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Reactivity patterns: pinpoint your stress

Last Modified: April 16, 2019

Healthy Mind

Enjoy this monthly mindfulness post from Dave Johnson, PhD, CNS- BC, LMFT, employee assistance specialist.

Sometimes when I work with patient or corporate groups, I have to stop to remind them that I teach mindfulness practices not only because I think they are helpful for them, but it is a practice and reminder for me. We call mindfulness a PRACTICE because, like other life-affirming and wellness behaviors, it is not enough to know we should do something differently. Cultivating healthy patterns such as healthy eating, physical fitness and mindfulness requires a re-patterning of behavior so it becomes a way of being. I get frustrated with self-help gurus who spout out truths about what others should do, so I take ownership that my words and teachings are largely about helping me, and hopefully others might find a nugget or two as I meander with writing and teaching. 

Folks who know me well might describe me as intense (passionate), driven (competitive), and perhaps a bit stressed. I recently had a peer say to me when I was consulting about heart healthy pathways, “That of course … Dave you know how to manage stress.” These words shocked me because as much as I teach and practice daily, I would feel phony to say that my own personal stress is absolutely managed.

A bad habit of mine is a pattern of reactivity. I tend to “startle” easily and over commit to a life that I am passionate about. I truly believe that the body keeps score on physical, emotional, spiritual, social and world stressors. Science validates that we all have vulnerable body parts (hearts, skin, brains, guts, etc.) that are susceptible to “breakdown”.  When our body bank account of healthy coping and adaptation does not outweigh the stress response, illness occurs. We are all vulnerable and perhaps some of us are a bit more wired or have developed an unhealthy pattern of reactivity.

So if changing the pattern of reactivity is critical to health, perhaps taking an inventory of our daily patterns is a good place to start. Do you notice your patterns of reacting to stress? Do you also have awareness of kind, compassionate, soothing behaviors and thoughts that seem to provide an antidote to this reactivity? Here are a few of my thoughts as I attempt to move a bit more mindfully throughout the day.

  1. Waking up. What is your response to waking up? Does the alarm jolt? Perhaps it would be helpful to include an intentional 2-minute stretch each morning when you first awaken. Prime the mind to find a bit of calm, gentleness and gratitude to the start of a new day. Jumping out of bed and rushing to the shower that activates our day may be a pattern that is a bit more intense than required.
  2. Morning rituals. In the shower, do you begin to review your day and perhaps gear up for meetings, events or challenges that you will encounter?  Perhaps the narrative in your brain takes you to a confrontation or an unpleasant task that will need to be handled early. A mindful approach to the shower includes taking a few minutes to enjoy the warmth of the water, the soothing smell of the shampoo and soap, and perhaps being grateful for your feet that will move you throughout the day. 
  3. Savoring breakfast or a first cup of coffee. As we juggle our calendars or others in the household, perhaps the autopilot of busyness drives you from actually noticing some mindful moments to pause. Take 30 seconds to breathe slowly and deeply through your nose and exhale even a bit more slowly through pursed lips as if you were blowing through a straw. Bless your food, others you live with, or perhaps most of all, yourself. The world can seem demanding, intense, ruthless and unforgiving. The spiritual practice of blessing shows up in all the world traditions. Draw from the deep well of long traditions of stillness (even in the midst of chaos) to notice a pause, a savor, a well wish to the day. Notice others who use simple rituals that ease the mind and spirit as we launch into a new day.
  4. Mindful commuting. What is your practice and reactivity to the commute?  If you drive to work take time to turn off our radio and electronic devices for the commute to give yourself time to practice the art of mindful driving. Notice your driving patterns and if you are startled or stress as you make your daily commute. Including a bit of gentle music or simply appreciating or being more mindful of your responses to others. Is your driving on autopilot or are you actually aware of your driving? If you walk, ride a bicycle or have other means to commute to work, consider your pattern and ask if a less stressed or a bit more mindful approach is possible. If one must rush, is rushing a pattern of reactivity? If so, is it your intention to continue the pattern or seek a gentler way of commuting?
  5. Alter use of electronics. Ask yourself questions about patterns of bells and reminders that pop up and startle your nervous system to react. Sometimes we need to focus and simply think. Giving ourselves permission to pause and not respond might be an intentional adjustment to consider. This might mean adapting our computer and phone to be on silent modes when we are processing or working on details of an assignment. Making intentional small changes might help with overall productivity but also help us to minimize a continuous barrage of mini jolts to our nervous system. For many, there is a tendency to hijack with a bit of reactivity every time our electronics pulsate.  Recall our bodies have emotional memories and so to look at our current practices of reactivity may open us up to seeing possibilities to new ideas or ways to structure the input to our very core.   
  6. Consider lunch time rituals. Perhaps your lunch time pattern is sacred and peace filled. If it is, then protect it. Notice if your pattern is repetitive and mindless or provokes stress, anxiety, anger or intense emotions. Not only is eating nutritious food necessary for brain and body during meal time, but giving our brains a bit of respite from working is needed. Consider how your pattern is rejuvenating or not. Perhaps put into motion a new trial period whereby you mix it up. Have lunch with a different group one time per week or go for a walk and take your lunch with you. One thing for sure, make sure your pattern sustains and nourishes you.
  7. Emotional hijackings at work? Perhaps your job at home or work is especially demanding or stress-filled. Sometimes we lack control to change the expectations of others and the job itself. Coworkers, managers or even the culture may be beyond our control. Consider your reactivity (physical or emotional) patterns and responses. Can you tweak your emotional response? I notice that my normal pattern is to hold tension in my jaw and chest area.  Sometimes just pausing to notice where the tension is helps me to intentionally let it go. I reach to the back of my neck with my hand and squeeze briefly as a self-soothing-massage. Sometimes I activate a fake yawn which turns to a real yawn midway through the pause. Playing the fly on the wall of noticing where the body keeps score is important. Name it.  Intentionally breathing slowly and mindfully, ask the body to release unneeded tension. When my thinking mind ruminates about stress, talking it out with a close colleague, mentor, coach, therapist or friend is helpful.  Journaling is my friend and writing helps me pause and be intentional about changing reactivity patterns.
  8. Coming home. Noticing reactivity on re-entry can also be insightful. Often the demands of the home and juggling of needs of others is as stressful or more than the stressors outside our homes. Regardless, noticing patterns of reactivity and cultivating an attitude of non-judgment and compassion to ourselves and others can be helpful. Sometimes identifying rituals to support healthy transitions from work to home can help as well. A warm cup of tea, changing clothing, or actually scheduling 10 minutes to meditate in a private area is helpful. Going on a walk, doing fitness or yoga can be especially rejuvenating. For many of us, taking care of self seems impossible in the sea of endless doing for others. Pausing to notice our patterns of reactivity might be a place to start. 
  9. Get a restful night’s sleep. This could be a separate blog in and of itself.  Science confirms that the pattern of good rest is critical to rejuvenating the mind and body. If our sleeping pattern is constantly disturbed or disrupted, one can seek a consult or read about sleep hygiene practices that will support a good night’s rest. Sometimes changing a pattern of late night TV or activating our nervous systems unnecessarily is within our circle of control.  If our sleep cycle is out of balance due to an underlying event or specific stressor, consciously making change in this area can be life giving to many other areas of our life. 

Other resources: (sign up for free monthly word-based mindful healing exercises) from Dr. Dave Johnson and Kathy Curtis, healing artist

For a free 1:1 in person or phone consultation with Dr. Dave or to find out about more on Mindfulness & Stress Management programs, contact the Parkview Center for Healthy Living at (260) 266-6500. Dr. Dave also provides on-site guidance for teambuilding and transformational leadership, among other topics. To learn more about Employees Assistance Programs for your company, call Business Development at (260) 373-9013. Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) practice has been extensively researched and proven helpful for coping with stress and change, grief, healthy eating patterns, pain, anxiety, depression and many other chronic disease and autoimmune disorders.


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