Imagine you are walking down a dark street alone at night. Suddenly you hear a noise behind you. Your sympathetic nervous system kicks into action getting you ready to run away or turn around and fight the stranger who you believe to be following you. Your heart starts to pound, your pupils dilate to search your surroundings for a safe place to run too and all your blood redirects away from you internal organs an towards your limbs to help you run. You are in a state of stress and so you should be, this is our innate reaction to danger. It’s the clever way we humans are designed to protect ourselves.
Now imagine that you stop walking, switch on a torch, turn around and shine the light behind you to find that it is just a young woman walking alone, looking as nervous as you are to be out alone in the dark. You feel a great sense of relief and now that the danger has passed your parasympathetic nervous system takes over to return your body to a state of equilibrium. Your heart rate slows, your blood pressures drops, the blood begins to circulate to your vital organs again and all is well
When we have a fearful or stressful thought, our bodies have the same (if slightly less pronounced) fight or flight reaction. We think about the interview we have tomorrow, a deadline we might miss, or the public speaking event we have planned and the stress response activates in our bodies. A lot of the time we are lost in stressful thoughts without being aware of it and so our poor bodies are in a low-level stress response for much of the day. The anxious thoughts are like the stranger following us down the dark street.
We can over come this by using mindfulness practice as the torch-light that we shone on the stranger. When we bring our awareness to our thoughts, and question them, we are shining a light on them and they are no longer a threat to us. They are just thoughts.
Developing a mindful meditation practice helps to develop awareness of the thoughts and emotions that are with us throughout each day. We can learn to observe the thoughts without getting carried away by them. We become masters of our minds rather than being mastered by our minds, and ultimately we feel the benefit in our bodies as our stress and anxiety levels diminish.