The Science of De-Stressing

nico hase
March 26, 2019
A person in silhouette looks stressed

A couple years ago I defended my dissertation. Now, as anyone who has ever defended a dissertation will tell you, the whole process is a stress-inducing imbroglio, a veritable blitzkrieg of queries and provocations hosted by a stone-faced faculty tribunal intent on punching holes in the drywall of your thesis, which you've just spent one or two or three years building up out of a combination of blood, sweat, and far too many obscure academic citations.

Or at least that’s how it feels.

In my case, in addition to the general hypertensive agony of standing up in front of smart people and trying to say stuff, I’d made the mistake of inviting a couple of my heroes onto the committee. Richard Davidson, the greatly renowned neuroscientist who more or less invented hard science meditation research, was going to be there. Ann Gleig, a truly ass-kicking scholar of Buddhism, too.

Unsurprisingly, about 60 minutes before my defense, I started to sweat. My breathing got tight. I could feel a rising heat in my chest. I was panicking.

Thankfully, I had about an hour before the defense. And a basic sense that mindfulness can be helpful at moments like these.

So I stepped into my office, did some mindful movement, and then quietly counted my breaths for ten minutes. Slowly, the panic started to pass. I could still feel my heart beating, but it wasn’t leaping out of my chest. By the time it was time to meet with the committee, I was still nervous, for sure, but the paralysis had passed. I was able to put one sentence in front of another, and get through the whole ordeal.

*       *       *

As it turns out, my experience with deescalating stress right before my dissertation defense maps pretty well onto what we’re seeing these days in the scientific literature.  

For example, findings from the last decade or so have shown that people who go through an eight-week course of mindfulness see significant decreases in their stress response. On a physical level, their stress hormone levels go down. Their amygdalae -- the part of the ‘reptilian’ brain that’s responsible for quick impulses, reactions, and instincts --  are more regulated by the parts of the brain responsible for reflection, critical thinking, and meta-cognition.

On a behavioral level, they get better at managing their emotions. They experience more self-compassion, are way less freaked out by their feelings, worry less, and do a better job at spotting emotions sooner and reacting to them better. Which is pretty cool.

One of my favorite studies, though, took folks who have Social Anxiety Disorder and asked them to chronicle their worst anxiety experiences. Then the experimenters put them in an fMRI and read back to them the very stories they had just written, along with their most damning self-assessments, such as, "I am incompetent." Ouch!

Unsurprisingly, the circuits of their brains related to stress went haywire.

The researchers then split the group in two. They taught one group mindfulness and they taught the other group simple distraction techniques like doing arithmetic. And they ran them all through the fMRI all over again, complete with their social anxiety horror stories.

The distraction group didn't improve. They were still super stressed by the experience. But the group that learned mindfulness saw dips in their brains' stress response. They were less freaked out then they’d been before.

*           *           *

So, if there’s one thing that we definitely, definitely, definitely, for sure know, it’s that mindfulness can help you handle stress. You don’t even have to formally meditate – just cultivating some nonjudgmental observation of what’s happening in the present moment can be a big help.  For example, here are three super simple and wildly productive things you can do right now to bring your stress levels down:

1. Swing your arms

Yes, I’m serious. Get up, if you’re able to do so, and just start swinging your arms. Front, back, front, back. And as you do this, drop some awareness down into the body. Feel your arms swinging. Feel your breath breathing. Feel the sense of just being a body in motion while you keep swinging for at least two minutes.

2. Sit down

Now that you’ve swung your arms for a couple minutes, have a seat. Don’t worry too much about your posture. Just close your eyes. Feel your body. Feel your breath. Notice whatever sensations might be tingling through your senses after swinging your arms around.

3. Be nice to yourself

Most of us have a running commentary going in our heads. That’s okay. For the next couple of moments, see if you can nudge that monologue in the direction of kindness. Can soften the tone of your inner carnival-barker, just for a minute? You could even try a couple phrases, like, “Not everything’s a mess here,” or “Things will get done eventually,” or whatever might work for you.

(For further support, check out Joseph’s course on the app, where he goes deep into stress and the phrases we can use to manage our stress. For instance, his meditation “Expanding Your Comfort Zone” offers a number of good pointers.)

I’ve just scratched the surface here -- there are many, many studies out there about how mindfulness can help with stress. But even if those studies seem complicated, the practical takeaways are often very simple.  Ultimately, the best researcher is you!

It's easy to think of stress as something to escape or avoid. But in this meditation with Alexis Santos, you'll turn toward it with a sense of exploration, curiosity and friendliness.

nico hase is the co-author, with his wife Devon, of the new book How Not to Be a Hot Mess: A Survival Guide for Modern Life, about the subtle art of staying clear in the middle of a crazy world.

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