Americans are facing a stress-induced mental health crisis over the pandemic and concerns about healthcare, the economy, the election, and racial strife, according to a new national survey.
Almost 8 in 10 adults (78%) say the pandemic is a significant source of stress in their lives, while 3 in 5 (60%) feel overwhelmed by the number of issues America faces, according to the American Psychological Association’s study, “Stress in America™ 2020: A National Mental Health Crisis.”Gen Z adults reported their average stress level during the prior month at 6.1, on a scale from 1 to 10. The average stress level reported among all adults is 5.0.
Our brain and nervous system is not designed to operate in a default state of chronic stress. Living this way damages our mental and physical health, including exacerbating depression, anxiety, high blood pressure and abnormal heart rhythms, making us more prone to heart attacks and stroke.
Fortunately, we can train the brain to default to what I call a love-based neurological state. Through internal training exercises such as deep breathing, meditation, and consciously shifting our focus, we can learn to live in a place of creative and critical thinking rather than fear.
Fear is a primal emotion. When we feel threatened, our sympathetic nervous system activates the fight-or-flight response, including short rapid breathing, elevated heart rate, and tension in our muscles. The brain chemicals that trigger the fight-or-flight response serve a useful purpose to keep us safe from imminent threats, but damage our health when chronically activated.
Think about deer grazing in the forest. They spend the vast majority of time in a relaxed, peaceful state, eating, sleeping, and breeding. When they sense a predator or other threat, they quickly shift into flight mode, but once the threat has passed, they default back to a state of calm. Many people, however, find themselves living in a default state of apprehension, worry, and fear.
How Fear and Anger Make Us Stupid
I define stress as a chronic fear-based state. People who live under constant stress have a continual sense of foreboding that robs them of the ability to think clearly, creatively, and strategically.
When we are in a state of fear or anger, or in alignment with any fear-based emotional pattern, we are stupid. The reason: We have lost access to the higher states of being directed by the prefrontal cortex. This is the region of the brain responsible for executive functions such as processing information, focusing attention, anticipating events and consequences of actions, managing emotions, and planning for and adapting to change.
We need all of these capabilities to navigate the challenges we face. The power of inner training and focus can us to help shift out of fear, anger, and other negative emotions, and into positive states that support our health, well-being, relationships, and success.
Internal Training Can Break the Cycle of Stress
We can restore the body and mind to a calm and composed state using internal training like meditation and breathing techniques. These activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which turns off the fight-or-flight response by slowing respiration and heart rate. This allows us to access and activate love-based states in which we are able to think clearly and creatively. A lot of beneficial things can happen from there, including higher performance and a general sense of well-being.
The first step is to train your mind and body to get out of a fear-based, fight-or-flight state. The four-sided breathing exercise can help.
To practice this breathing technique, sit up straight with the center of your head over the center of your pelvis. Sit comfortably either on the floor or in a chair. Close your eyes and place your tongue behind your front teeth, allowing it to rest against the roof or palate of the mouth. The four-sided breathing practice has four steps:
1. Breathe a gentle inhale into your lower abdomen for three to four seconds while focusing on your center. Your center is located two inches below the belly button and an inch back toward the spine.
2. Pause and hold your breath for a second or two.
3. Exhale fully for three to four seconds.
4. Pause and hold your breath for another second or two.
Continuing to focus on your breath, repeat this four-sided breathing technique over and over again for 20 minutes. If your mind drifts from focusing on your breathing, gently acknowledge whatever thought is occurring and redirect your focus back to your breath, without judging your level of focus.
Harnessing the Power of Focus
Breathing exercises such as the four-sided breath allow you to center yourself — no matter what is going on around you — and develop the ability to choose how you want to show up. But breath work alone won’t retrain the brain and nervous system to stay out of that default state of chronic stress.
If the new APA survey is accurate, many of us are walking around with our stress meters on “5” on a 10-point scale most of the time. In this state of perpetual angst, it doesn’t take much to activate the fight-or-flight response. We need to practice actively refocusing our thoughts to establish calm as our resting (default) state.
One way to do this is to ask, what do I want to answer to? Whatever we focus on, the mind will answer to that focus whether it is aligned, not aligned, or neutral to what we want to create. So if something happens and I focus on what did not go well, I will answer to that by feeling anxious, sad, or worried, and I will end up taking action out of that internal experience. That may elicit a negative reaction from the people around me, and even lead me to an undesirable result.
We can break out of this cycle by consciously re-focusing our thoughts on what we want to achieve. Once you have used the four-sided breath to get calm and centered, think about the outcome you want to create in the situation you face. This will generate a different interior experience — one of hope, optimism, and inspiration. That will allow you to execute at a much higher level.
In this place, my impact on the people and events in my life is going to be very different than it was when I was in a fear-based state. My focus actually generates the results that I get in a very direct way.
The key is to understand that our emotions drive our thoughts, words, and actions. Once we understand that, we can use the tools available to us to restore and maintain calm, creativity, and a productive focus in all that we do.