If someone told you something you’re doing is adding to your stress and harming you, you’d probably stop doing that thing. Right? Under stress, most of us automatically have circling thoughts that keeps us stuck. Kayakers say the best way to escape when you’re trapped in a turbulent, funnel-shaped current known as a hydraulic, is to relax, and the hydraulic will spit you out. If you fight against the current, it keeps you stuck— even drowns you. The same principle holds true for floating (instead of fighting) when you’re caught in a riptide or leaning into a curve (instead of away from it) when you’re on a motorcycle so you don’t flip. It even applies to natural childbirth where, instead of tightening the body and resisting labor pains, mothers-to-be accept and go with the labor pains (not against them), which reduces both pain and obstetrical problems.
Allying With Instead Of Fighting Against
It’s simple science, but when it comes to stress, applying this principle is easier said than done because it’s counterintuitive, and your survival brain doesn’t get it. How many times have you been told to combat, beat, conquer, fight or battle stress? When you stop to think about it, that makes no sense. Why would you want to beat or conquer something that Mother Nature hardwired to protect you and help you survive? Consider the fact that going to battle creates a fight-or-flight cycle (much like the hydraulic example) within you. An adversarial relationship between you and stress only keeps you mired in frustration, anxiety and reactivity. The key out of the stress prison is to “ally with the stress.” Befriending your stress creates inner stillness.
I’m reminded of a time when I had a low-grade fever that made me sluggish and concentrating difficult. I underwent every test known to humankind, the results of which were negative. I became frustrated and resentful of my fever because it kept me from being on top of my game, or so I thought at the time. It finally dawned on me that it was protecting me—defending my immune system from foreign invaders. I asked myself, “Why am I attacking the very thing that’s taking care of me?” I course corrected, focused on the fever and sent it love and support. I literally spoke to it inside saying, “I’m your ally, behind you all the way.” The next day it was completely gone. This allied approach works with stress in much the same way. When you befriend it (or ally with it), you disarm its power and start to feel calmer and more relaxed.
Caught In A Stress Cycle? Let It R.A.I.N
I had the distinct privilege of interviewing psychologist Tara Brach, Ph.D., author of Radical Acceptance and True Refuge and one of the world leaders in mindfulness meditation. I asked her how meditation can interrupt and extricate us from the circling thoughts I mentioned above:
“If we’re anxious, we’re going to be caught in thoughts,” Brach said. “The way we try to solve our problems is by circling thoughts. It doesn’t help, but this is what we do. One of the central trainings in meditation is learning the skill of recognizing thinking as thinking and having the choice to come back to some present-moment sensory experience. The most common is the breath. Or it might be sounds, the feelings in the body in the sitting posture or a set of words. That gives enough of a perspective that thinking is thinking so we don’t have to believe our thoughts. The biggest gift that comes from meditation for many people that really changes their lives is, ‘I don’t have to believe my thoughts. I’m not my thoughts.’”
I asked Brach if she would walk me through the R.A.I.N. process that she developed and speak about how it extricates us from the stress/anxiety hydraulic. The R of rain is to recognize; the A of rain is to allow what’s there; the I of rain is to investigate; and the N of rain is to nurture. “By way of example,” Brach said, “I worked with a woman in a new job where she was highly qualified but intimidated by the CEO who was short-tempered and brusque. She would go to weekly meetings and feel anxious and not able to bring forth all she had to offer. We trained in RAIN.”
R = Recognize: Brach said before the woman went into the meeting, she would notice how anxious she was and mentally whisper the word anxious. “If you note the emotion, it activates the prefrontal cortex and calms down or reduces the strength of the limbic system,” Brach explained. This is where you step back and observe the anxiety without reacting to it and simply name what’s present, such as anxiety.
A = Allow: The Allow doesn’t mean I like this. According to Brach, “It means I’m willing to pause and let the anxiety be here, not judge or fix it—even if it’s unpleasant. So I’m willing to be with anxiety without trying to change it.”
I = Investigate: “Try to find where the anxiety is living in the body,” Brach said. This involves investigating in a somatic way—not cognitive or intellectual analyzing. An attitude of curiosity (a feeling of tenderness if possible) helps you stay open to exploring where the stress is located. Brach said for this woman, it was a squeezing, twisting in the chest. “I often encourage people to put their hand where they feel it to bring attention to it,” Brach said. “So instead of running away, you’re investigating and staying with the experience. For her, the fear needed to be accepted that it was there.”
N = Nurture: The N of rain is to nurture and bring compassion to what’s there. Brach said this woman let her hand on the heart be a comforting, loving touch, and she sent the message to her fear that this belongs. And it’s okay. “That gave her more space, and she did that before each of the weekly meetings,” Brach said. “She was able to develop a pathway back to her natural intelligence and clarity that was being covered over by her anxiety.”
Suppose you have a pattern of stressing out before a deadline, job interview or big presentation to colleagues, and it interferes with your ability to put your best foot forward. You swim around in the toxic soup as the thoughts circle in your head, and you make mistake after mistake. “That pattern is grooved in the brain,” Brach told me. “If you can begin to notice, ‘Okay, this is an anxious thought,’ then take a few deep breaths and come back into the body, in those moments of interrupting that pattern you’re beginning to introduce a new neural pathway. With practice, you can change the whole pattern of anxious thinking and living to one where you have much more stillness, calm and perspective.”
The Practice Of Looking Within
According to Brach, the inner practice that can give us the most strength, intelligence and empowerment is the U-turn: “Shifting our attention from, ‘Oh, that bad, attacking, aggressive boss’—from what they’re doing wrong to what’s going on inside when this is happening,” she explained. “We might feel anger back at them. Then we find out what’s under the anger which is probably fear or hurt, so we feel that. In other words, be honest with what comes out and nurture that with self-compassion before we respond to the person. If we respond right when we’re triggered, we’ll perpetuate a cycle of hostility and reactivity. But if we make the U-turn, get in touch with ourselves and bring self-nurturing, we respond from our whole resources with a lot more strength, clarity, intelligence and compassion. Usually when people are acting out, something is going on in them. And we’ll see how they have a leg in a trap.”