Fighting Stress - 5 Simple but Powerful Tools | Chris Kresser
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5 Simple (But Powerful) Tools for Fighting Stress

by Chris Kresser

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We may not be able to avoid stress, but we can influence how it affects us. Learn the four factors that drive our response to stress and simple—but effective—tools for changing how you experience it.

Most people living in the modern world experience continuous stress in the form of daily hassles, relationship troubles, problems at work, chronic illness, or other external life events.

Have you ever wondered why some people are devastated by this stress, while others are relatively unaffected? Or why some people thrive in high-pressure, driven work environments while others self-destruct?

The reason different people respond so differently to the same stressors is that our response to stress is largely defined by perception.

In other words, although there are certain events that virtually all people experience as stressful (such as the death of a loved one), it is our subjective perception of the event—and the meaning that we assign to it—that determines how we respond.

Say you’ve just had a fight with your partner. If you perceive it as a trivial, passing event with little significance, it is unlikely to trigger a significant stress response. However, if you see it as a sign that your relationship is doomed and will be a lifelong source of unhappiness (okay, I’m exaggerating to make a point!), you can bet that it will trigger a massive stress response.

Four Key Factors That Determine How We Respond to Stress

So what determines the intensity of our response to a particular stressor? Research has identified four key factors: (1)

  1. The novelty of the event
  2. The unpredictable nature of the event
  3. A perceived threat to our body or ego
  4. A sense of loss of control

Some researchers and clinicians use the acronym N.U.T.S. (novelty, unpredictability, threat, sense of no control) to refer to them. I think that’s perfect!

This concept of perceived stress has important implications.  

The first is that we can influence how we respond to stressors by changing how we perceive them. In psychology, this is known as “reframing.”

Feeling overwhelmed by stress? Try this.

Let’s say you lose your job. If you perceive that event as a sign of your worthlessness and an indicator that you’ll never be successful, I think you can imagine how your body will respond (it won’t be fun!).

But what if you saw the loss of your job as an opportunity to pursue a longtime dream that you’ve ignored and a chance for a fresh start? In this case, losing your job would be unlikely to trigger a harmful stress response and may even be a source of “eustress,” or positive stress.

I’m not suggesting that it’s possible, or even desirable, to put a positive spin on tragic or horrific events. But if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by all of the minor, daily hassles that characterize most of our lives, reframing can be a powerful way of mitigating the impact of that stress.

Five Tools for Reframing Stressful Experiences

The good news about reframing is that it gives us a measure of control over how we respond to the stressful events of life.

As I mentioned above, a sense of loss of control is one of the four key factors that drive our response to stress, so anything that we can do to improve this sense of control can have a profound effect.

Here are five tools that you can use to reframe stressful experiences.

1. Question Your Thoughts

Recognize that your thoughts about the stressful event are just thoughts—they aren’t real, and you don’t have to believe them. Ask yourself whether your thoughts are really true and accurate, or whether they are just a perception or belief.

2. Embrace a Threat as a Challenge

Ask yourself if there is a seed of opportunity or growth in the stressful event. For example, if you’ve just been diagnosed with a chronic illness, can you use that event as a way of giving yourself permission to take better care of yourself?

3. Expand Your Time Horizon

Ask yourself whether what you’re upset about will matter in a month, a year, or a decade. Even more powerful is the “rocking chair test.” Imagine yourself at 100 years old, in a rocking chair, reflecting on your life. Will this event matter? Will you even remember it at all?

4. Increase Your Sense of Control

We can’t control everything, and trying to do that is a recipe for suffering (both for you and for those around you!). That said, research has shown that it is our sense of control, rather than actually being in control, that determines how strongly stress impacts us. Focusing your attention on the things that you can influence, finding creative solutions, and making a list of resources you can draw on or people you can ask for help can increase your sense of control and minimize the effect that the stressful event has on you.

5. Recognize That Not All Stress Is Harmful

When I first started to do a lot of public speaking, I interpreted the faster heartbeat, damp hands, and shakiness I felt before going up on stage as “anxiety.” Over time, I learned to see those symptoms simply as an expression of the energy, excitement, and anticipation I was feeling—as something positive, rather than negative. Just changing how I perceived the meaning of these sensations completely altered my experience of them.

Why Mindfulness Is so Important

The tools above can be powerful allies in stressful situations, but they all depend upon one thing: your capacity to stay present in a difficult situation.

Stressful experiences often trigger a cascade of fears, anxieties, and “stories” we tell ourselves about what the event means about us or our future (i.e., “I didn’t get this job. I’ll never be successful!”).

If we are not able to stay present when we experience stress, we’re less likely to be able to do things like question our thoughts, embrace threats as a challenge, or expand our time horizon because we’re so carried away by our thought process that we can’t interrupt it.

This is why I’m such a big believer in mindfulness practice. It helps us to ground our attention in the present moment and focus on what is, right now, rather than what we fear might be.

Worrying about the future is especially stressful because we don’t have control over it and can’t respond to imagined threats. But we can influence how we respond to what is happening in the present moment, if that is where we direct our attention.

Here are a few simple tips for getting started with mindfulness practice, from psychologist and mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn:

  • Pay close attention to your breathing, especially when you’re feeling intense emotions.
  • Notice—really notice—what you’re sensing in a given moment: the sights, sounds, and smells that ordinarily slip by without reaching your conscious awareness.
  • Recognize that your thoughts and emotions are fleeting and do not define you, an insight that can free you from negative thought patterns.
  • Tune into your body’s physical sensations, from the water hitting your skin in the shower to the way your body rests in your office chair.

There are numerous ways to learn more about mindfulness and deepen your practice. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program is a great place to start. You can take an eight-week class at many locations across the US, or learn online. My 14Four program, which helps you optimize your diet, sleep, physical activity, and stress management in 14 days, has several mindfulness tutorials on audio and video. And this link has some additional resources and videos worth checking out.

Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT): Mindfulness + Reframing

Both mindfulness and reframing are powerful tools in changing how we respond to stress, but when you put them together, they’re even more effective. This is exactly what Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is all about.

Way back in 2008, I wrote about a study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology that showed that MBCT proved as effective as antidepressants in preventing depression relapse and more effective in enhancing people’s quality of life. The study also showed MBCT to be as cost-effective as prescription drugs in helping people with a history of depression stay well in the longer term.

Over the 15 months after the trial, 47 percent of the group following the MBCT course experienced a relapse, compared with 60 percent of those continuing their normal treatment, including anti-depressant drugs. In addition, the group on the MBCT program reported a higher quality of life in terms of their overall enjoyment of daily living and physical well-being.

MBCT was developed by a team of psychologists from Toronto (Zindel Segal), Oxford (Mark Williams), and Cambridge (John Teasdale) in 2002 to help people who suffer repeated bouts of depression. It focuses on reframing negative thinking and aims to help people who are vulnerable to recurring depression stop depressed moods from spiraling out of control into a full episode of depression.

For more about MBCT, including information about classes and training, check out MBCT.com. I also recommend searching for a local MBCT practitioner to work with in your area if you think this approach would benefit you.

Now I’d like to hear from you. Have you used any of these reframing techniques to combat stress in your life? If so, have they been helpful? Have you had success with mindfulness practice in general, or with MBCT in particular? What else has worked for you, and do you follow any other ancestral health practices? Let us know in the comments section.

50 Comments

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  1. Hello Chris!
    The distinction between being in control and having a sense of control is for me the golden nugget in your post. Almost all ppl I know would get upset when things don’t go their way. IN a sense we are finding neat solutions to all problems in life. Maybe the major disruptions in our life are worth all the trouble. We cannot always anchor our ships to the shore all the time. That is what makes us alive. In all the struggles in my life, now that I look back at some of them, I wish I could have lived them more fuller without being so attached to the outcome. Sure managing stress doe not come easy but knowing there is an alternate way to looking at things sure does make my horizon more brighter!
    Regards

  2. By and far one of the biggest changes I have made in the past two years is incorporating at least 10 minutes of meditation into my morning routine. It feels like it turns the volume down on everything afterwards.

  3. When under duress, I find grounding my body on the earth & focusing my attention on one small, tangible item helps, like sitting outside on the ground in nature, holding a blade of grass, or flower petal. Also, surrendering to what is helps me to turn off the monkey mind.

  4. Interesting conversations. My hubby died suddenly 10 months ago after 40 years of an incredibly wonderful marriage. Never knew what stress was until then. We married very young and grew up together loving each other deeply along with the family we created; so blessed. Please know we had our stress…financial, child-rearing, work, caregiving, cancers, etc., but we handled all of it without too much worry or concern. Now I’m broken in half and the only thing that gives me peace is relying on God and the amazing large group of people in my life along with family; I’m never alone. I get up everyday before heading to work to read the Bible and write in my husband’s journal and I make sure I record all the blessings I sometimes take for granted. SO much to be thankful for…so much relief with simple gratitude from the many stresses of managing a new life without my true love.

    • What a blessing it was to read your comment, Lisa. It brought me to tears to find such a jewel of wisdom in a comment thread here. The faith that God has given you is a beautiful thing. Thank you for your example of gratitude, even in such a hard time in your life when you are without your husband. I know our merciful and mighty Father will be taking care of you until you see him again in glory someday. I look forward to meeting you there 🙂

  5. I think mindfulness is quite important, yes, but also making sure that there are no mineral deficiencies, thyroid issues and/or adrenal issues are present. Personally, once these things were corrected for me, my ability to handle stress changed significantly. Just sayin’

    • I agree… I never had depression I don’t think-but I struggled with negative thoughts!!! Only think that was at that time keeping me alive was constant . I did NLP, NET, PKP… And they were amazing!! BUT nothing really changed until I got treated for pyrrole disorder and strep A Infection spread all thru my system… Now Life is sweet and happy… The question is how did we get ourself a there in a first place;)xx

    • Yes. Biology is behind ninety percent of stress intolerance for me. Psychology has never played much of a role, except for about three weeks because of a supplement I took that had copper in it. It had a ‘pyroluric’ effect and I found myself thinking very negatively for the first time ever.

  6. Looking back on my 30-year struggle to victory over depression, I see the roles reframing and mindfulness have played. Only, I didn’t know that’s what I was doing. They are a big part of my preventative maintenance approach today too. Now I have terminology I can use both for my own benefit and as I now seek to help others in their struggle. Understanding these more is opening up my thinking on the topic of chronic depression.

  7. Dear Chris, As a psychiatrist I completely believe this and see this in my daily practice. Coming from the third world to the UK, one observation is the more you have and the more secure, predictable your life is, the more fragile your sense of control. We are all a paycheck away from instability however some get consumed by it and others take life at a chance and get by.
    ”The reason different people respond so differently to the same stressors is that our response to stress is largely defined by perception.” I will add that stress is OUR response to life, life is not stressful per se.

    PS: It was great attending your event at Kings in London.

  8. Have not used MBCT but have found that using Synchronicity High Tech Meditation very effective.
    I’ve noticed that it has helped me not to React ( automatically using my reptilian brain!) to a “perceived threat/stressful situation” but instead able to respond in an appropriate manner. ( using more of the pre frontal cortex)
    The Synchronicity HTM uses brain-wave entrainment technology that progressively decelerates ones brainwaves & also balances both the right & left hemispheres of the brain creating whole brain synchrony. You can check it out on their website :
    http://www.synchronicity.org

  9. What is stress?
    1) When I have a certain objective in mind and I see various risks of not achieving the same it causes stress.
    2) When I relate to someone or something so that I get attached to it, could be a person, a thing, wealth, knowledge (inflating my ego), I cant do without it and the thought of it not being there for any reason causes stress/worry
    3) When I am busy trying to compete and achieve objectives and not listening/paying attention to how the body is reacting to all stimulants including food, excersize, long working hours, posture etc the body reacts by getting inflamed which in turn causes pain/discomfort which is again a cause of stress since I cant get what I want done with the pain, also the effort/intent to get over the pain is a stressor
    If you notice all the above and maybe more such aspects have their respective centres in the “I”. Whenever I is the centre all thoughts that arise either look to protect the “I” or strengthen the “I” or if injured/sick, heal the “I”. These thoughts are nothing but stress.
    Although I am not a medicine man but it appears to me that whenever I is at the centre of thought it inherently is stressful and triggers release of cortisol/adrenaline etc through the sympathetic nervous system disposition – fight or flight etc. The more we are in the parasympathetic nervous disposition the lesser the probability of the I being the centre and we typically do not try and separate ourselves from the surrounding’s/ environment/people etc which makes us happier and blissful.
    Again now if one is convinced with the above logic and one tries all efforts/tricks to remain in the parasympathetic mode, the act of trying itself is sympathetic/stressful and defeats the purpose.
    A thorough understanding of this (without doubt) i.e. whatever you consciously try and do to reduce stress will only add to stress provides a detailed insight into the fact that the thinker is not separate from the thought (since the thinker is nothing but an accumulation of past knowledge/memory acting in the future from the past knowledge/memory) and thus thought/thinker is no different from time/accumulation ( I often wonder what came first thought or time and have deduced that both are simultaneous i.e. none can be first) . This insight (which is probably outside of the thought/time domain) may cause a mutation/transformation of the whole DNA leading to an altered perception of stress and the displacement of the “I” from the centre which maybe the key to a happier and healthier life

  10. I feel 3 root causes of all chronic diseases and unhappiness and anxieties are (1) stress- 76% financial stress (2) environmental toxins (3) Food choices we make (specially animals who have been treated cruelly-modern animal agriculture- loaded with stress hormones and neurotoxins).

    I do know mindfulness is helpful, but the modern life reality is also real. Until I found my real solutions, most of the mindfulness is not sustainable or long lasting.

  11. Reframing our thoughts is so powerful. There is so much good packed into this. Obviously reframing is easier with some aspects of life than others. I have been working on the “smaller stuff” working up to the more challenging.
    Great info here for sure- and love that you included some tips on how to start!

  12. I’m completely on-board with the value of cognitive or dialectical behavior therapy and mindfulness. I also think we are missing something very important if we don’t address more directly the physiology of “stress” (which can always benefit from being unpacked from this overworked term). For our bodies, “stress” has many meanings, including the status of the sympathetic nervous system. I’m currently studying Polyvagal Theory from many different perspectives. I’d be interested to see this woven into the more biochemical explanations of trauma, stress and our tools for recovery.

    • See my comment below. Perceived (psychological/emotional) stress is indeed one of only several types of stressors that activate the HPA axis. I’ll be writing more about these soon.

    • I would suggest that the polyvagal theory is limited to Social Evaluative Threats [SET] and its relation to inflammation and cortisol responses which differ substantially from the typical sympathetic fight/flight response. Also, you may want to check out the therapeutic benefit of labeling your emotions; it may sound counterintuitive, but labeling invokes the PFC in reducing the amygdala fear response.

      • Polyvagal theory is NOT limited to social evaluative threats! This comment indicates a lack of understanding of polyvagal theory and the threat response cycle. Inflammation and cortisol responses are not separate from SNS! Please don’t make vague statements like this without verifying the information! Please visit http://www.traumahealing.org or call me 614 547 2187 for more information. You could also visit Peter Levine’s youtube channel or Stephen Porges’ website for more info.

  13. I still have a lot of issues with stress reduction in my life. Until my 20s I was relatively good at looking at the positive side of things and getting through tough situations. However, degradation in health thanks to diet and genetic factors, and a lot of lifestyle issues that led to further health degradation, all led me to some pretty bad places with my mental health. Medications only made things worse, as I am extremely sensitive to pharmaceuticals.

    I have PCOS (just discovered this past year; my mom and her sisters all have it as well), and have been given multiple diagnoses of other “mental” disorders: OCD, anxiety, depression, bipolar, and ADD. While I have been rehabilitating myself with diet (following a lot of Kresser’s philosophy), exercise (though I have to be careful with that, as too much physical activity in addition to other stressors led me to severe adrenal fatigue), I still find that I struggle a lot with negativity. Many meditation and mindfulness practices can’t seem to break through my stubborn mindsets, and I find myself angry with my very identity and being. This, of course, leads to increased stress at everything, as I get frustrated with existence. With things being difficult. With constantly having to restructure my life to try to feel like I have some semblance of balance and control.

    I’ve gotten into the bad habit of thinking that I am weak because I can’t deal with the rigors of life. Sometimes even the smallest of things will set me off without me even realizing it, and then I’ll be angry for days on end.

    I just feel like I’m spinning and trying to hold onto something, anything, to keep from flying away.

    • I can relate, Shannon. I have metabolic syndrome and the emotional symptoms are increasing with aging. I’m railing about so many physical and mental changes that it leads to panic. This article tells me I should take a deep breath and regroup. Thank you, Chris.

    • I did the most amazing course called Dynamic Neural Retraining System created by Annie Hopper. Her book is called Wired for Healing. It helped me heal from severe electrical sensitivity, chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia. It also helps with depression, OCD, PTSD, chemical sensitivities etc. I had a very healthy diet but it seemed that my body was in flight or fight mode at all times and was not even absorbing any of the nutrients or supplements. It works by teaching you to turn off an overreactive stress response in the limbic system of the brain which causes an inflammatory cascade of hormones and neurotransmitters which make you ill and unable to function properly. Interestingly, the conditions I developed last were the first to go. The practice does involve a lot of mindfulness but it has very specific easy exercises that stop the trauma loop and help flood your body with healthy neuron transmitters and hormones. And over the last few months doing her practice has completely changed my physical and mental health. It seems too good to be true because it works quickly and gives you amazing tools. It also worked wonders for my children and they love it. They can identify when they are in a limbic system trauma loop and get themselves out of it. They will say – I can’t watch that movie because it makes my feel “limbicky”. I know many people who had similar results. I really recommend it for anyone struggling with a “mysterious illness.”

  14. The book “Practising the power of NOW” by Eckhart Tolle + Daoist principles (especially – only constant thing in this world is that all changes)+ideas of “The Secret” about how our mind and belief changes our future (thoughts become things) = got me out of deepest depression about 12 years ago without using antidepressants (because they did not really help) and actually changed my confidence and all my life during next 3 years. But it was serious thinking/working with myself, I found it the best to do it alone, it took some time away from TV, people/family, going deeply inside myself and following the great ideas from books, because I found them very realistic. And they worked amazingly! Honestly – I still have some worries time after time, but I haven’t had a depression since that time 🙂

  15. Hi — I’ve found that transforming my entire belief system paradigm through A Course in Miracles and through other meditation practices recommended by such practitioners as Dr. Joe Dispenza have been critical in maintaining my health even throughout what others might perceive as stressful family dynamics. I find that using these tools consistently makes the key difference.

  16. I’ve tried it all. Literally everything. The problem I run into is that my anxiety is nudged into gear by an irregular heartbeat (apparently due to heart valve quirk) and there’s not a DAMM thing I can do to prevent it from starting, or stop it once it starts. It’s on it’s own schedule. And the bursts of irregularity are varied. Sometimes they last 10 seconds, sometimes 10 or more minutes. The longer they are and more frequently they come on, the more uneasy you feel. I have become a MASTER at trying to downplay them and ignore them like the doctor says to do… But there are times when NO MATTER how much I try to “Stay in the Present” and breathe, and relax, etc.. They can often be incapacitating! I always say that I challenge ANYBODY that has never had these [email protected]$(£€ things to step in my body one time during one of these episodes and let’s see how calm you are!! It’s an awful curse to have to live with! But I’m smart enough to be grateful that I don’t have something worse, or especially the dreaded alternative! Good luck out there folks!

  17. Lately I’ve been exploring this from a different perspective. I notice an almost cultish bias within our culture (alternative medicine, self help gurus, media) on the emotional and behavioural aspects of our body/mind/spirit. My experience with chronic illness shows that underlying physiological factors (illness, pathogens, diet, aging bodies, etc.) play a far greater role than we realize with stress creation and one’s ability to manage and integrate it. Wether people identify with being sick or not, what’s going on in the body is often the driver of stress. We are doing a great disservice to many people who are suffering with trying to function “normally” by seeing their inability to handle stress as the root of their symptoms and the measure of their skill in being able to handle it. It’s challenging to tease apart the sources of and solutions to stress and distress. There’s no doubt that the mind is one piece, but it is just one of many within the realms of body, mind and spirit.

  18. The EFT World Summit is going on now led by Nick & Jessica Ortner.

    Check it out whether or not you feel stressed. There is some good stuff going on there. Programs are available for 24 hours.

    • Just to add: EFT works often by employing the same 5 principles, but this is only effective after expressing one’s truth. Our emotions are there for a reason – they won’t go away until they are fully heard and acknowledged, otherwise we are only piling up additional stress on ourselves by trying to act from a place of non-authenticity.

  19. Interesting timing. My car was broken into and $2500+ stolen from me last Sunday, first time on both accounts (on my birthday, no less). Stuff that I cared about. Months of code and important docs on my laptop. My hiking backpack I’ve taken everywhere. My Kindle I’ve read a ton of books on. My Ti89 I’ve had since high school through thousands of hours of tests and studying. I didn’t know how these objects uniquely defined me until now. I can repurchase the stuff, but not the code. I think this hits all of the N.U.T.S. factors. I’ve been trying to figure out how much to think about it to get over it and prevent it from happening again, versus how much it upsets me the longer I think about it. I like the “embrace the threat as a challenge” point. I’ve been a firm practitioner of Stoicism for years now. I’ve (briefly) caught on fire from a bad camp stove, I’ve been in an elevator that’s dropped a whole story on it’s own. No sweating, increased heart rate, or fear of reoccurrence. But this incident has rattled me to the core.

    I don’t know what I’ve learned yet. But my hope in sharing this is others can contemplate it on their own, help me, and help themselves in both prevention and coping. I was pretty dang strong, but I’ve not yet recovered mentally from this. But something tells me I should never completely forget this incident. Thoughts?

    • The items you lost are items that ‘define’ you. They are part of your past and present and represent ‘you’ and your history. Falling a story in an elevator, catching on fire (and surviving unscathed) didn’t threaten your identity or self definition or ‘things that are part of you.’ There is also a feeling of being violated when you’ve been robbed. But losing all those items w/ memory and attachment, that’s hard. However, you are still you and hold all those memories and experiences; that will never be lost or change. Sometimes emancipation from our ‘stuff,’ no matter how valuable or precious, is a good thing. Letting go of externals that we define ourselves by is never easy, but it is a valuable lesson.

    • I would like to know the answer to Alec’s question. Its not like a phobia carried over from childhood. Someone comes into your home. Pretending they are house repair people–experts they say, in just the problems you have. 14 years later trying to recover 70,000$ in theft and damages in Federal bankruptcy court, still daily you become aware of more things they took: a walletful of Canadian money, Navaho Squash Blossom necklaces, an antique door I planned to install in my upstairs hall, hundreds of tools, craft supplies. They systematically went through my house, pretending to do work I desperately needed, but all they wanted was to steal my belongings. Its there: every time I open a drawer and realize something else they.ve taken, systematically going through all my personal things, all the tricks to distract my attention so the other one could go through my things. Not to mention the destruction of every repair project they intended to do. They left my life and my home like a piece of mouse=chewed linen. Tapping doesn’t do it. There must be a better way.

    • Thoughts:

      The first line of defense to avoid stress is planning to avoid preventable problems. If I lost important work on my computer it would certainly rattle me, no matter how well I manage stress.

      That is why I back-up everything on my two computers that is important using different methods: (1) both computers have synchronized data, (2) data copied to an external hard drive placed in my safe deposit box, (3) data copied to an external hard drive well-hidden in my house, (4) data stored in an encrypted cloud storage service, and (5) mirrored drives on my desktop, if one drive should fail. I am not a tech-savvy person just a computer user, so anyone can plan and undertake these tasks.

      IMO, about 90% of all human misery is self-inflicted by failing to properly plan, making poor decisions, and failing to take personal responsibility for your own actions.

      Having said all this, I began nightly meditation about a year ago and it works well to calm my overactive mind before bed. Deep breathing works well during stressful incidents.

    • I have a couple of thoughts about this. First, I wonder what the message or lesson is from this most upsetting experience. Sometimes recruiting a sense of wonder and curiosity can help reframe the stressful emotions. Second, Chris refers to increasing the horizon of time to help mitigate upset. In this situation, it may just be that it will take time to look back at this with less emotion. I’m sure you will share this story with others over the years. I empathize!

    • I’m so sorry that happened to you on your birthday. I have had stuff stolen from me in the past and it really is profoundly stressful. I don’t know why that is. A real invasion of privacy. As much as we don’t like to be attached to “things” we are. I’m very sentimental about my stuff. Sorry for your loss.

    • I think these traumas lodge so strongly in our minds because from an evolutionary standpoint they’re meant to. Especially these seemingly one-off events, because even though they’re rare and random events they can and do happen again. You want the trauma to register strongly enough that you never forget and you repeat the story over and over again to yourself and your friends and your children and then your grandchildren. And at that random time in the future when the same thing happens again you and they will be prepared.I had this happen with the Colorado floods in 2013. The rains flooded the mountains over 100 miles away but the flood surge eventually came to my river bottom way out on the plains. The weather service warned us for days and we were prepared, but when it hit it still was traumatic and scary. I dreamed for nights and nights afterwards about floods, imprinting the whole scenario in my mind. If it had been paleolithic times or even just a few hundred years ago we couldn’t have known the flood waters were coming. We hadn’t had any rain and when the flood surge hit (in the dark of night) the river went from it’s normal size (or just over) to about a mile and a half wide in maybe 5 hours. You can live for decades in this river bottom and never experience a flood. You want to remember it can happen and you want to remember it strongly enough that you pass a warning on to the next generations.

    • Dear Alec,
      Sometimes we can’t let go of events like these because there are other thoughts/feelings we are guarding and don’t realize it. You can try to explore this by using an important tool that Chris mentioned in his article – asking yourself if what you believe about this event is true. First, decide what it is that is most bothering you about what happened. Maybe there is an element in all this that you feel responsible for. Once you hit on the the thing that most troubles you, you must begin to question yourself if it is actually, and accurately true. If it isn’t, then start evaluating why you felt it was. These explorations can lead you to a much more valuable way if thinking about yourself in the world.
      When a crime is committed and someone is victimized, it’s the victim that can often carry the guilt in so many ways. It’s important to find out if this is happening to you because that is the feeling you need to change in order to move forward.
      I hope this helps.

  20. What if its things like hormonal imbalances or anxiety that orginated from non psychological causes that are itself causing the stress? In a person who would otherwise be resilient to direct psychological stress.

    Or if someone had a bad reaction to a drug (prescription or recreational) and then gets symptoms. How does MBCT work then with the whole “time factor” where someone is anxious about returning to normal quickly. As in being depressed itself causing the depression. And constant comparing to normality. And how the illness is preventing goals

    Has mindfulness still helped here? Since in this scenario it is the present moment that is bad itself and the feelings which are being projected.

    • A naturopath could help explore that better. Talking therapies are just one part of an approach and their success is predicated on the relationship, not the mode, many therapists use aspects of mindfulness. CBT practitioners sometimes claim there is more evidence for CBT but as this is favoured by many psychologists it seems to be a case of many more studies on CBT.

    • This article is only referring to “perceived stress”. There are several other stressors that provoke the HPA axis and stress response, such as glycemic dysregulation, inflammation, and circadian disruption.

      MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) would be helpful in those situations because it is addressing the HPA axis dysregulation from a different perspective.

      • Ah ok yes that is exactly what I was referring to–HPA axis dysfunction from internal causes such as that rather than external causes.

        Interesting that MBCT has also helped people here!

        Thanks for the response!

        I’m guessing the point of it is to stop the patient from essentially feeding into their illness and develop the correct attitude to heal. I know its a huge problem for me and I might give it a shot. Got hit with HPA issues causing anxiety in college from physical stressors but keep feeding the problem with my impatience and attitude to it. So that even though I have made a significant recovery, I still keep falling back in looking for that full blown “100%”

      • I have PTSD and Social Anxiety which I’m finding out from fMRI studies is caused by either overactive or underactive parts of the brain.

        Recently I had a Dr’s appt which set off anticipation anxiety. I have various things I do for it but, this time, none of them were helping.

        Someone suggested picturing the visit already over with and it was a positive outcome. That really did help. Didn’t take it away completely but, I was amazed at how much it did help.

  21. I’d love to learn more about mindfulness and start a practice. Does anyone have any recommendations in the Berkeley/Oakland area? I have chronic illness, Celiac Disease and Hashimotos and desire to manage them both without prescription drugs.

  22. The term “mindfullnss” doesn’t have a clear meaning to me: it’s just confusing. I was taught to “be in present time” and find that reminding myself “present time” works much better.

  23. I think there’s one big, huge factor not included that influences how we respond to stress….our genes. Our genetic makeup, something we can’t change, probably plays a large roll in when we perceive a “stressor” to be a threat and how well we are able to use, or even use the 5 tools to deal with those stressors.

    • I agree. While mindfulness and reframing are powerful tools, for some people, unless genetics and the biochemistry of stress are dealt with, it’s impossible to recover. Those who are in this situation can feel helpless when behavioral strategies fall short. Everyone is an individual.

      That said, thank you for providing this information – it’s important to know there are tools beyond pills! A full tool box is the best strategy for success!

    • That may be true Jim, but these tools help the majority of people regardless of their genetics. the human stress response itself is fairly universal, so its worth trying stuff that’s been clinically proven to work in reducing the impact of these stresses before blaming bad genes.

    • I agree – genes must be taken into account. Some find it so much easier to respond in a positive way than other.

      Another thing that can make a difference is childhood trauma. It was found many years ago that children who have experienced abuse or other trauma tend have a higher level of stress hormones. Since childhood is spoken as one’s formative years, the stress response can be hard-wired into people.

      It’s difficult to retrain your brain to not respond to stressful events in a way that harms your own body by producing a stress response. It can be done, but again, it depends on the individual and their own outlook and determination (back to what genes you have again).

      It’s all very well saying how easy it is to rethink stressful events, but we’re all different genetically and we’ve all had different life experiences that can make some of us more vulnerable.

  24. Mbsr has changed my life. I took a class from a kabat-zinn trained therapist. I’ve struggled with depression for much of my life and this is the thing that made all the difference. From small daily stressors to old ghosts hunting me, know how to take care if myself. Just like your steps above, I can recognize the difficult feelings as well as the water in the shower or my kids telling me a funny story. I can remind myself that those feelings will pass and I don’t have to dwell and drown.

    I love so much that you are putting so much effort into getting the mindfulness out the for all!

    Thank you!

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