Module 3

How Stress Affects The Mind

Stress is a mind-body experience. When we experience stress, we feel it in both the body and the mind.

Interoception: The Mind-Body Connection of Stress

The body has five basic senses: taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing. It also has interoception, the sense that alerts your mind of what’s happening in your body. It’s how your brain perceives internal physical sensations, and how you interpret those sensations impacts how you respond to stress.

Interestingly, both higher and lower interoceptive ability can increase stress and anxiety. There’s a balance between being overly aware and being disconnected from physical sensations. Either way, you can learn to view your body as a valuable source of information rather than interpret physical sensations as threats. This is, in fact, an important aspect of mindfulness – being open to and accepting of the present moment, including what you feel in your body.

Your body is constantly being triggered by stressors, and your brain eventually picks up on them, notices sensations in the body, and responds by creating a narrative around the situation. These narratives are often based on learned beliefs – often limiting beliefs – such as “I can’t do this” or “It’s too much.”

Responding to Stress

The mental response to stress is usually subconscious because it happens so quickly – right after the immediate physical response. It follows this basic pattern:

  1. A stressful event happens.
  2. Your body responds.
  3. Your mind responds by creating a narrative based on physical sensations you feel.
  4. You react to the stressor.

While you can’t always control the physical stress response, you can listen to what your body is trying to tell you and shift its response by stimulating your parasympathetic nervous system. For example, you can focus on rhythmic breathing, do a quick body scan, or make yourself a cup of soothing tea.

Shift the Story

When you experience stress in the moment, you have the opportunity to pause, tune in to what’s happening in your body, and shift how you respond mentally by choosing a more empowering narrative. The goal is to lengthen the amount of time between the initial feeling of stress and your reaction to it in order to give your brain a chance to respond intentionally rather than reacting immediately.

With practice, you can learn how to separate the physiological sensations in your body from the thoughts your mind assigns to a situation. Once you can do this, you can shift the story your mind is telling you, which opens the door to finding creative solutions and reduces feelings of stress.

Select the physical and mental responses for each event to learn how you can shift the response.

Your Boss Yells at You

Physical Response

Your heart races, your face flushes, and your body tenses.

Mental Response

You think ... I am worthless

You Have to Give an Important Speech at a Big Event

Physical Response

Your chest feels tight, you start sweating, and you feel nauseous.

Mental Response

You think... I'm not capable of doing this.

Your Bills Are Pilling Up and You Just Received Another One

Physical Response

Your neck and head immediately start hurting, your breath shortens, and your hands get tingly.

Mental Response

You think... It's to much stress, and I'll never be able to dig myself out.
Pause and Reflect

Consider how you tend to respond to stress, both physically and mentally. How might you shift your stress story in high-stress situations?