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The mindful way through stress

26 Jan 2015 | Shamash Alidina

Mind Full Or Mindful For Web

Mindfulness is both a set of techniques and way of living that makes you more focused, calm and creative. The approach includes not only meditations but also offers a way of paying attention to your everyday activities, making yourself more centred, grounded and balanced.

Mindfulness meditation differs from other meditation techniques because it focuses on your present moment experiences rather than repeating a mantra in your head or visualising yourself in some distant relaxing place.

Mindfulness can help you reduce stress by developing a new level of awareness of:

  • the thoughts that trigger your stress
  • the emotions (yours and others') that can bubble into conflict
  • the physical signs that your body is excessively stressed
  • the behaviours that might contribute to heightened stress and also those that help you relax 

There are many ways to learn mindfulness. I'd recommend you check out the mindfulness-based stress reduction approach. Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is an eight-week mindfulness course originated in 1979 and usually done in a group setting with an MBSR teacher that has now been completed by hundreds of thousands of people.

MBSR is the most well-researched mindfulness course in the world, so it makes sense to start there if stress is a problem for you. The latest exciting brain science is showing powerful positive changes that take place in those that practice MBSR. Benefits include a more powerful immune system, improved communication, reduced stress and an improved ability to focus.

The aim of the course is to teach a range of different mindfulness exercises and meditations to help reduce your stress in the long term. The course also offers a chance to explore mindful attitudes and values so you can meet future life challenges in a way that reduces rather than increases your stress.

Finally, MBSR offers you a way of living so you can notice and take pleasure in the simple things in life that we all take for granted, and, in doing so, focus on what's going well in your life, not just what's going wrong--no matter how bad things seem to be.

When Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn and colleagues at the UMASS Medical School designed MBSR, the goal was to make the benefits of traditional Buddhist mindfulness meditation accessible in a secular way to people suffering from chronic pain and other long-term health conditions. The program was designed to include not only mindfulness meditation but also yoga, models about stress, group discussion, and ways of integrating mindfulness into daily life.

Depressed Girl

One of my clients, Sarah, was suffering from lots of stress due to a recent divorce and the challenge of looking after her mother. She turned to mindfulness in the hope to find some peace. As Sarah began to practice mindfulness exercises, she became more aware of how wild her mind was. All kinds of thoughts, many unconnected to what she was attempting to focus on, entered and exited her mind.

She also noticed how negative many of these thoughts were: "'I'm useless" and "What's wrong with me?" and "I can't cope with this job and all the other stuff going on." These thoughts kept going around and around in her head. Through mindfulness, she learned to step back from the thoughts in her mind so that they gradually had less of an impact on her feelings of stress.

Sarah also felt less tired at work due to an improved ability to focus, and so managed to work more efficiently and leave the office earlier. In the evenings, when she got home from work, she did a short mindfulness exercise. This helped her shift out of work mode and be more calm and relaxed at home. She learned not to feel so guilty when doing nothing - just sitting down and resting, or playing with her son, was okay, she realized. In fact, it was essential.

Everyone has a wild mind. We all overreact to the demands of our lives when stretched to our limits. Our world collapses in on itself and we lose empathy for others who are struggling just as we are when stress has us in its grip.

Fortunately, we need not lose hope that things can get better. Sarah's story illustrates that, if you practice, mindfulness can slowly and steadily soothe your mind and heart, positively nourishing all parts of your life. It's a bit like gentle rain soaking into a land of drought. The rain is mindfulness. The drought is the constant doing of modern living.

Your Body Is Present

I'm going to share with you a few mindfulness exercises from the mindfulness-based stress reduction program for you to try out. You'll find them much easier to do with a guided audio, but you can make do with these brief descriptions if you wish:

  • Mindful eating. Take a small piece of fruit and take about five minutes to savour it. Go through each sense for a minute and cultivate a feeling of curiosity. Notice the exact shades of colour of the apple, take time to enjoy the scent, close your eyes to become aware of what it feels like to hold this small piece of food in your hand. Rejoice in the wild range of flavours as you slowly chew and eventually swallow the fruit in your mouth. This process gives you a great introductory experience of what mindfulness is about.
  • Mindful body scan meditation. Lie down on your back with your arms and legs stretched out. Take anywhere from five to 30 minutes going through the sensations in your entire body, from the tips of your toes to the top of your head. Your mind will wander off to all sorts of thoughts hundreds of times. Each time you notice that, acknowledge and bring your kind attention back to whatever body part you were focusing on.  Be as patient with yourself as you can.
  • Mindful walking. The next time you're walking to work, the shops or wherever you're going, try this exercise: just focus on the process of walking and breathing. So take off your headphones, set aside your mental to-do list and just walk. Notice the feeling in your feet as you take each step. Bring a sense of inquisitiveness. Which part of your foot touches the ground first? How fast are you breathing? Do you breathe from your nose or mouth as you walk? Are your shoulders or jaw tense as you move? Just being aware of this bodily experiences cultivates greater mindfulness and can be a welcome change to the constant rushing of our lives.
  • Mindful breathing. Simply take a few minutes everyday to feel the physical sensation of your own breathing with a sense of affection and warmth. Each time your mind wanders off, gently and kindly bring your attention back to the breath. Sounds overly simple, but can be tremendously soothing with practice. The more you can feel your breath with kindness, the more you'll enjoy the process and the less your mind will jump about. And you can do the exercise anywhere, so it's even more portable than your phone - you can't leave your breath at work when you're going home!

 Mindful Way Through Stress    Shamash Alidina

The Mindful Way Through Stress acts as a friendly self-help guide, taking you through the evidence-based eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course, along with guided audio. The book is available to purchase from Amazon and other good bookshops.

Shamash Alidina is bestselling author of seven books on mindfulness, also including Mindfulness for Dummies. He offers online mindfulness training and teacher training. His approach is to teach mindfulness with compassion - turning mindfulness into kindfulness.

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