Stressors in our daily lives come in many different shapes, sizes, and flavors, as do their effects on our minds and bodies. Thanks to phone calls, texts, emails, and endless social media alerts, our stressors are now intangible, constant, simultaneous, urgent, and nearly impossible to escape. Today’s society has made it not only difficult, but even looked down upon, to slow down, say “no,” and minimize how many tasks and stressors we take on. It’s easy to look back on our day and see all the big and small tasks we’ve accomplished (“I just closed a huge deal for my company, finally replied to all those emails in my inbox, and bathed my kids without a massive meltdown from any of us, all in the same hour!”). These accomplishments feel great; but our minds are wired to constantly be looking for the next thing to do, and to worry about anything left unfinished or unresolved. The weight of the stress we are experiencing can be hard to see, and even harder to know how to manage.
In recent years, the effects of chronic stress on our physical and mental health have been increasingly researched and discussed. Some of these effects are easier to see than others, falling anywhere on the spectrum between “hardly noticeable” to “diagnosable.” Physical/physiological impacts of stress can look like changes in blood pressure, weight changes, hair loss, acne, stomach aches, poor gut health, headaches, and decreased immune system function. Mental/behavioral health symptoms can look like anxiety, depression, obsessive/compulsive behaviors, negative thoughts, emotion dysregulation, difficulty focusing or remembering things, increased substance use, negative self-talk, changes in eating patterns/behaviors, sleep disturbance, self-harm or even suicidal thoughts. This introduction to mindfulness based stress reduction will help you decide if mindfulness is the right approach for you and managing your stress.
There are two approaches we can take to minimize and manage the effect of stress on our mental and physical health. One is to decrease our stress load itself, such as cutting down on how many commitments we take on, ending toxic relationships, and changing career paths or living arrangements. This is much easier said than done, yet it is extremely important to explore. When we are able to identify which of our stressors are in our control versus outside of our control, we can begin looking at how to solve the problems that we control, and how we can modify the way we manage the things outside of our control. The second way to minimize the effect of stress is to change the way we interpret and respond to current stressors. Through this introduction to mindfulness based stress reduction, we can enhance our ability to manage and respond to stressors in a healthy way.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness can be defined as awareness and acceptance of the present with non-judgement. The definition makes it seems simple, right? In reality, it is the antithesis to how we tend to live our daily lives, at least in western/U.S. culture. We are constantly bringing our focus to the past (“ruminating on what I said to a friend 2 weeks ago”) and the future (“how am I going to afford rent next month”). We struggle to accept things the way they are, working to fix, change, or improve everything. And we are constantly judging. While our judgement is natural and even critical to our survival (“These people seem unsafe; I should leave.”), it tends to work overtime, causing us to form opinions that are not based on facts, and take actions that are unhelpful or ineffective. We are not naturally mindful. Our brains naturally look for threats, even where none exist, and immediately start working to keep us safe from the threat (I.e. stress), however realistic the threat may or may not be.
Why practice mindfulness?
Mindfulness strengthens our brain’s ability to notice when to pause, slow down, look at and accept the facts in our awareness, and make a more effective choice. This allows me to be more flexible when looking for solutions to stressors, and can even help us to be more firm and confident in setting healthy boundaries to help minimize the stressors themselves as well. Recent research has shown that practicing mindfulness for only five minutes a day can produce the same benefits as meditating for 8 hours a day! In practicing mindfulness, we want to examine our physical sensations, our emotions, and our thoughts in a non-judgmental way, and we stop trying to fight or change them. Doing this enhances our ability to do this in real time when stressors are staring us in the face. For instance, if I have become non-judgmentally (stating facts not judgments) mindful of my body’s response when my children are having meltdowns, such as urges to yell, clinched jaw, pressured breathing, getting hot; I can attend to these responses in real time. This could look like having a cool washcloth ready to squeeze or place on your forehead, being more aware of your limits (logistically, mentally, emotionally) so that you can set healthy boundaries. One of the biggest questions we get asked in the introduction to mindfulness based stress reduction is “okay, how?”
What does mindfulness look like?
Mindfulness has been practiced in many forms for thousands of years, including yoga and prayer. But mindfulness has many other forms. Contrary to popular belief, mindfulness does not have to look like sitting on the floor and meditating for an hour, although this is certainly one effective way to practice it. Mindfulness can simply look like bringing our full awareness to things we are noticing coming through our five senses (sight, sound, touch, smell, taste), even focusing on just one of those at a time, examining those sensations, not judging them or trying to change them, and fully accepting them. Apps such as Calm, Headspace and Aura offer a wide variety of mindfulness and meditative collections. Below are links to a few simple and effective mindfulness videos that focus on bringing awareness to our breath and physical sensations. They are a great introduction to mindfulness based stress reduction.
To learn even more about how mindfulness can benefit you and how to integrate it into your daily life, reach out to one of our qualified clinicians!
*Important note on trauma and mindfulness
The reality of privilege and traumatic experiences are not to be ignored or minimized. The way trauma effects the brain can significantly alter or impair one’s ability to practice and experience the benefits mindfulness. Additionally, it is not to be implied that mindfulness itself can improve or resolve the stressors/issues themselves, especially those such as homelessness, chronic illness, unemployment. If you or someone you love are experiencing hardships such as these, and/or are experiencing post-traumatic stress, please reach out to a licensed mental health professional.
1. Creswell et al., 2019. “Mindfulness Training and Physical Health: Mechanisms and Outcomes. https://journals.lww.com/psychosomaticmedicine/Abstract/2019/04000/Mindfulness_Training_and_Physical_Health_.2.aspx