With the holiday season upon us, a Grass Valley psychotherapist suggests an ancient concept as an antidote to the stresses of this modern season.
“Be mindful,” suggested Marty Cottler, PhD, who also offers classes about mindfulness through the Wellness Center at Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital (SNMH).
“Then find compassion. We talk about mindfulness and compassion separately, but they are interwoven, as two parts of the same experience.”
If you find yourself filling with negative stress, step back, Cottler said. Mindfulness is recognizing what’s going on “at the moment, and without judgment.”
Then don’t ask yourself why you’re so stressed, he said, but what it’s doing to you.
“Just recognize what’s going on,” he said. “Do you have butterflies in your stomach? Are your neck and shoulders tight? Are you filled with lousy thoughts?”
Once you’ve become mindful, focus on your breathing, Cottler said.
“Step back and practice belly breathing,” he said. “Take 30 seconds and pay attention to your breathing by watching your belly move in and out. This breaks the stress pattern in the brain.”
Compassion is recognizing the suffering that comes with negative stress, and feeling a desire to help, he explained.
“Most of us can recognize suffering in another person, but it’s much harder to do that with ourselves,” he noted.
When we see someone stressed and suffering — perhaps Uncle Harry being obnoxious at the family gathering — Cottler suggests this compassionate approach.
“Step back, do your belly breathing, and approach Uncle Harry while saying to yourself, ‘Uncle Harry, may you be safe, may you be well, may you be happy, may you be at ease.’”
When we repeat phrases like this, it changes our blood pressure, regulates our heart rate, oxygenates our blood, and releases neurohormones, filling us with positive instead of negative feelings, he said.
We can use the same kinds of words on ourselves, Cottler added.
(Learn more about mindfulness based stress reduction at Cottler’s Ancient Disciplines for the Modern World website, martycottler.com.)
David Swetman is the SNMH chaplain who deals with patients, families and sometimes staff members experiencing varying levels of stress.
“For me, our stress level can be found on a continuum that runs from gratitude to negative stress, and we slide back and forth on it,” he said. “If we focus more on the things we’re grateful for, there is a natural tendency for that to reduce our stress.”
We can also manage stress more effectively if we look at “the big picture,” Swetman said.
“If we don’t look at the big picture, we don’t see that ‘this too shall pass,’” he said. “Take a breath, stop and get perspective. Holding on to the big picture helps reduce the stress of the moment. Recognize that if we’ll just hang on for a bit, everything will change. Except for major life experiences, we usually can’t even remember the things that stressed us out last month. ”
Swetman emphasized two words that cause a lot of stress around the holidays.
“Should and ought are stress words,” he said. “We should do this, or we ought to do that. We’ll be less stressed if we reduce our focus on those words and prioritize what we want to do. We go unconscious when we go into the should mode, and we can find ourself still doing things at 60 that Mom told us to do at 6 that may not be appropriate anymore. Anytime we go on auto pilot we’re not conscious, and when we’re unconscious we don’t have any choice. And with no choice, there is no freedom.”
Debbie Wagner, RN, director of the SNMH Wellness Center, said she keeps her stress down just by simplifying.
“I don’t bake 500 Christmas cookies, or send 1,000 holiday cards, but I will spend my time being with my family and friends, attending church services, and volunteering where I can be useful to some nonprofit serving the community,” she said. “Setting realistic short term goals is also a great tool for managing stress. When we learn not to over commit, over shop, over eat and over spend, we are learning self-management skills that work all year long.”
All physicians providing care for patients at SNMH are members of the medical staff and are independent practitioners, not employees of the hospital.