Stress is Black and Blue

March 2, 2011 | Mindfulness


Monday morning.  Your boss approaches your desk and says, “I’d like to have a word with you.  Come to my office at five  o’clock.”  You nod, and your mind goes into a tailspin.  What’s this about?  Cutbacks?  Or did I miss a deadline?  What time is it?  9:05?  What could this possibly be about?

Chances are your mind will continue this tailspin throughout the day, and by the time five o’clock rolls around, the state of your body will be showing signs of the state of your mind.  Your stomach might be tied up in knots, your blood pressure high as a kite, or your neck and shoulders tensed up to your ears.  Whatever the meeting turns out to be, you’ve spent the last eight or so hours in a process that in my classes we call bruising.

The easiest way to explain bruising, and how to manage it for the health of our minds and bodies, is to set up another scenario: If I were to hit your arm with just enough force to slightly crumple a piece of paper, would it leave a bruise?  Probably not.  But if I were to stand there for eight hours and thump you like this again and again, by the end of the day your arm would be black and blue.

That is what happens to the body when we spend prolonged periods of time rehashing and rehearsing stressful thoughts.  Every time we have a stressful thought, there’s a physical experience of it in the body.  Prolonged experiences of stressful thoughts ‘bruise’ the body.

A mindful way to reduce this type of bruising is to do the same thing we’d do if someone were physically hitting us: we would create some space.  And we create space in the mind by shifting our awareness from the stressful thoughts to the present.  You can use the feel of your breath, the feel of a pencil in your hand, the feel of your weight in your chair.  Moving your awareness to anything experiential creates a space between your thoughts. Then from that safe space you can choose to refocus your mind on your work instead of the stressful thoughts of what’s coming at five o’clock.   And if the stressful thoughts arise a hundred times in a day, we practice letting them go as many times by shifting our awareness again and again back to the safe space of the present.

Then when five o’clock rolls around and the boss tells you what a wonderful job you’ve been doing, she won’t need to make a safe space from you.  Hey, it’s always possible!

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