! This allows our body and minds to rest, relax, and restore energy.
mindfulness, in essence, is our natural state of being; it is living in and embracing the present moment.
It releases us from all those swirling thoughts in our heads, and brings our focus into the now.
Don’t get me wrong, I know it is an extremely simple concept but it can seem complicated and hold more weight than it seems!
There are even a ton of benefits from incorporating mindfulness practices into your life. Some, you may haven’t even realized.
Yes, Mindfulness is bringing awareness to what is going on around you. And of course, focusing on the world around you brings you out of your own head and reduces anxious and fearful thoughts.
But what else does mindfulness do?
I want to introduce a new term to you (maybe you’ve heard this one before… it’s quite the mouthful!).. It may help you understand the power that lies behind mindfulness.
The study of the effect of the mind on health and resistance to disease
I heard about this term about 3 years ago in a book I read by Dr. Gabor Mate. If you don’t know who he is, Dr. Gabor Mate is a physician and internationally renowned speaker who specializes in addiction, childhood development, and the relationship of stress and illness to the body. His book, that I read, is titled: When the Body Says No – The Cost of Hidden Stress.
This term stood out in my mind. I mean, just look at the word! It took me a couple of tries to make sure I was getting the pronunciation just right.. But mostly, it gave a name to something that I had understood, but couldn’t quite explain.
Even though I had never heard the term psychoneuroimmunology before, now that I understood it, I realized I had already read a lot about it…
I love learning about the inner workings of us humans and our biology. In the past, I’d studied the placebo and nocebo effect a lot. As well as epigenetics (the study of how our behaviours and environment influence our gene expressions). Realizing, all of those were perfect examples of psychoneuroimmunology- where mindset and thoughts dictate reality.
I read many books with stories of instances where a patient’s mindset can have a direct impact on their healing process. And their likelihood to get ill again. Even instances where a particular mindset was the reason for illness in the first place.
Even within my classroom walls, I realized teaching my students to have a growth mindset was psychoneuroimmunology hard at work! Aiding kids to think in a positive mindset makes them more likely to reach their goals, AND creates happier and healthier kids!
I’d seen it all around me and learned all about it in my reading endeavors, but never really knew it had a name… until now! After naming it, I began to see patterns of psychoneuroimmunology all around me!
In my classroom, in the books I read, and even within my own family.
My sister is someone who has suffered from depression and chronic migraines almost all of her life. She has them quite regularly and was even put on a prescription medication to help her ease the pain of her migraines. It helped for a short while, but overtime, her body adjusted to the medication and she wasn’t getting results.
I started to pay more attention to her migraines. When she got them, and how often. I started to notice an interesting pattern… Her migraines always subsided when she had good days. And they flared up when she had bad days- bouts of depression or when something was causing her extra anxiety, or even when getting into arguments with someone she cared about.
It became very clear to me that her migraines were in direct correlation with her thoughts and overall mental health.
After studying psychoneuroimmunology and conducting some of my own experiments, I am even more confident that with the practice of mindfulness, we can positively influence our mental wellbeing and, in turn, achieve optimal health!
Mindfulness allows us to strengthen our mind by disassociating from our thoughts. It reminds us that, although we are full of thoughts, it doesn’t mean we ARE those thoughts. We simply have them and we can, just as simply, CHOOSE another thought. Mindfulness is about the power of choice. It brings about awareness- about ourselves, our lives and the people around us.
I see Mindfulness as exercise for the mind. Just as we would train our muscles by going to the gym, we can train our mental toughness through mindfulness.
And once again, we can benefit in so many ways from Mindfulness!
By using mindfulness to increase our mental resilience, it initiates a domino effect that translates to an abundance of other health and life improvements!
Reduced anxiety and depression
Improved immune system functioning (and other bodily systems!)
Boosts confidence, self-esteem and self-awareness
Better memory and cognitive abilities
Better physical health- increases strength and flexibility
Stronger and more positive relationships
Builds resilience – overcome adversity
Enhances mind/body connection
Increases focus and attention
Maybe you’re thinking.. Really? I can gain all of that just from the practice of Mindfulness?!
The answer is YES!
I believe that mindfulness is the key to health and wellness!
And just like the study of psychoneuroimmunology reminds us: Our thoughts and psychological processes have an impact on our overall health.
But don’t forget, mindfulness is not a ‘one and done’ activity. Mindfulness is for life. It is about practice and getting those reps of mastery in. Building a solid foundation of mindfulness to live a mindful life.
It includes building a daily practice that fits into your life, that fits your schedule.
Start off slowly, and eventually, you’ll be practicing mindfulness throughout your day, without even thinking about it!
Before you know it, you’ll be a mindfulness ninja!
Well… I can’t give you one simple answer. Because the practice of mindfulness is simple and complex all at once – we’ll save the complex stuff for another post!
Mindfulness is our natural state of being…
…before the world was filled with constant distractions and everyday stressors.
When we focus on the present moment and are mindful in everything we do, it’s like we are connecting back to our roots. Our natural state of being.
Back in the times of our ancestors, our ‘fight/flight/freeze’ mode of our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) was only activated when we were in serious danger. Dangers like being hunted or killed by larger animals.
And even then, when our ‘fight/flight/freeze’ (called our sympathetic nervous system) was triggered, we were still PRESENT. Presently focusing on removing ourselves from danger.Once the danger was removed, we were easily able to switch modes back into our parasympathetic nervous system, where our bodies and minds could ‘rest and relax.’
Nowadays, these stress triggers are everywhere. We stress all day long. About our kids, students or families. About our jobs or the pay we get. We stress over not making it to work on time while sitting in rush hour traffic. Or about how we will do on an exam.
And now with COVID we have additional stressors! We stress about sickness and the health of our friends and family. We stress about when the next shut down might happen. Or if we’ll end up losing our jobs. Or worse.. Our lives or the lives of someone we love.
Sometimes, we’ll even stress about all the bad things that could possibly happen and things that haven’t even come true yet (and most likely, won’t ever come true).
In this day and age, stressors are EVERYWHERE.
But there are 2 crucial differences about these stressors than what we’ve experienced in the past:
Our sympathetic nervous system is basically running on overdrive! When we are regularly stressed, our body is living in this constant state of fight, flight or freeze. There is no time for our parasympathetic system to kick in (our rest & relax mode) and so our body is unable to conserve the energy it needs to function properly. Our body systems are working hard to get us out of this perceived danger, which never really seems to go away… This can have serious detrimental effects for us in the long term.
The majority of these new stress triggers aren’t even happening in the present moment! They are things that are going on in our heads!! Like I said earlier, we give too much attention to the things that have not yet happened, and may not even happen. Yes, some of the things we think about are important to consider in terms of planning our lives, however, when we are non-stop thinking about our stress, it completely takes us out of the present moment. We are stuck living within our heads. Not mindful at all. And not our natural state of being.
Now, the wonderful thing about understanding all of this is that it makes us aware. Aware of the problem, so we can also be aware of the solution.
And in returning back to our natural state of being- Living and breathing mindfulness, we can reverse some of the long term effects that stress and anxiety can have on our minds and our bodies. We can extend our lives and improve our health!
Of course, it’s never too late to practice mindfulness!
But, I am an avid promoter of the “get ‘em started young” philosophy!
Why, you might ask?
Well, for one, kids are SPONGES! They are the best kind of learners because they hold onto new information quite easily. Especially if that information is engaging! And even more so, if they see the adults in their lives MODEL it well!
And second, even though it’s never too late for anyone to practice mindfulness and improve their health, when we teach mindfulness to kids, we are better able to set them up for a successful path in life. We can teach them strategies BEFORE stressful events happen and they will better know how to deal with them when the time comes.
Ever heard of the mastery rule of 10,000 hours?
Well, Michael Gladwell speaks about it in his book “Outliers.” He states that it takes 10,000 hours of intensive practice to achieve a level of mastery in a particular skill.
In the case of mindfulness, bringing awareness and teaching this skill to kids at a younger age, allows them to achieve this level of mastery even before they become adults.
This is why I am so ‘gung-ho’ about practicing mindfulness to kids. By practicing mindfulness throughout their younger years, living in the present moment becomes a natural part of their subconscious. They develop mastery level to this skill before their teen and adult years – some of the most stressful years of their lives.
Being a master at mindfulness before they get into those stressful years, will allow them to utilize strategies for dealing with stress in the future.
We are setting them up for success in a terribly stressful world.
Imagine a world where we can all get out of our own heads and into the present moment?
A world where we don’t have to be constantly living in fight, flight or freeze.
I believe THAT world begins with our kids.
Stay tuned for more posts on how mindfulness works and how it improves, not only our thoughts, but our overall health!