Using mindfulness to combat stress – a six-part series

Part Four: Mindfulness – Formal Practice

As I mentioned last week (https://therapybliss.wordpress.com/2015/08/10/using-mindfulness-to-combat-stress-a-six-part-series-3/) you can practice mindfulness through both formal and informal methods. Let us look at some of the formal ways to practice this art.

Mindfulness Meditation: Mindfulness meditation is a form of meditation that helps build our ability to stay present to our inner and outer experience with patience, self-compassion and acceptance. We sit with our eyes closed, focusing on the breath and using the breath as an anchor to ground ourselves. When we are visited by thoughts we simply become aware of them. We notice the thoughts but do not get caught up in them or react to them. After observing our thoughts, without any judgments, we return our focus to the breath. We do this over and over again, until the ripples on the lake that is our mind settle down.

Body Scan: The body scan is a way to become aware of different parts of our body through progressive and gentle focus on each area, experiencing how each part feels without trying to change anything. It is a way of calming and slowing down the mind; being aware of and connecting with our body; and noticing how stress manifests in different areas of the body. When we observe our body in this way, we are not ignoring or rejecting any discomfort we may be experiencing. Instead, we are simply noticing it with a gentle curiosity without getting carried away in the emotion that accompanies the discomfort. Body scan is a great way to improve attention and get the meditation practice started.

We would start by lying down on the back, arms resting comfortably on the sides (palms facing up and feet falling apart at the ankles) in a quiet, comfortable space, where we will not be disturbed by anyone or by anything. Starting off by noticing the parts of the body that are in contact with the floor, we would gradually shift our attention to the breath. Taking a few deep breaths, noticing the belly raising as we breath in and falling as we breath out, we shift our attention to the right toes. We would notice the sensations in our right toes – maybe the warmth or coolness, or perhaps feeling no sensations at all. That’s just our experience of our toes in that moment. There is no need to wiggle them or move them. Let us just be present to the sensations on our right toes. We can even imagine breathing into and out of the toes. Once we have spent a minute or so focusing on the right toes, we move our attention to the right foot, progressing in a similar way till we reach the top of our head.

Mindful Yoga: Mindful Yoga involves a series of basic yoga poses that are done in a slow, gentle and mindful manner. The entire sequence is considered a meditation. Instead of focusing on what our body cannot do or comparing ourselves to the person next to us, we learn to accept the limitations of our body and stay present to each movement. We start with having the intention to ground our awareness in our body and breath as we flow from one posture to the next, including the in-between time. We do not to push or strain our body while doing these poses. Applying gentle, sustained effort allows the joints and muscles to safely release into the stretch. We let our awareness of our body determine how far to take a stretch and how long to hold it. We use the breath, sending it into the areas of the body where we are working. When we become aware that our mind is thinking, rather than engaging with the thought, we simply notice the thought and return our attention to the body again and again.

These are some of the formal methods to practice mindfulness. Next week we will look at some of the informal ways to be mindful in our everyday life!

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Using Mindfulness to Combat Stress – A Six-Part Series

Part Three: Mindfulness

In parts one and two, we looked at the impact of stress on the mind and body (https://therapybliss.wordpress.com/2015/08/03/using-mindfulness-to-combat-stress-a-six-part-series-2/). In part three we will be introduced to mindfulness and how it can help mitigate the harmful effects of stress.

Mindfulness is a state of being aware and paying attention on purpose to what is happening in the present moment without judgment and with kindness. This includes things happening externally as well as, internally in our mind. Mindfulness is the act of suspending all the doing and shifting to a state of being , making time for ourselves, observing the activities in our mind, watching our thoughts, and letting go of them without getting attached to them or driven by them, seeing old problems in a new light and cultivating moment to moment awareness.

When we start paying attention in this manner, we realize that most of the time our mind is either in the past or the future. Because of this tendency of the mind to wander, we are only partially aware of what is happening around us in the present. We go into the ‘auto pilot’ mode barely noticing what we are doing or experiencing. We often let unconscious stimuli and thoughts hijack our emotions and as a result find ourselves in a bad mood or feeling stressed. When we are in this partially conscious state, preoccupied with the inner busyness that is our mind, we miss out on precious moments in our life. Consequently, we are much less happier than we would otherwise be. Mindfulness helps us develop the capacity to be aware of and regard each experience, thought and moment with kindness and tenderness towards ourselves where we realize our full potential for leading a happy, satisfying and meaningful life. It helps us see things more clearly without the preconceived notions, the judgments, the opinions, and the emotional charge we tend to attach to situations. The recognition that the only time we have is the present moment makes our experiences more vivid and our lives more real. Being mindful also helps us become aware of our current automatic stress reactions – which may be harmful to our physical and mental well-being – and make a conscious shift in how we respond to stress.

Mindfulness helps us focus our efforts on our mind and thoughts. When we are able to view thoughts as simply transitory things that come and go without getting emotionally aroused by or attached to them, they lose their power over us. Whether it be stress created by external factors (over which we may or may not have much control over) or stress created by our own thinking, we have more control over how we respond to the stress than we believe. The stress that is caused by external factors such as experiencing a tragedy, going through an illness, taking care of a sick family member, suffering a loss etc can take a heavy toll on our physical and emotional well-being if we allow it. Similarly, stress that is caused by internal factors (self-created stress) can also take a heavy toll on our well-being if we allow it. Mindfulness helps develop the ability to view our experience with curiosity and compassion, without trying to change it in any way. It helps us become less reactive to our experience, which gives us the freedom to choose how to respond. We become aware of triggers to our stress and aware of what is happening to us when we are in a stressful situation. When we are in touch with ourselves in such a way, we are able to short-circuit the automatic stress-reaction as it is happening and recover from it with calmness and awareness.

We develop the ability to be mindful through both formal and informal mindfulness practices. Formal practice involves regular meditation, yoga and body scan. Once you establish a daily formal practice you will start to notice the benefits and transformation spill into all aspects of your everyday life. This is where the informal practice begins. Informal practice involves a dedicated effort and intentionality to start paying attention to your thoughts, your body’s reaction to these thoughts and breathing at various times throughout the day.

Next week, we will look into some of these practices in detail.

Using mindfulness to combat stress – a six-part series

Part Two: Stress and the Mind

Part One of this series (https://therapybliss.wordpress.com/2015/07/27/using-mindfulness-to-combat-stress-a-six-part-series/) looked at the detrimental effects of chronic stress on the body. Part Two will look at the impact of stress on the mind and brain function. In order to get an understanding of this aspect we need to first look at two important areas of the brain: the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and the amygdala. The PFC, which is the most evolved part of the brain, is responsible for higher order cognitive functions such as decision making, logical/reflective thinking, top-down regulation of thought, emotion and behavior, reality testing etc. The amygdala, among other things, is involved in memory; processing of emotions such as fear, anger, and joy; and processing automatic (primitive and reactive) responses associated with emotions.

When stress is caused by sudden physical danger (for eg. being on the path of an oncoming car), it is usually the amygdala that kicks into action giving us the ability to get out of the way. It scans the various senses for any signals of danger and instantly sends a message of crisis to all parts of the brain if it perceives a threat. In this sense, stress can be positive because it prepares the body for action. After the stressful situation is over, the amygdala has time to relax and recover. But if the stress is constant and long-term – something that a majority of us experience on a daily basis – it can be destructive because the amygdala is continuously activated. The chemicals and hormones that were intended to be released only for short periods of time are now being released continually into the bloodstream. When the body and mind are in a constant state of hyper arousal, the hormones that were meant to protect us end up over-secreting and eventually depleting. Unmanaged chronic stress also impairs the executive functioning of the PFC. When the amygdala is over-active, the PFC takes a back seat. That is why when we are overcome by stress we find it difficult to see logic. Rather we find ourselves agitated and emotionally reacting to situations – a clear indication that the amygdala has taken over and the PFC is unable to function efficiently. The brain’s response pattern switches from the PFC’s more reflective and logical regulation to the amygdala’s reflexive and emotional regulation.

This type of reflexive response, along with a misguided perception of various everyday situations, triggers chronic stress. Unlike less cognitively sophisticated species, human beings are capable of turning on the stress-response by simply thinking about stress-inducing situations or scenarios. We call this self-created stress – stress that we put on ourselves by overanalyzing, making assumptions, catastrophizing, jumping to conclusions, unnecessarily worrying and creating thought patterns that have no grounding in reality. For eg., simply thinking that the pain in your stomach is a symptom of stomach cancer could set you off on a downward spiral and cause considerable amount of stress even though in reality it may not be true. We are experts at creating stress out of ordinary life events and blowing things out of proportion in our head, thereby negatively impacting the quality of our life. It is often said that how we see things, how we handle them and the meaning we assign to them makes all the difference in terms of how much stress we experience. William James, who was an influential philosopher and widely known as the Father of American Psychology, once said, ‘Thinking is the grand originator of our experience.’ The way we think influences the way we feel; the way we feel influences the way we behave; the way we behave influences our experience of life. There may be numerous stressors in our everyday life over which we may not have immediate control, but if we are able to become aware of our automatic reactions to these stressors and are able to change the way we view ourselves in relationship to them we begin to alter the negative effects the stressors have on our overall well-being.

Join me next week as I talk about mindfulness and its role in reducing the negative impacts of stress.