There is nothing more beautiful than a Jerusalem sunset – or sunrise, if you’re an early riser like me – seeing the light reflecting off the Jerusalem stone. It’s breathtaking, and it’s easy to stop and take it all in. But then of course we get sucked right back into the busyness around us, bombarded by the sounds of our phone ringing, the microwave beeping, and messages pinging. It’s enough to increase or exacerbate our stress level – and that’s after enjoying a calming moment to appreciate nature’s beauty.
Stress is everywhere. Small bouts of stress are part of the rhythm of life, and can actually be helpful as a motivator to respond quickly to potentially harmful situations. But chronic stress that builds over time can be debilitating. The soup pot you forgot that is overflowing on the stove is a real stressor that demands an immediate response – turning down the flame. The unrecognized phone number flashing on your screen could be that call you were dreading all day, or it might be a friend with a new number. You may feel stress until you figure out who is on the line.
Stress is physical. Our body reacts to stress in a very physical way. Our heart rate increases, our blood pressure rises, our muscles tighten, and we begin to breathe rapidly. This is known as the stress response, the “flight, fight or freeze” mode our body takes on in response to a real or perceived threat.
Lessening stress with DBT. As a DBT therapist at Machon Dvir in Jerusalem, I teach clients to apply Dialectical Behavior Therapy skills to low-level stresses, such as a work meeting, and give them the tools to respond to physical and emotional experiences in a way that won’t compound their stress. One such DBT skill is mindfulness, the ability to be focused and present in the moment.
The key is Mindfulness. Mindfulness allows us to loosen our muscles, take deeper breaths, and focus our attention outside of ourselves. These are ways to address the physical stress we feel in our bodies. Not only does mindfulness help reduce the daily stresses that build up over time, it is an opportunity to connect to positive experiences that may lessen stress responses in the future.
Here are three ways to help lessen stress and move forward:
1. Just Breathe
This might sound simple, yet we often forget to breathe, particularly when we are stressed. Mindfulness encourages us to focus on our breath, which involves slowing down and to pace our breathing. This will allow more breath into our bodies, which in turn will help with the shortness of breath and rapid heart rate we feel when stressed.
Taking a few minutes to take deep breaths in and out in a relaxed position can be transformative as a response to stress.
2. Take a look around you
Too often we operate on automatic pilot and barely notice our surroundings. Being able to focus on things in front of us brings us to the present and enables us to counter the stress response. When we are being mindful, we notice the scene around us, the feeling of our feet on the pavement, the conversation we’re having with a friend (rather than distracted thoughts about what to make for dinner).
There are endless opportunities to focus on what is happening around us. We just have to consciously allow ourselves to pay attention and focus on the experience happening right in front of us.
3. Give it your attention
Stress is an experience that tells us something about our situation. It may be preparing us to spring into action to ensure our proper response, or it may be telling us to be nervous about something which is only based on our perception. In that moment, stress needs your attention: it is something to be noticed and identified. Being mindful of current emotions means you are noticing and identifying your feelings in the moment, and letting them pass. Not pushing them away, but rather watching emotions like a wave going in and out to sea.
If we can ride that wave of emotion and not have it crash over us, we can reduce the stressful feeling and respond effectively to whatever comes next.
These exercises only take a moment – as long as it takes to respond to that Whatsapp message – and yet the effects can be long-lasting, giving us opportunities to enjoy even more beautiful sunrises and sunsets.
The World Health Organization has designated April as International Stress Awareness Month.