Stress depends on how you think about it.
We’ve all been there. You didn’t get enough sleep last night. The train is delayed and you miss your first meeting. Your boss, visibly annoyed, informs you that the meeting reviewed a huge project being put on your already overflowing plate. You feverishly play catch up, working through lunch. At some point you grab a black coffee (or three) and a Snickers, realizing you’ll likely be working through your dinner plans as well.
You eventually make it home, brain fried, energy drained, feeling defeated and a bit hopeless. You burst in the door with a scowl on your face, blurting out, “This isn’t fair! Does my boss not understand that I’m drowning in work? I need to quit. I can’t keep doing this. I don’t know what to do.”
Your partner looks on, scrambling for an idea to help “fix” the problem, whatever that actually may be. They attempt to lend some practical advice, saying, “Honey, you need to stop beating yourself up. Your job is the problem, not you. Maybe it’s time to look for something new. What about the job Rachel mentioned the other day? It may not be as senior as you’d like, but it’d be a new, more promising direction for you.”
All you process is that you are being told to apply for a job that is beneath you and that you aren’t good enough for your current one. You then lash out at them for being insensitive and patronizing, accusing them of not thinking you’re capable or smart enough to handle your current position. Your partner becomes hurt and angry that their attempt to help only made things worse. They respond by yelling, “Of course I don’t think that! How could you say that?” adding to your anger, as well as theirs, and fueling a vicious circle of arguments.
Irrational emotions can manifest themselves through a ton of different focuses, such as work, finances, romantic relationships, or your social life. We’re unable to control our emotions and lash out at others when, among other things, a part of our brain called the middle prefrontal cortex (mPFC) isn’t as strong as it could be. The mPFC is responsible for functions like emotional balance, response flexibility, attuned communication, and empathy—all of which are important when it comes to mindfully handling difficult times. If your mPFC is weak, you’re much more likely to react to stressful situations in unfavorable ways. This is where meditation practice can help you manage your emotions with a bit more ease, and in turn, avoid those tense situations where you might fly off the handle.
Studies show that repeated mindfulness meditation practice strengthens the mPFC, both in activation and in physical size. Neuroscientists believe that the mPFC plays one of the most important roles in integrating our higher, “intellectual” brain areas, such as the frontal cortex, with areas lower in the brain that manage our raw, survival-focused “emotional” areas, such as the amygdala.
In the example I used earlier, you came in the door exuding raw emotion from your amygdala. Your partner responded with their rational frontal cortex, trying to help while also trying to avoid exacerbating your emotions. The result is that the two of you were in opposite mental states, and meaningful communication simply wasn’t possible. Having a stronger mPFC allows the brain to bridge the gap between your “thinking” and “feeling” areas, rather than letting your feelings rule the roost. By integrating and connecting the two, you can tune into your emotions without being overwhelmed by them. This allows you to find a calmer, more rational response. The integration and connection of the two is what mindfulness meditation helps cultivate and grow in the brain, as well as between couples.
Next time you find yourself having a less than stellar day, take 10 minutes to listen to your breath, to feel your body, and to watch these emotions bubble up and then float away. Practicing mindfulness in order to bridge the gap between thinking and feeling will help protect you from the dangers of getting carried away by your emotions, allowing you more control over your actions, and ultimately choosing the rational response that will help grow your relationships with friends and loved ones.
The author of this post is an editorial contributor to Headspace. These are their views, experiences and results and theirs alone. This contributor was paid for their writing.