In order to tackle our stress, we have to understand the type of stress that we have. In terms of definition, we experience 3 levels of stress: acute, episodic and chronic. We will go into how to deal with each type of stress appropriately.
Acute stress is brief and transient. It is induced by situations such as rushing to meet submission deadlines, constantly encountering disturbing news in the media, or staying cooped up in our homes due to this epidemic.
Acute stress responds well to mindfulness interventions such as yoga, tai-chi, rest and calming yogic breath work which can be done in the confines of our homes, in outdoor open spaces or even the quiet areas of our offices.
Most of the above exercises have a larger ‘yin’ component and require a slower, mindful pace. Mindfulness has many parallels to the Taoist's yin practices of stilling the mind. The aim is to quiet the chatter of the mind and direct its attention towards slow and deliberate movements.
Notice that I have prescribed slow, yin based practices, which help us stay grounded and rooted in the present rather than being on auto-pilot. Whenever the mind wanders away from the slow and deliberate pace of the movement of the breathe, gently return your focus on your breathing and the movement.
Yang-based activities, such as running or sprinting, are fast-paced and generate heat. Although they are excellent for producing endorphins and beating stress, they are high-intensity activities and can overload a system that is already spiked in cortisol.
An excellent technique to quiet the mind is the mindful practice of the moon breath. This is left nostril breathing or the calming breath in yoga and engages the parasympathetic system to slow down.
Breathe in mindfully through your left nostril by closing the right nostril to 6 counts, hold for 6 counts by closing both nostrils with the ring and thumb fingers and then exhale through the right nostril by closing the left nostril to a count of 6. Repeat this cycle and the exercise should feel effortless, and there should be no breathing sounds.
Allow your mind to focus on the subtle sensations of the air touching the top, side and lower parts of each nostril. If your mind wanders away from your breathing, gently redirect your attention back to the sensations in your nostrils.
You will notice a shift in your mental state towards a much calmer disposition. Practice this technique twice a day, starting from 5 minutes and building up to 15 minutes each time.
If the above acute stress is untreated and accumulates, then episodic stress ensues. Remember that, even before the onset of the COVID-19 epidemic, Hong Kong had been subject to repeated protests and social unrest. We have already been experiencing high levels of cognitive and emotional distress over a protracted period. This would mean that a significant number of us are in a hyper-aroused state where our sympathetic nervous system has been dialled up. In other words, our fight-or-flee response has been repeatedly triggered. Many of us may be experiencing episodic and perhaps chronic stress by now.
Although episodic stress is characterized by many similar features to acute stress, the extent of frequent hyper-arousal is more intense. It may lead to cognitive, emotional, interpersonal, muscular, digestive, cardiovascular and immune distress.
At this stage, individuals may experience panic attacks, anxiety symptoms, sleep issues, anger, irritability, compromised processing speed, mental fatigue, inter-personal relationship deterioration and an undermined immune system with frequent colds, allergies, migraines and other health issues.
Apart from seeking the help of a qualified mental health professional, engaging in a Mindfulness practice helps us to connect with our bodies and our outer world.
Mindfulness is the practice of observing our thoughts non-judgmentally and not getting involved with your thought content. Adopting a sense of curiosity rather than getting immersed with the content of our thoughts and bringing our attention back to our present with whatever we are doing.
When we learn the art of observing our thoughts non-judgmentally, rather than as participants, we are able to live in conscious awareness. We reduce the emotional charge that accompanies the disturbing thought, and we are able to observe with equanimity.
For example, set aside time when you are taking a walk, focus on the sensations in your feet, the scenery, sounds and smells around you. If your mind drifts to a thought, bring your mind back to the sensations in your feet or the scenery around you. When a negative thought occurs, practice this same technique, do not judge nor get involved with your thought, shift your focus to your present activity.
Through the cultivation of conscious and ever-present awareness, we acquire a balanced mental disposition. We are able to see that every storm runs out of rain. Until this epidemic runs its trajectory and dissipates, we can still live in gratitude and compassion and take balanced decisions.
We are able to see the humour in the clamour for toilet rolls. We are able to appreciate that every dark thread enhances the beauty of the golden threads in the tapestry of life and that suffering is inevitable but being miserable is optional.
Unfortunately, there are some individuals who may experience chronic stress which is characterized by untreated, unremitting feelings of hopelessness. The mind and body now go into ‘freeze’ mode, and we begin to shut down or shut out from the world. With this level of stress, the individual is likely to experience chronic stress, trauma, depression, extreme anxiety and feelings of hopelessness.
It is important to seek the help of a mental health professional and your doctor. Wearing down to a full breakdown is not impossible to treat. Treatment may involve a combination of counselling, medication and lifestyle changes to get you healthy.
Through the practice of mindful meditation, steady your flame. It has been said that the mind is like a mighty river, when unharnessed, it can deluge an entire village. When harnessed, it can light up an entire village with its power.