How Stress and Mindfulness Impact Your Body and Your Brain
Your heart beats faster. Your breath becomes short. Your muscles grow tense. When you’re stressed or anxious, your body goes into fight or flight mode and your brain releasing adrenaline and cortisol. For the most part, this is a good thing, and it’s why our species has existed for so long.
But this same reaction that exists to keep you alive and able to escape threats can also make you miserable state, and it can even damage your health if it keeps happening over and over again. Fortunately, Joree Rose says practicing mindfulness can help.
Joree Rose is a licensed marriage and family therapist, mindfulness and meditation teacher, author, and speaker. She has helped thousands of people around the world live happier, more fulfilling lives by decreasing their stress and anxiety and breaking unhealthy habits, patterns, and mindsets.
Divorce and the other family law situations our clients are going through are among the most stressful in life, and the intensity can last for months and even years. This means that our clients may find themselves in prolonged circumstances that can trigger that fight or flight stress response.
How Stress Affects Your Body
“We know that the way our brain is wired, that we get triggered, and our fight, flight, freeze mode gets activated. Our brain tells us there’s a real or perceived threat, and our body produces a physiological response, and we get so amped up,” Joree said.
There are any number of family law issues that can push someone into a biological stress response, such as when an ex or soon-to-be ex wants to change the custody schedule to accommodate a vacation or an ex makes a parenting decision that goes against our established norms or values.
These situations, though not actually life-threatening, can elicit a similar response from our bodies. When that occurs, our hypothalamus, the control center in our brains, sends the signal to our body to release the adrenaline and cortisol, and our bodies do. But Joree explains that practicing mindfulness during these times can help limit the duration and the intensity of the episode.
Using Mindfulness to Alleviate Stress
“I jokingly, but not so jokingly, say mindfulness is the answer to everything,” Joree said. “Whether you’re sitting in traffic or dealing with cancer or anything in between, the tools are the same because it’s all about how you respond versus reacting to whatever is arising in the moment.”
These strategies helped her in her own divorce process five years ago.
“Had I not had a mindfulness practice, I would have really, really struggled a lot more than I actually did,” Joree said. “Because I remember there were times where, even though I was the one who really wanted the divorce, it was still not easy, right? But when we give ourselves the space for that stillness and silence to connect with our breath, we start to shift.”
When we’re in those fight or flight moments, our reactions tend to not be very skillful. That’s when we say things we don’t mean and when we don’t have the clarity of mind to think through our thoughts or to accurately give space for our emotions before speaking or acting.
But, by practicing mindfulness, she said we can make room for emotions and find the time and space to be more skillful in our reactions and responses. By simply being aware of what’s arising in our bodies, minds, and emotions, we have the ability to pause and regain some control over our reactions to the situation.
“In that pause, you create space between those overwhelming thoughts, those overwhelming emotions, those triggers,” Joree explains. “And in that space, after you have that awareness and you’re in that observation mind, you have the ability to choose, what’s a skillful response to this right now? And one of the ways to help you get to that skillful response is by taking a few deep breaths.”
The Science Behind Mindfulness
Joree said that when we practice mindfulness during stressful situations, our breath activates the rest and digest part of our brains, and that response is the opposite of the fight, flight, or freeze response. Once the rest and digest part of our brain is activated, our emotional brain calms down, allowing the executive functioning part of our brains to take over, and that’s the part of the brain that controls logic, reason, rationality, decision-making, clear thinking, and language communication.
“When you’re in a situation that is highly triggering, you’re acting out of the emotional brain almost all the time,” Joree explains. “That’s why, after the fact, you might think, ‘Why was I so triggered? Why couldn’t I have a good conversation?’ Well, it’s because you couldn’t access the part of your brain that allows you to have that healthy, productive, effective conversation.”
But practicing mindfulness gives you a framework to be able to respond and not react and can be the solution needed to get through those challenging, triggering moments.