10 Minute Mindfulness to Combat Stress.

You’re facing a tight deadline or a high workload at work, you’ve got a big game coming up and it’s playing on your mind, you’re having some problems in your relationship or your finances are tight and it’s beginning to cause you concern.

Stress can arise in many different situations and in many different guises. Most people I speak to see stress as something that happens to someone else or don’t like to admit that they are feeling stressed themselves. Even when I point out that they are exhibiting some classic symptoms of stress they are reluctant to admit that they might be stressed.

So let me get this out of the way early on.

Stress2Being stressed does not mean you are weak, incapable, incompetent or disorganised. It can though be an indication that you are pushing yourself too hard, not taking enough time to recuperate or rest, or just experiencing a difficult period in your life where you have very little control or influence over the outcome.

Stress can present as agitation, illness, lack of energy, insomnia, loss of focus, headache, fatigue, gastro-intestinal issues, anxiety or social withdrawal.

For myself, often the first indication I have that I am stressed is my scalp becomes dry and itchy. I can now recognise this as an early indicator that I am stressed and take action to bring my stress levels back down. In the past it has manifested as IBS, headache, anxiety and insomnia, I rarely reach the kind of stress levels where I end up with any of those particular stress symptoms anymore because I pay much better attention to looking after myself these days.

If you are having trouble sleeping it’s a pretty good indicator of high stress levels, and the lack of quality sleep exacerbates the situation. Stress can cause us to develop tunnel vision; we can become totally focused on the cause of our stress (an evolutionary throwback which at the time served a pretty valid functional purpose, if you are being chased by a tiger you don’t want to be distracted by the beautiful sunset) to the point where it is all we can think about. We ruminate and recycle the same thoughts over and over while never coming to any solution.

121167638No wonder you feel tired! The brain uses up 20% of the body’s energy, a much higher percentage than most people would have imagined I’m sure. With that in mind then consider that stress ramps up brain activity as stress hormones kick your brain into overdrive to deal with the stressor you are facing and you can begin to see why people feel ‘wiped out’ when they are stressed or working too hard.

This can cause over tiredness and also make it difficult to sleep as the build-up of stress hormones keep the mind in a hyper-vigilant state to cope with the perceived external threat.

Even in the best of situations we rarely get everything we want so most of the time we are negotiating that space between getting what we want and being ok with what we get. At times though the situations we find ourselves having to negotiate are so far from where we would like to be that that dissonance is enough to lead to prolonged and elevated levels of stress.

Let’s say that the demands placed on you at work might have increased over time. This can often be the case when someone is particularly good at their job but finds it difficult to say no or draw a line in the sand that says “Ok, this is the limit at which I can function at a sustainable level”.

big_stressImagine that you measure stress levels on a scale of 1 to 100. As workloads increase, expectation levels rise and you find it increasingly difficult to deal with the demands placed on you your stress levels at work might climb to 90. They might drop off a little when you get home and try to rest but as your brain is still trying to figure out a solution you never really get back down the scale. You might get down to say 65 but still be unable to really let it go meaning that you never really get to rest. This can mean that when you go back to work, or whatever the stressful situation is, you aren’t fully rested and because you never really managed to get out of the stressed mind-state your levels quickly shoot back up to 90.

Mindfulness can help you to regulate those stress levels by allowing you to bring them down to a more manageable level.

Mindfulness, as I like to think of it, is really creating a space where you focus on bringing that level down as low as you can for a short while by consciously creating quiet space for your mind. This allows your body some time to recuperate, as the levels of stress hormones in your body decrease, and your brain to rest. It also means that the time it takes to get back up to 90% is increased as you are starting from 15-20 instead of 65. Over time and with regular practice it can slow down the onset of the stress response as the brain learns to regulate itself a bit better.

mindfulnessMindfulness practice has also been shown to improve focus, increase awareness and reduce mind wandering while also reducing the impacts of stress. Long term practice can even increase tolerance for stressful situations meaning that we are slower to become stressed in the first place.

There’s a mobile app called Headspace which has short mindfulness meditations on it which lead in to longer ones if you feel like it as you progress.

Or there are many free mindfulness resources on the web where you can download guided meditations. You can easily find 5 to 10 minute body scan exercises to get started with.

http://www.freemindfulness.org

Doing that and making time where you can for self-care and exercise can make a big difference to how you experience stress.

Coping with Stress…

We all have different methods and strategies with which we navigate our journey through the challenges that we face in our everyday lives. We may utilise different strategies at different times or in the face of different problems but most of us will have a ‘go to’ style for dealing with our problems. This ‘go to’ style is how we predominantly deal with stress. It’s our primary coping strategy.

imagesAt the risk of making a sweeping generalisation, most people seek coaching because either their current problem-solving strategies or coping mechanisms are failing to deliver the results that they have in the past or they are insufficient to take the person to the level at which they want to operate.

Our coping strategies or perhaps more importantly our adaptability and flexibility when it comes to choosing which coping strategies we employ are an important factor how we deal with stress.

Poor coping skills can lead to elevated levels of stress and anxiety, drop off in performance at work or in sport, problems in our family or social life and can lead to lowering levels of self-esteem and self-efficacy both key factors in the onset of depression.

In the past the degree of success a person had in coping with stressors was thought to be fixed and linked to personality traits or styles. Now though we know that coping skills can be learned and the more and varied the coping strategies we have available to us the better prepared we will be to deal with the stressors we experience.

There are many tactics which people use to lower their stress levels in the face of a stressful event. We could ignore, avoid or accept the existence of the stressor by, postponing starting the assignment that is due next week, or passing by that ‘Final Notice’ letter that has been sitting on the table for three weeks or convincing ourselves that the girlfriend who just left wasn’t any good for us anyway and we are better off without her. These are examples of emotion-focused coping strategies.

Or we could engage, assess or influence the problem by sitting down to write the assignment, open the ‘Final Notice’ letter and try to figure out a plan of action for dealing with it or going out to try to meet someone new. These examples demonstrate problem-focused coping strategies.

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Obviously some of these strategies are more effective than others but they are all chosen for the same reason, to lower stress levels. Some do so by providing some kind of distance from the stressor to give some temporary relief and others by engaging with the stressor in a more proactive manner.

Problem-Focused or Instrumental coping strategies focus on engaging proactively with the problem with the goal of finding a viable solution or changing the relationship with the stressor. This might include strategies such as;

  • Gathering information to better understand a problem.
  • Finding alternative approaches or solutions.
  • Changing or adjusting goals
  • Developing new skills or standards of behaviour
  • Taking positive action aimed at resolving the issue.

Problem-focused coping strategies are generally seen as being more effective in dealing with stressful situations.

Emotion-Focused coping strategies are primarily concerned with changing our emotional connection with the stressor. These might include such strategies as;

  • Avoiding or ignoring the stressor.
  • Mindfulness practice.
  • Minimising the impact of the stressor i.e. “Ah, it’s not that bad really.”
  • Catastrophisation or imagining the worst possible outcome in order to prepare ourselves.
  • Psyching yourself up to deal with the stressor.
  • Distraction i.e. TV or eating.
  • Reappraising the situation i.e. “I’m probably better off if I don’t get it anyway.”

Emotion focused strategies are seen as being less effective than problem focused strategies but may be the only option available if the stressor is outside the person’s ability to influence or control.

As we face problems and challenges in life though it is rarely a case of picking either an emotion focused or a problem focused approach to dealing with what we experience. We generally end up using a mix of both as we try to find a way to deal with the challenges we face.

This makes it all the more important that we practice and explore different methods of dealing with the stress and stressful situations we experience.

The more we practice and explore the different coping strategies the more flexible and adaptable we become in how we manage the stressors and challenges we will inevitably experience.

Does the coach always need to be the expert? The benefits of peer coaching.

For the most part in sport in order to be recognised as a coach you would need to have a certain level of knowledge, experience and expertise in the game that you are coaching. In the sporting world at least the coach is seen as the expert.

Of course they are! It wouldn’t make much sense to have someone who doesn’t know what a sliotar is coaching a hurling team.

In order to be able to develop the players on their team the coach needs to have a vision for how the player will grow, what the skill development trajectory is and when the player might need additional support. They need to have an overarching knowledge of the game and the requisite experience to be able to plot out the player’s development path, they need to think ‘Big Picture’ as well as being able to teach the individual skills necessary to master whatever sport they are involved in.

But is the expert always the best person to teach a novice a new skill? 6205979382_746598b35c_o

Cognitive psychology tells us that there are certain oversights that experts often make when teaching a new learner and these oversights are down to how the brain stores information about complex tasks. In order for a coach to be able to teach a new skill to someone they need to be able to access the individual steps of the process from their own experience. Simple right?

In actual fact it’s not so simple at all. Different types of information are stored in different ways by the brain. Procedural Memory or memory to do with well learned motor skills is unconscious and for good reason, imagine that every time you had to drive your car you had to think about concentrating on steering, braking , accelerating and watching the road all at once. That’s a lot of attention to have to give to a lot of different tasks!

In order to help us out with this the brain slips the complex motor skills necessary to manage this task into our unconscious and lets them carry on happily in the background while we watch the road and admire the countryside. So procedural memory holds the set of instructions that allow us to dunk a basketball, head a football or type a text on your phone.

Explicit memory is freely accessible and allows us to figure things out on the fly or remember what we were meant to get in the shop. Explicit memory is also what we use when we learn a skill for the first time. Can you remember a time when you were learning a new skill for the first time? Trying to keep all the steps of the sequence in your mind while trying to convince your body to obey the instructions you are relaying to it?

Its a challenging experience, as is all new learning and growth, but the more you practise the easier it gets and the more you practise the more your brain tucks away into your procedural memory until the act becomes natural and eventually unconscious. so the better we become at something the worse our ability to remember the distinct components of the action gets.

smart-phone-use_smallMost of us have had the experience of having a kid try to explain how to operate their new phone, as they fly through the menus and screens the accompanying verbal instructions go something like ‘You just open this and then go in to this, click this menu and pick this drop-down and once you save that you open up a new profile and start your game from there…’. 6 seconds gone and I’m none the wiser.

However having this information about how the brain stores information can help us in understanding how best to teach novices new skills, and it turns out that someone who has just recently learned a new skill is far better at gauging how long someone will take to learn a new task than the experts generally are. Their experience of working from explicit memory is much fresher and so they are much more aware of the challenges the new learner faces.

So eventually I get on to the benefits of peer coaching! When coaching young players it can be extremely beneficial to put the kids who are picking a new skill up faster than the rest of their peers coaching those that are finding it a bit tougher. Some coaches might worry that this is holding the faster learners back but the research shows us that both kids learn better in this arrangement. The kid who picked it up more quickly gets to reinforce their learning by having to think about the process again while the kid who is struggling gets instruction from someone who knows how difficult the task is and has each step of the task fresh in their mind.

An added benefit of this set up is that it helps the kids to understand that not everyone learns at the same pace and it builds empathy and team cohesion as everybody helps each other out. And when it comes to under-age players who’s main reason for participating in sport is to have fun and make new friends it helps them to get what they need from a social standpoint too.

Resources

Choke: The Secret to Performing Under Pressure by Sian Beilock