“I want to reduce my stress levels” –
This is one of the most common reasons people come to a mindfulness course and fortunately they are in the right place.
Firstly, our reactions to stress tend to be habitual. Have a think about the way you react when you are feeling stressed. Do you get caught up in a spiral of negative thoughts and find it hard to focus or think clearly? Do you get angry and start shouting? Maybe you suffer silently keeping it all inside, while it plays havoc inside your body. Often our habitual reactions and behaviours around stress are unhelpful and ultimately make us feel way worse, therefore creating even more stress – This is the stress reaction cycle and it is not pleasant!
How does this start? Well every time we have an experience we make an internal assessment of it. If our brain interprets it is as threatening to us in some way this triggers a stress reaction and the body releases stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. This is the normal stress response function and it helps us to deal with the stressful situation. Once the stressful event has passed the body and the mind calms and we return to a balanced state. Now the brain doesn’t differentiate between life threatening situations and other types of stress like social stress. Most of the stress people experience these days tends to be social stress or time stress and they experience it repeatedly which can create a state of chronic stress. This is where the stress reaction cycle is no longer functioning normally.
Now lets go back to the sentence ….”If our brain interprets it is as threatening to us in some way this triggers a stress reaction. “….Now the thing is that people differ in what they call stressful. For some, a project deadline might be seen as exciting and challenging. While others might have overwhelming feelings of panic. This shows us that it is not the situation or experience, but the way in which we interpret it that leads to stress reactions.
What can mindfulness meditation do? Mindfulness is the awareness that arises through paying attention, in a particular way, in the present moment – non judgementally. As I mentioned our stress reactions tend to be habitual, therefore automatic. When we practice mindfulness and bring awareness to what is going on, we learn to respond skillfully to the stresses we face rather than react. This helps us to break unhealthy habits of behaviour and to establish healthy coping strategies. How do we do this?
S. Stop – When you notice stress arising just pause whatever you are doing, close your eyes if possible.
T. Take a Breath – Of course as long as we are alive we are always breathing, but actually start to notice the very fact you are breathing. Bring your full attention to the each in breath and each outbreath. Follow the full duration of a few breath cycles.
O. Observe – Acknowledge what is going on for you in this moment. Observe the type of thoughts you are thinking, observe your emotional state, observe how your body is feeling. You might also bring awareness to anything else happening in this moment. Ok so now for the hardest but most effective bit. Don’t judge any of your observations but simply notice without trying to change them. There is an automatic tendency for us to resist any unpleasant experiences, such as tension. Not only does this resistance not help but it actually exacerbates the situation, prolonging it too. What happens when you give up trying to resist tension?? ….It brings more ease to the situation – Try it…
P. Proceed – So once you have paused long enough to go through these steps then proceed in some way. By simply taking this mindful space you will be able to respond skillfully to the stress you are feeling by choosing how to proceed. For example you may feel more of a sense of control which will enable you to continue with what you were doing, or you may decide that you need to take a break, a walk, a cup of tea.
This may seem like a very simple technique, however when practiced regularly it will help you to notice exhaustion before it becomes burnout, tension before it becomes chronic pain, anxiety before it becomes a depression. Therefore stopping the chronic stress reaction cycle.
Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction is an evidence based programme developed by Jon Kabat Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Participants train intensively in mindfulness meditation with a specific emphasis on coping with stress. It is an eight week programme that has been adapted for use in communities, hospitals, corporations and other settings. For information on this course and other courses in mindfulness within Dublin/Wicklow please visit Mindful Way courses.