Women's Lives: Stress and joy by Aoife Valley

One of the reasons mindfulness has become so mainstream these days is because science is proving its benefits.

Women's Lives: Stress and joy by Aoife Valley

Too much stress and not enough joy was the reason I started meditating ten years ago.

I had experienced high levels of panic and depression since I was a child and by my late 20s I had had enough. I was sick of living like that. I knew that joy was possible. I just didn't know how to find it.

Luckily I then found out about retreats in Ireland and the UK where people meditated in silence for ten hours a day for ten days at a time. The meditation was called vipassana and was from the Buddhist tradition. This same meditation has been adapted for secular society and called mindfulness. On these retreats I found the joy I had been missing and released lorry loads of the stress that had taken me over.

One of the reasons mindfulness has become so mainstream these days is because science is proving its benefits. It is showing that we can actually change our brains and even our gene expression no matter our age or physical condition. Neuroplasticity and epigenetics are the terms they use for these natural functions of the body/mind that exist in us all.

I started teaching these wonderful meditation techniques to others five years ago and find that there are so many ways to explain what's happening when we meditate. A very simple explanation is that we are moving from stress to joy; from suffering to peace.

A certain amount of stress can be helpful in navigating our days and keeping us energised. However, the kind of chronic, overwhelming stress that many experience today is not.

The body's survival system is referred to as the Fight/Flight/Freeze response or Triple Warmer energy. This system, when operating smoothly and appropriately, keeps us safe, healthy and in balance.

When it is overstimulated we can too often experience persistent fear, aggression, anxiety, depression, fatigue, worry, dissociation or panic-attacks. All of these symptoms put pressure on the other systems of the body which can then lead to illness

The survival system is a sophisticated natural evolution designed over thousands of years to keep us alive. When it is triggered the body/mind experiences a series of reactions whose sole aim is to keep us safe no matter the long term cost. With the over abundance of technological, chemical and relational stimuli we encounter these days, the stress switch is simply getting flipped too often.

Silence and reflection

This, coupled with the lack of time each day for stillness, silence and reflection, is why chronic stress has become epidemic. People of old sat round their fire mornings and evenings, surrounded by dawn sounds or nighttime silence. Their senses would have been clear enough to tell them they were safe and they could, therefore, deeply relax and let the systems of the body perform vital restoration.

The distractions and noise many of us surround ourselves with these days stand in the way of this restoration. Mindfulness meditations morning and/or evening are ways of making sure the body/mind gets some time to restore.

The feeling that comes when we are not stuck in survival mode is one of simple joy in being alive. It is the joy we see in children and animals, where every new day is an adventure. For many people it is a great surprise to find this joy again and a gift for it to become part of daily life once more.

Making space in the day for inner joy to arise and the stress response to dissolve is as important as cleaning the body and stimulating the mind.

When I was growing up in the North there was violence inside and outside the home. My survival response was switched on all the time. I was always afraid. There is only so much of that a living organism can take. At some point the systems will shut down.

When I found mindfulness meditation a whole new life began. As pains and illnesses dissolved I found the joy that I had always thought was only for 'lucky' people. This is an ongoing process as I meditate and grow mindfulness each day. My peace gets deeper and deeper and I know that the joy I feel will keep growing til I take my final breath.