A Simple Way to Stay Grounded in Stressful Moments

by Leah WeissNovember 18, 2016

Mindfulness should be as much a physical practice as it is a mental one. Given its name, you might think mindfulness is something you do only with your mind. In fact, lots of research, including my own, has shown that paying attention to our bodies is often an easy way into mindfulness and helps us reduce stress while it’s happening.

This may seem counterintuitive because when our mind is overwhelmed, our body is often the last thing we’re thinking about. If we notice our bodies at all in moments of stress, most likely it is as they interrupt: carpal tunnel syndrome, back pain, breast pumping, teeth-cleaning appointments, sore feet, sick days, or simply the routine hunger that forces us to stop what we’re doing multiple times a day and eat. Yet if we focus our attention on our bodies, they can be our anchor in what’s happening right now, even if the sensations are unpleasant.

This is how anchoring works: We bring our attention into our bodies, noticing — rather than avoiding — the tension, circulation, pain, pleasure, or just neutral physical experience of, say, our right shoulder or the arch of our left foot. This practice helps us snap back to reality. In fact, our bodies are the quickest, surest way back to the present moment when our minds are lost in rehashing the past or rehearsing the future.

We cause ourselves a lot of unnecessary suffering when our minds aren’t paying attention. The amygdala, located in the brain’s medial temporal lobe, is the part of the brain that detects and processes fear. When our amygdala is activated by a situation that is interpreted as a potential threat, even if we are just reading an unpleasant email, it initiates physiological changes such as increased muscle tension and accelerated breathing. This association becomes so strong that we take the body’s reaction as evidence of danger, just as Pavlov’s dogs took the sound of the bell as evidence of dinner. As a result, a vicious cycle can develop wherein the increased muscle tension and rapid breathing caused by an activated amygdala further activates the amygdala. Thankfully, we can use anchoring to break out of it.

One of my students who was working on a startup business used to repeatedly panic before meeting with potential venture capitalists. His mind would spin with fears of the worst outcomes: his pitch rejected, his business idea exposed as worthless. Once he learned to tune into his body, to use a brief minute to anchor by taking a few breaths and feeling his feet on the ground, he calmed down and became poised to have much better conversations. Here are some simple, effective anchoring practices you can use.

Stress is an inevitable aspect of our lives at work, but you don’t need elaborate practices or escape mechanisms to engage with it. You simply need to have the wherewithal to ground yourself in a physical sensation, to anchor and come back to reality. You need only a brief moment to tap your feet on the ground and be reminded that you have a reliable and ever-present instrument to mitigate your stress. And, it just so happens, you were born with it.

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