Reduce Stress With ‘Mindfulness’

You’ve probably heard about mindfulness. It’s become something of a buzzword lately – referred to in all kinds of contexts, from mindful meditation to mindful eating to mindful commuting, you name it. But if you’re like a lot of people, you may be a little unsure as to what this word actually means.

Mindfulness is the skill of paying attention to our present moment experience of life: our physical sensations, thoughts, emotions, even our relationships. All these things provide us with helpful information about our life. We all have access to this information, but it is only by cultivating our ability to pay attention that we can truly examine it in a thoughtful (“mindful”) way. By doing this, we can not only cope better with stress, we can make conscious decisions that eliminate stress at its source.

Paying attention seems like a simple concept, but it takes some practice, especially in our revved up, stressed-out, constantly-logged-in world. A recent Harvard study suggested that 47% of the time we are lost in our thoughts, rather than paying attention to the present moment. Instead of right now, our attention goes to thoughts of regret for the past, or worrying about or rehearsing for the future.

Compounding all of this is the reality of our increasingly busy schedules, and the frequency with which our thoughts are interrupted by the technology we carry everywhere.

What does this have to do with our health? We know that stress is a major contributor to  anxiety and depression, and also impacts our physical fitness, things like our blood pressure, immune system, weight, ability to sleep, and much more.  Clinical research has shown that people who practice mindfulness regularly over a period of 4-8 weeks experience lowered rates of anxiety, depression and the effects of chronic illnesses.

Beyond reducing negative symptoms, studies have shown that the practice of mindfulness has positive outcomes as well, increasing focus and concentration, improving memory, boosting problem-solving and conflict resolution skills, and increasing empathy.

How does it work?  Practice, and more practice. Mindfulness is like exercise for the brain. Classes in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) train the mind through a variety of “drills” to stay focused on a particular area, and it strengthens our capacity to concentrate. Studies show that the brain literally changes structure as we teach it how focus attention. And beyond that, people report changes in their quality of life.

It makes sense: by paying attention, seeing more clearly our thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, communication and relationships, we experience a greater sense of self-awareness. We have more ‘information’ on which to base our decisions, be they large or small. That makes us feel wiser, more calm and more in control. Taken together, these factors help us to cultivate an overall sense of well-being and greater ability to handle the stresses of life.

When we are consciously choosing our actions, we are no longer letting things happen “to” us, allowing external forces to dictate our every emotion and response. Mindfulness can’t remove all the challenges and stresses that occur in our lives, but it can help develop our inner resources, teach us ways to locate the calm ‘center’ amid the storm, and step by step, to work our way through it.

Just as importantly, it can bring a sense of appreciation, even joy, to everyday moments and activities that we’ve grown accustomed to ignoring, or rushing through. Here’s what Thích Nhất Hạnh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, teacher, and author wrote in a book called The Miracle of Mindfulness:

“If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink.”

There are all kinds of books, blogs, and other resources on mindfulness out there (see below). For those interested in learning more and adopting the practice into their everyday lives, Mazzoni Center is currently offering an 8-week MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Course) with instructor Bob Pileggi. While this course is now closed, there will be additional workshops and courses throughout the year.

*By Elisabeth Flynn, with special thanks to Bob Pileggi for his contributions

Additional Resources:

NPR Programs: Talk of the Nation – Mindfulness: Using Your Brain To Beat Stress
New York Times “In Mindfulness, a Method to Sharpen Focus and Open Minds”
On Being: Science of Mindlessness and Mindfulness

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