Stress used to rule my life, expressing itself in many guises. Highly emotional and easily upset, despite the pretence of a hard exterior even the slightest of criticisms pierced my very thin skin. Often the red mist would descend, amid flashes of anger I’d suddenly become a shouty, stompy (occasionally throwing things) version of myself. Back then I might have described myself as passionate and fiery, in denial about how destructive my outbursts were to my relationships with others and with myself. Huge waves of self-loathing and hot tears would usually follow one of these fits. I’d replay the fight or incident, rerunning and reimagining the dialogues, struggling between the need to be right and the potential I might not be. Writing this raises many uncomfortable and embarrassing memories. But it also raises a little smile in me, because I can say, hand-on-heart, things do not push my buttons in the same way anymore. I cultivated a technique I call ‘Mind the Gap’ which worked so effectively for me it changed my behaviour and reduced stress across all areas of my life. I’ve gone on to teach this to many hundreds of my clients since.
It came from recognising that the stress, anger and upset in my life wasn’t coming from outside forces, it was coming from inside me. When we take ownership of our stress we have an opportunity to respond to where we find ourselves rather than be stuck in the cycle of unconscious autopilot reactions.
It was the most minor of mundane events, the alarm clock went off – the sound was enough for me to want to throw the alarm clock out of the window, to wish I could throw myself out of the window. Anger and anxiety shot through me, a precursor to the cycles of worry that I knew would shortly kick in. Then a realisation; the alarm clock was just a machine with sound coming out of it, the stress didn’t come from there. The day, just a day of my life, the stress didn’t come from there either. The stress came from me, how I was reacting to a sound and my thoughts around this. In this split second of awareness I was able to see myself almost like having an out-of-body-experience. I could witness my behaviour, feel my physical reactions and see the thoughts that were feeding this. I was able to step back and see that this pattern that had been appearing in all areas of my life. Usually an event, situation, comment or even thought served as a trigger for my stress reaction, I’d then fly off the handle, disappearing into a series of stories of my head rather than the reality of the situation. I’d got well practiced in living in the worst-case scenario world of my thoughts, constantly acting from defence mode as if at threat from some immediate attack. I’d been reacting not to what was in front of me but to the tale I’d created around that and at the very route of that reaction whether expressed as anger or tears was always fear. I’d been living in hyperarousal, so often it only took the slightest thing to tip me into fight or flight. In becoming aware of this something shifted in me, I’d created a really small space in which I could witness myself and how things really were. From this space I could see that I had some choice about how the next moments played out – I could either continue to react or choose instead to respond. For me, and so many people I’ve worked with, this moment of recognition is transformative. Like switching from autopilot to manual, a claiming back of power.
Here’s how the ‘Mind the Gap’ technique works and how you can implement it into your life. Firstly it’s helpful to recognise that stressors are external pressures and stress is your reaction (or response) to those pressures. Therefore, stress doesn’t come from ‘out there’ it comes from inside you. Usually what feeds our stress is not the situation but our thoughts around it.
When we are operating on autopilot we automatically react to stressors;
Stressor > Reaction.
When we bring our awareness to what is going on for us, we give ourselves the opportunity to notice when we are in a potentially stressful situation, be aware of our thoughts, feelings and what is going on in the body. By switching from autopilot to manual we create space in which we can choose to respond rather than react:
Stressor > Gap > Response
With our mindful awareness we get to ‘Mind the Gap’ between an event and our reaction, hopefully choosing to respond rather than react.
So, next time you find yourself in a stressful situation remember that stressors will be stressors but it’s your stress and notice how awareness of this helps to dissipate your feelings around it. For example, in a traffic jam we have a couple of options:
Option 1: Be incredibly annoyed/upset/angry about the traffic jam, worry about the knock of effect of your lateness, catastrophise about possible outcomes, allow damaging stress hormones to rush around your body.
Option 2: Be in the traffic jam.
Either way the traffic moves no faster. The force of your upset has no impact on the traffic, the only person it has an impact upon is you. Stress in small bursts can be useful but living in a constantly stressed out state we become distressed, our immunity to disease is weakened with both the quality, and possibly quantity, of our lives reduced. The more we practice minding the gap the more we develop a ‘not-minding so much’ attitude to life. After all we are not in the traffic, we are the traffic – whether we choose to be stuck in it is down to us. Wherever I’ve encountered a similar stuck feeling this insight has helped me enormously. I won’t claim to always get this right but I’ve learned to let go more, of the need to be right and of the struggle with what is. Ultimately as we raise our level of consciousness we come to recognise that resisting where we are or fighting with the past is a huge waste of our energy. We can instead channel this energy, the most precious of resources, more wisely. How we respond to where we find ourselves is our greatest power in life, stepping into this our most empowering choice. Mind the gap and witness how this gap grows, becoming space and lightness. This space has allowed for more compassion, humour and creativity than the former stress-head me would ever have dreamed possible.
This piece, written by Frances Trussell was first published by Psychologies Magazine 15th August 2018: Link to original article on Lifelabs here.
You can now order a copy of Frances’ new book: You Are Not Your Thoughts: The Secret Magic of Mindfulness