Learning to Stress Better

Sebene Selassie
September 8, 2022

Editor’s Note: This week, Ten Percent Happier is launching the Stress Better Challenge to help you make stress your ally, not your foe.  Here, teacher Sebene Selassie, and our cofounder Dan Harris discuss how to focus on the body as a way to reduce stress.

DAN: Here's the deal. You cannot change the fact that the world is stressful, but science suggests you can change how you respond to it.

A good place to start is to remember that stress is completely natural.  It's part of the brilliance of evolution. The stress response motivated us to run away from lions in the jungle. So there's nothing wrong with you if you're feeling stress. It's just your body's way of trying to keep you safe.

The problem is, in today's concrete jungle, we're stressed out, usually not by lions, but instead by traffic jams, overflowing inboxes, and an insufficient number of Instagram likes. And at a certain point, we just don’t have the mental resources to cope, which is why you sometimes hear people say, at stressful times, “I can’t handle this.”

So what can you do about it?

This week, Ten Percent is re-launching one of the most popular courses we’ve ever run, entitles Stress Better.  In it, I talk with Professor Modupe Akinola, a stress researcher at Columbia University's business school, and Sebene Selassie, one of the most popular teachers on the Ten Percent app. We cover a bevy of tools to help you bounce back from stress better and stronger: to pause and tune into the body, to reframe your relationship with stress, to open up to difficult emotions, and to practice both self-compassion and compassion for others.

To be clear, none of these techniques will magically provide you with the resources to solve all of your problems. But ideally, they will help you achieve enough calm and clarity so that instead of drowning in life's inevitable ups and downs, you can learn how to surf.  It is possible to have a better and healthier relationship with stress.

To give you a taste, here’s one of the simplest, best-known ways to calm down: taking a breath. But, as Sebene explains in this excerpt from the course, even this simplest of practices is more subtle than you might think.

SEB: We can't change the fact that there are stressors in the world and that there are things that are going to make us upset. We're going to have illnesses. We're going to have difficult periods in our lives. But we can change our response.

First, you can acknowledge that if you know that you're feeling stressed, you've already taken the first step. So just knowing that you're stressed is very, very helpful. So when you notice that, you're stressed: Pause. Take a breath. Be in this moment, in your body. In fact, whether you’re stressed or not, you can try this right now, reading these words.

Now, this can actually be a little tricky.  Many of us are stuck in our heads, and our culture and our society really reinforce that. As a result, many times people are thinking about their bodies rather than actually feeling them.  So I might say “take a breath,” but many people are actually thinking about the breath, rather than actually feeling the sensations of the breath.  

So, maybe try this again – take a breath, and just be with whatever is happening in the body.

The reason being with the body in this way is so helpful is that the emotions and feelings that we relate to stress only last a matter of seconds in our bodies.  It's our thoughts that continue to perpetuate them: we get caught in loops of worry or fear or anxiety, and that causes the stress response to continue. But when we connect to the body, we're able to stay with the real experience, rather than a mental idea of what's happening, and that gets us out of those loops.

Now, meditation is called a “practice” for a reason. It can be helpful to get a theoretical understanding of stress, but the real changes actually take place physiologically, emotionally, mentally, over time.  We're not going to change just because we think about change. And we're not going to change just by trying it once.

You know, if I trained for a marathon and ran the marathon, that would be great. But I'm still going to get out of shape if I don't keep up practicing. So whether we're training for the marathon or continuing to try and stay healthy, it's going to take an ongoing, sustained practice to really develop this resiliency.  

So – stay with it!  Stress is a natural part of life.  But how we respond to it, that's really up to us.

Born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and raised in Washington, D.C., Born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and raised in Washington, D.C., Seb has now survived breast cancer three times and is a meditation teacher, transformational coach, and community advocate in New York City. She is the author of You Belong: A Call For Connection.

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