The freedom of a present mind: how I embraced mindfulness to decrease stress

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Jeff B., MS, CWC, AbleTo Behavioral Coach, shares how chronic stress impacted his life, the unexpected effectiveness of mindfulness in overcoming this challenge, and how the experience has strengthened his relationship with patients.

By Jeff B., MS, CWC, AbleTo Behavioral Coach

I remember being a kid in grade school, waiting in line for the pool area during swimming lessons. I was so nervous about swimming my stomach was in knots. Once in the pool, actually having the lesson, I was suddenly fine. No knots, no nausea. The nerves were gone. That’s my earliest memory of how stress showed up in my body, but I didn’t know it as stress at the time. Fast forward to when I started college, that’s when the impact of stress became debilitating for me. Things grew beyond stomachaches and bouts of fear. Suddenly, I was experiencing high blood pressure at the age of 22. Panic attacks would occur out of the blue. I didn’t understand what was happening to me, but I was convinced I had some kind of serious physical illness that doctors just hadn’t found yet. I didn’t know at the time that I was showing worsening signs of stress.

Stress is any real or perceived threat to our bodies. But I like to differentiate between acute (helpful) and chronic (bad) stress. For example, you’re walking to your car and suddenly a large dog comes running at you as if it were going to attack you. Your body will react to get you out of that situation, sending you running towards your car to get out of harm’s way. Once you’re in the car and safe, your body will go back to normal. The stress experienced was short lived and helped you quickly react to danger. In the days that follow, you want to walk outside but you start having fears about the dog attacking again, thinking of all the “what-ifs.” The stress has now put you in a heightened state of awareness for an extended period of time, fueled by your thoughts. Acute stress turned into chronic stress, to the point that it’s interfering with your everyday life.

Sometimes, the physical symptoms of stress I was experiencing would go on for days. At one point it manifested as gastroenteritis, the inflammation of the stomach and intestines, which made me extremely sick. It was so debilitating, I had to take a leave of absence from my job and school. I remember how horrible the pain was, the days I would just lie on the bathroom floor, sick. It was a horrible way to live.

Back in college, I exercised, lifted weights and was in pretty good shape. So, just like the fitness professionals and trainers told me, I was convinced doing more cardio would help alleviate the stress. I started using the elliptical more but quickly realized I was not feeling any better. Leaning into working out clearly wasn’t the answer for me. I decided I needed some kind of medical intervention and visited my doctor’s office. I was hyperventilating and he asked me a simple but profound question, “What are you all worked up about?” I thought about it and responded, “Well, what do you mean? Just living my life?” It was true, nothing in my life was necessarily going wrong but my body was acting as if it was. He pointed out that I may want to pay more attention to my thoughts and how they might be affecting me.

Brought down by my own (inaccurate) thoughts

I eventually learned that my stress was fueled by thoughts I was having, particularly intrusive and negative ones. Thoughts I didn’t even realize were going through my head from the time I woke up until I fell asleep at night. It was a lot to sort through! But once I started recognizing those thoughts for what they were, I realized how much they were affecting me. I was having thoughts I wasn’t even aware of! My doctor asking me to observe my negative thoughts was the first step in the right direction. The second step was challenging those thoughts.

“My doctor asking me to observe my negative thoughts was the first step in the right direction. The second step was challenging those thoughts.”

Practice make perfect

I’d love to say I saw immediate results, but despite all these realizations, learning this process took time. As challenging as it was, I was determined because I was sick of being sick. So I set out to learn all I could. Mindfulness took a while to grasp until it resonated with me. But like our participants learn in AbleTo programs, retraining your mind takes time. Eventually, I started noticing some calming effects after spending a few minutes of mindfulness or engaging in some kind of self-care. I realized when I’m focused on an activity that I enjoy doing, there’s no intrusive thoughts coming through. Once I made that connection, I knew mindfulness was working for me.

One of the biggest thoughts I had to learn to challenge was comparison. It wasn’t until I started paying attention to my thoughts that I noticed how often I compare myself to others. I could be in the grocery store and I’d just compare myself to someone I saw using negative, unrealistic self-talk, diminishing myself, and inflating others. I didn’t even know these people. I just saw the things they had—a type of family or job status—and thought that’s what I needed. At the time, I saw myself as an outlier that didn’t quite fit in, which increased my stress. I’d question myself wondering, “What’s wrong with me? I’m not where society says I should be at this age.” As I challenged those thoughts, my religious faith played a role in helping me overcome that notion, knowing that I’m really not operating under society’s timeline. I decided I wasn’t going to let society dictate where I should be in life and whether I’m doing well or not.

Learning to confront and control my thoughts

When I think back on my experience with debilitating stress, my biggest takeaway is that I don’t have to be a victim to my thoughts—I can control them. For me, it was embracing mindfulness and present moment techniques. For someone else it could be meditation or journaling. These are simple steps that take practice and commitment. In the end, it was well worth the time because learning how not to be stuck in my thoughts has really helped diminish my stress levels. As a result, I achieved many of my life goals from finishing college to moving away from my home state to live near the ocean. I know I’m never going to be stress-free, but the difference is that it’s no longer a debilitating experience that makes me feel physically sick.

I was able to do so much more in my life once I learned to confront and control my thoughts. It’s been a journey, but I’m definitely in a much better place because of it. Today, when I’m coaching participants and helping them stay on track with their mental health goals, I can relate to what they’re going through, especially when they don’t realize it’s stress that’s hindering them. When I talk to them about techniques like mindfulness, it’s not just because I read it in a book. It’s because I practice it everyday and I can look them straight in the eye and tell them that this works.

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