Just about anyone who’s enjoyed a yoga class can tell you that there can be an almost-unmatchable brain shift that comes along with it. You feel clearer, more centered, and less frazzled than when you walked into class. The problem for many (certainly for me) is what happens after: The feeling tends to slip like sand from your grasp when you hit all the realities of regular life. The negative thoughts, worries, and self-doubts all creep back in, and the wide-open feeling that came from the practice somehow contracts.
Which brings up the age-old question of how to conjure up the in-class experience when we’re going about our business in the outside world. Case in point: The stress response. When it comes to the stress reaction, I have lots of experience, but few qualifications in cracking it. Yoga, I’ve found, can be amazing for this purpose, as are other physical activities, but it’s not always possible or appropriate to whip out your yoga mat at work or on line at the grocery store. So, I wanted another reliable way to turn off the stress response: How do you use the brain alone to flip the switch?
The answer, I thought, might lie in mindfulness; I know this to be true intellectually, but it’s hard to put into action. Because mindfulness is easier said than done, and I wanted the most empirical explanation of the process, I talked to a young doctor who also happens to be mindfulness expert. The perfect combination. (See the next post for a brain researcher’s explanation of how mindfulness works.)
Sarah Dolgonos, MD, explains that the stress response is both physical and mental, which is both a blessing and a curse. “Once the physiological response is started, we have entered into a state of anxiety and our thoughts will continue to match the revved up state of our body.” This revving up of the mind to match the body (and likely, the reverse, too) becomes the cycle that we need to shut down.
This is precisely why stress can be broken with physical activities – yoga, a jog, a hot shower. “A different set of hormones are released when we work out or take a bath…Physical activity also takes our mind off the stressful thoughts, and activates different parts of the brain, so we can reset our minds.” But using the brain alone is clearly the other piece of the puzzle, and it’s this that I’m really interested in.
“The trick is to break the pattern,” she says, “and we can do that solely through the power of our minds. Through meditation, we become familiar with the thoughts that run through our head. We can recognize stressful or negative judgments, and decide to dissociate from them.”
Now we’re getting closer. It’s not so much about “turning off” the reaction, but more about learning how to separate our selves from our thoughts, so that we can step gracefully, and swiftly, out of the cycle. We tend to think that thoughts define us, but at best they are silly, at worst, they are damaging, and mostly they’re stressful – all good reasons not to get too caught up in them.
Meditation, especially mindfulness, helps one view one’s thoughts as just that: thoughts, and nothing more. “We label them ‘thoughts,’ and don’t give into the spiraling physiological response that normally ensues,” says Sarah. Getting to that place is not easy, since it’s often our instinct to “buy into” all the things that flit around our heads. But it seems like arriving at this place – where thoughts, of any kind at all, are welcomingly accepted but easily released – might be an incredibly pleasant place to exist.
Are you able to step out of the cycle and see your thoughts as just thoughts? Please tell us your story below.
Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog.