Mindfulness can be a powerful tool in stress management because if we don’t know that we are starting to redline how can we possibly address the situation?  Waiting until our hair is falling out in clumps and we are jumpier than a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest (thanks Jillean!) is not a great strategy.  Beyond simple awareness of where we are at and what we may need to address our current stress levels, mindfulness can impart a single-mindedness or slowness to certain situations that will help us manage the stress normally associated with them.

Mindfulness is a practice of bringing our awareness to what is occurring in the moment, using calm acknowledgement and acceptance of our feelings, thoughts and sensations.  Imagine that you are driving your kids from school to soccer practice, the traffic is terrible, one of your kids is crying because the other one touched him, the toucher is whining that they are hungry and want McDonald’s, you are getting a headache, the AC in the car is broken and it’s hot as hell, etc, etc.  That is A LOT to deal with.  Now, imagine that all that is going on and you choose to be mindful, as best you can, of what you decide is most important in that moment:  getting your kids safely from point A to point B, so you tune everything else out and focus on the act of driving.  You slow your breath, take your time looking at the road in front, in the rearview mirror and at the speedometer, make sure to watch other cars to see what their drivers’ intentions may be in terms of changing lanes or turning, execute signals well in advance and monitor safe braking distances.  We can be aware and accepting of the chaos swirling around us and then choose our priority of focus.

Mindset can also be either a cause of stress or a tool with which we manage stress.  Negative and self-defeating mindsets only serve to heap emotional stress on top of the stress we are already trying to manage.  Positive and growth-oriented mindsets allow us the mental space we need to assess potential courses of action and weigh the pros and cons of our decisions.  Let’s return to the Ragnarok-on-wheels that was our overheated car full of screaming kids in crazy traffic.  A person who is engaged with a negative mindset in that situation may start to question what stupid choices they made to get themselves into this predicament, “why did I ever even have kids?”  This may be quickly followed with, “oh my god, did I just think that?  I’m the worst parent in the world!  I was late to pick them up and now I’m thinking about how I wish I didn’t even have kids, I don’t deserve to be a parent!  My mother was right!  Ugh, I can just imagine what she would have to say if she could see me now!”  Uh oh, I think we all know where this is headed.  All the alarm bells are ringing, steam is starting to come out of their ears, the next thing that happens causes them to snap and yell at the kids in the backseat.  And that is followed with more guilt, self-loathing, etc.  The situation is definitely not improved.  In fact, it’s now become a hamster wheel of stress, self-judgement, poor choices and more stress.

How could a positive mindset help this individual manage their stress in this situation?  Using a positive mindset one could recognize the need for mindfulness and replay the earlier scenario where a choice was made to focus on that which was determined to be most important.  Additionally, mindset can be thought of as attitude.  In this instance an individual could use mindfulness to acknowledge and accept that there is a lot going on and that they are beginning to feel overwhelmed.  Their attitude/mindset, if it is positive and growth-oriented, is that they have an opportunity to practice managing their stress while under pressure.  From here this person could begin to assess what needs to first address:  yelling kids, broken AC, traffic – what is highest priority?  This person would consider that their children are in fact their teammates, and not their adversaries, and request less yelling or possibly use a tactic like redirecting to alter the dynamic to one more conductive to their concentration during driving.

In stressful situations the choices that we make can either contribute to a solution or further complication.  People do not make choices randomly, but base them on a conglomeration of ideas they have about who they are; the choices must feel in alignment with self-identity in order to make sense to the person making them.  In simple terms, self-identity is the answer to the question, “what do you stand for?”  Making choices that do not feel in alignment with our self-identity can be a source of stress.

Self-identity can often be unconscious.  However, the more conscious we become of our self-identity, and our ability to author that identity, the less stress we will have since we are more clearly able to make choices that are in alignment with that identity.  If part of our self-identity is that we love our kids and do our best to care for them, then getting overwhelmed in this situation and yelling at the kids while swerving wildly through traffic will not feel right and will cause an increase in stress.  The challenging part is that if our self-identity is unconscious we won’t know why our choices cause us stress and we may instead again head down the road of self-judgement and guilt.  The benefit of a strong sense of self-identity versus guilt or self-judgement is the difference between having a direction and having a deterrent.  It is much easier to head the “right” way if you know what the right way is for you as opposed to receiving an electric shock every time you attempt a “wrong” way.  The more aware we become of our self-identity, the clearer we can express it to ourselves, the more frequently we will make choices that align with that self-identity.  And, in the instances that we make a choice that is out of alignment, the quicker and easier we will self-correct.

In the clown car of compounding stressors, someone with a self-identity of “I love my kids, even when they are getting on my nerves; I practice mindfulness and use techniques to calm myself in overwhelming situations; this is just a temporarily crappy situation that I am capable of navigating” has a much higher potential for success.  They are using their self-identity, mindset and mindfulness to navigate external stress without adding their own internal stress on top.

Even though I just wrote about mindfulness, mindset and self-identity for what feels like a million years I know that I am over-simplifying and glossing over these ideas because what I really want to talk about is personal responsibility.

Elias Gross