USING MINDFULNESS TO COMBAT STRESS – A SIX-PART SERIES

Apologies for the long break in posting. Life happened and blogging was pushed to the back of the line for a while. But I intend on being more disciplined in posting regularly going forward.

To recap this six-part series, we have been learning about the physical and mental impacts of stress; how mindfulness can be used to combat stress; and some of the formal ways to practice mindfulness. In part five, we will look at some of the informal ways in which we can integrate mindfulness into our everyday life in order to break free from habitual thought patterns that may not be helpful.

Part Five: Mindfulness – Informal Practice

While the more formal way to cultivate mindfulness is to practice sitting mindfulness meditation, it may not be for everyone. There are numerous other ways in which one can bring mindfulness into everyday activities. As you drive home from work, you can check in and notice if you are present: notice if you feel the seat beneath you and the steering wheel you are holding; notice if you are fully aware of the buildings and stores that pass by; become aware of how your body feels at the moment; notice any tension in your shoulders from stress you experienced during the day. As you wash the dishes after dinner, you can check in and notice if your mind has wandered off to a faraway land instead of being right there – feeling the warm water, the foam that the soap makes and the smell of clean dishes. When you notice the beauty of the evening sky, do not rush to reach for your camera. Instead, stand still and take in the sight. As you eat, check in and become aware of the taste, texture, and smell of the food in front of you. As you go through your day, take three mindful breaths at various times paying attention and being fully aware of what is happening in the present moment – whether it is a thought, an emotion or a bodily sensation. The next time you experience physical pain, instead of automatically reaching for the medicine cabinet, focus your attention on the pain itself. Try to become aware of the exact sensation of the pain – notice if it is it dull or sharp, is it localized or does it spread? Most often, we needlessly intensify an otherwise tolerable experience by adding our own fear, anxiety, self-pity and aversion onto it. When we learn to approach physical pain with a curious mind instead of with aversion, our experience of the pain changes. We will learn more on how to do this in a future blog.

These are just a few examples of the numerous ways in which to be mindful throughout the day. When you ‘check in’ with yourself in this way you are interrupting the habitual way in which your mind gets engulfed in thoughts, unconsciously reacting to them as you are engaged in these daily activities of driving, washing dishes or eating.

Start off by choosing one activity and set the intention to be mindful while doing it. Notice your bodily sensations, your thoughts and emotions while doing this activity. Notice the particular thoughts or memories that pull you into the anxieties of the future or ruminations of the past and let go of them when you can. Bring yourself back to the present. Do this over and over again.

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!

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.