Mindfulness Techniques to Help You Manage Stress

Learning to meditate doesn’t mean never feeling stressed. It means that when stress happens, you have a life tool available to help manage it.

Lodro Rinzler has written multiple books applying Buddhist theory to conundrums of modern life, including anxiety, heartbreak and working in an office. He also runs a five-month course on Buddhist meditation, and trains future mindfulness teachers.

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Rinzler’s newest book, Take Back Your Mind: Buddhist Advice for Anxious Times, guides readers through using meditation and other Buddhist practices to rethink their approach to anxiety and stress.

Although Rinzler has been practicing meditation since he was a child, and teaching it since he was in college, he modestly says that he still has lots to learn. Writing Take Back Your Mind and all his other books have been masterclasses for him too.

Like everyone else, Rinzler runs into frustrating situations and big problems. And like most people, he admits he could sometimes handle them in healthier ways. Studying the ways stress and anxiety affect our minds and bodies taught him that it’s normal to feel these things sometimes: but we can act to mitigate how intense it is, and how long it lasts.

Here, Rinzler explains why anxiety only adds to unavoidable pain, why difficult emotions are like fire, and some of his methods for interrupting anxiety before it spirals.

The Analogy of the Two Arrows

Stress is unavoidable in life, whether it comes in the form of something minor — like a traffic jam — or major, like a serious illness. What you can change is your response.

Buddhism has an analogy for this, about the first and second arrow.

As Rinzler recounts, you’re walking through the woods and someone suddenly shoots you with an arrow. Instead of focusing on finding medical help, you curse the person who shot you, your misfortune, and the injustice of the situation. “We keep perpetuating the stories about it, and those stories keep us locked in that state of pain,” Rinzler says.

The first arrow represents a distressing situation — the kind everyone faces at some point. The pain caused by that first arrow was unavoidable: We couldn’t have seen it coming or prevented it. But our fixation on that pain becomes a second arrow, one that prolongs our suffering. We could have avoided that second arrow if we’d chosen to respond differently to the first arrow.

In our real, hopefully arrow-free lives, we recognize this second arrow as anxiety. “It’s me holding myself in a state of pain, because I’m telling myself stories,” Rinzler says.

Meditation, he explains, teaches us to interrupt the stories we tell ourselves about all the things we’re worried about. It makes us the author of our own minds.

“The more we train the mind, [the better we learn] I don’t have to chase after every rabbit hole of stressful thinking that comes up: I can cut it off and come back into the present moment,” Rinzler says.

 

How to Cut off Anxiety in the Moment

This isn’t a one-size-fits-all method for addressing anxiety as it comes up. Rinzler recommends several approaches he finds helpful when he recognizes that he’s telling himself those stress stories:

Take three deep breaths.

You’re stuck in traffic, you’re late for a meeting, you dropped your phone and broke it, and someone just cut you up on the interstate. In short, your blood is boiling and your mind is racing with distinctly unpeaceful thoughts.

Here’s an easy aid: Inhale and exhale for three deep breaths. Stress starts in your brain, but what you do with your body affects how you feel. Taking deep, intentional breaths can create enough of a break in those churning thoughts for you to get a new perspective on the situation.

Rinzler uses this one himself. “It’s 30 or 45 seconds… and it cuts through long enough for my body to reset, for my mind to take a fresh approach, and then I can go in a different direction,” he says. It takes even less time than laying on the horn — and it will make you feel much better.

 

Ask yourself, is this helpful?

Talking back to the stories you find your brain cycling through can also help create one of these much-needed breaks in your anxiety spiral.

Trying to reason with them can just dig you in deeper. Instead, ask questions.

Rinzler recommends using “Is this helpful?” or “Is this useful?” The first time you ask yourself this, you’ll probably still be running through possible scenarios, which do feel helpful. Our brains have evolved to plan our way out of problems, after all.

However, as Rinzler says, “After the 50th time, where we’ve planned every potential conversation, if you say, ‘Is this helpful?,’ the answer is probably going to come back, ‘No, it’s not.’” It may not be an immediate brake on those stress stories, but it can help you recognize when your response is no longer beneficial, and it’s time to try a new approach.

 

Practice gratitude

You can do this even when you aren’t feeling particularly stressed: It might make it easier to access when you really need it. All you do is ask yourself what you’re grateful for.

It doesn’t have to be formal or lofty. Rinzler says that he does his gratitude practice right before he gets out of bed.

“It’s rambly, and it’s messy… it’s even repetitive at times,” he says. “You know, ‘[I’m grateful for] these animals, my spouse, and the fact that we have a roof over our head.’ It’s very basic stuff, but it brings us to a state of gratitude first thing in the morning, before we start to pick up momentum.”

Practicing gratitude when you are stressed is not about denying yourself the right to feel that way. It’s acknowledging that you are having those difficult feelings, while also choosing to focus on something more hopeful.

 

Humanize the person you’re annoyed with

This is another approach that benefits from practice outside of stressful situations. When someone is frustrating you, especially a stranger, take a moment to picture what they have been doing for the rest of their day.

This has two effects. First, it gives you empathy for any difficulties they might be facing — which may be the reason they’re being so insensitive to you. Second, it makes them feel less like someone who wronged you unjustly, and more like a person who isn’t inherently bad, but who has bad days and makes bad decisions.

Rinzler admits that it’s a tall order. “There’s this initial tendency to go, ‘Nope, I don’t want to think of the humanity of this person: I don’t want to make them feel real to me,’” he says. “It’s easier if they’re a cartoon villain — but that’s not actually helpful.”

Try practicing when you’re in a good mood. Look out your window and imagine the lives of the strangers you see outside. Learning to see people as people, in all our fallible glory, will help you take slights less personally, and react less intensely when people inevitably let you down.

You Can Accept Difficult Emotions Without Being Overwhelmed

None of these methods require you to squash down your anxiety, or try to deny its existence. The very fact that you need a way of addressing anxiety is a tacit acknowledgement that it exists.

Rinzler explains that there’s a difference between accepting your hardest emotions and becoming overwhelmed by them.

He uses the analogy of a fire. The fire represents anger: “I can bear witness to it, I can feel the warmth of it, I can hold my hands to it,” Rinzler says. “And that is very different from what we often do, which is grab tanks of gasoline and pour it on the fire. Those tanks of gasoline are all the stories about why we’re right and the other person is wrong. … It becomes all-consuming and overwhelming, and burns down the forest: We end up paralyzed by our own anger.”

Meditation is the mental equivalent of feeling the warmth of the fire, acknowledging how it feels and accepting that that’s OK, and then backing away.

“If we’re holding our hands up to a fire, and we don’t add anything on top, at some point the fire dies out of its own accord,” Rinzler says. “That’s what happens when we don’t add all these stories to these strong emotions: They naturally pass.”

The tranquility people associate with mindfulness doesn’t come from having no problems, or from ignoring the problems you have. It comes from knowing the difference between letting those problems fizzle out on their own, or burning you out.

 

The conversation with Lodro Rinzler continues on the Leading with Genuine Care podcast. We talk more about common misconceptions about meditation, the Buddhist concept of loving kindness, how to recognize the impermanence of emotions, and more. Connect with me on Twitter and LinkedIn and keep up with my company imageOne. Check out my website or some of my other work here.

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