Mind the Gap; the brilliant technique for being less stressed!

Mind the Gap Image

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 

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10 Top tips for establishing a daily meditation practice

Meditation has been shown to make us happier, healthier and less stressed, the only problem is that to feel those benefits we actually need to do it!  Here are my top tips…

  1. Prioritise it. Take responsibility for your own happiness.
  2. Schedule an appointment with yourself (and stick to it).
  3. Ask for help. You being the best, less stressed version of yourself benefits everyone around you. Ask those close to you to help you make time to meditate.
  4. Do it first. We are very good at doing deals with our self like ‘when the house or my desk is tidy, then I will meditate’. We are far more likely to get the tidying done quicker, be less distracted and enjoy it more if we’ve meditated first. Meditate first, it doesn’t matter if there is mess because when you meditate you have your eyes closed!
  5. Bring the right attitude. If you approach meditation as ‘just another thing to tick off the list’ you make it into a chore, not a pleasure.
  6. Make it work for you. Most people find that meditating first thing in the morning sets them up for the day, however there are no hard and fast rules, making an appointment you can keep is the most important thing.
  7. Be flexible. It would be wonderful if we all had a little candle-lit meditation room in our house where knew we wouldn’t be disturbed. Realistically you might need to meditate on your train commute or in your bathroom with the loo seat down and the door locked. Don’t wait for the perfect conditions, there are no perfect conditions – dogs will bark, planes will fly overhead, the world will go on turning and this is all part of the practice.
  8. Start small. It is better to follow your breath for a minute than to not meditate at all. If all you can manage is a minute today then start there. Perhaps tomorrow you will manage five minutes, next week ten. If you honestly cannot find a single minute in which to follow your breath you probably really need to reassess your life.
  9. Just do it. Even if we are feeling ill or have had the manic day from hell (especially then) we can still lie down, close our eyes and breathe.
  10. Take it one day at a time. If anyone told us we’d have to do anything every day for the rest of our lives that would be too overwhelming to cope with. Life isn’t like that; we only ever have to deal with life one moment at a time, one day at a time. You cannot change what happened yesterday but how you choose to respond to where you find yourself today will shape your life.

Finding the time is usually the main concern of those first setting out on their voyage of meditation. For me, really taking a look at what else I was spending my time doing was a revealing exercise – how much time do we spend checking Facebook, watching TV or procrastinating about life? We have to decide whether we are prepared to use some of that time for meditating instead.

Meditating every day is not always easy, you might not always want to do it, but once you have made it a habit and felt the enormous benefits you won’t want to go without it either.

Ultimately the thing which is usually standing in your way of your practice is you. Meditation is the process of recognising resistance and letting go – this takes place not only in the bit where we sit there and close our eyes but on the way there too, and throughout our lives.

The hardest journey is often the one to our seat.