What can we do to bring our stress levels down?
Understanding the sources of stress in our lives and working to bring them under control is one of the few goals that we all share in common! But whatever we do in any one area of our lives, new and unexpected sources of stress suddenly arise elsewhere. Given that high levels of stress constitute a significant health risk, we need to consider what we can do to help ourselves.
The obvious – if challenging! – things are diet and exercise. But all too often it is precisely in those areas that the effects of stress have their biggest impact. Unhappiness and the direct effects of the stress hormone Cortisol prompt us to eat and drink too much of the wrong kinds of things and to feel little motivation to undertake regular exercise.
Cortisol has a number of effects on our bodies. We may feel overwhelmed by negative thoughts and feelings, our ability to think clearly is impaired and our performance takes a downturn. Cortisol tends to encourage overeating and the consumption of large amounts of sugar, it collects and deposits fat around the stomach and it enlarges the fat cells. Stress becomes fat! For this reason the American Psychological Association has stated “weight loss is never successful if you remain burdened by stress and other negative feelings.” It also contributes to high blood pressure, ‘bad’ cholesterol and lowered immune system functioning. All in all, its bad news all around! But then, there’s the good news…
The Good News
The good news is that it is relatively easy to both reverse the effects of stress & to train ourselves not to get so stressed in the first place. And we can achieve both of these objectives safely and naturally, that is, without recourse to medication or ‘therapy’! It does, however, require that we learn to train our minds and bring a compassionate discipline to bear on our negative thoughts and feelings that contribute to our stress levels. That discipline is the skill of mindfulness.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is defined as “present moment, non-judgmental awareness” and, strange as it might seem, a growing body of scientific research has demonstrated that it has powerful healing effects: mentally, physically and emotionally. Mindfulness involves placing a much greater proportion of our awareness into:
1. Being non-reactive: watching our feelings without getting lost in them
2. Self-observation: noticing inner changes such as whether our breathing slows down or speeds up, how we are holding ourselves, which muscles we habitually tense
3. Resting in the present moment: staying focused on what’s happening right now rather than getting lost in the past or anticipating the future
4. Being non-judgmental: accepting & enjoying our experience of the present moment, just as it is
When we acquire these skills – and like most skills, they can easily be acquired with a little practice – we find that we can integrate any stress at the time and place that it arises. As a result, we do not carry it around with us triggering our ‘stress response’ every time we are reminded of it! The relaxation and peace of mind that accompanies mindfulness also allows our systems a chance to recuperate – and this provides the tremendous health benefits that mindfulness research has documented.
Recent research on the effects of mindfulness has demonstrated greatly reduced levels of stress and increased immune system functioning. Although mindfulness sounds like ‘just doing nothing’, on the level of brain functioning magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has revealed highly significant changes taking place. Areas of the brain associated with anxiety and depression become much less activated and those areas associated with happiness and contentment much more so. With practice these changes are stabilized creating a much greater capacity for happiness and contentment that is less easily disturbed and which recovers its equilibrium far faster.
How to Practice?
The practice of mindfulness is thousands of years old and is to be found in many traditional forms of eastern meditational and yogic practice. But these traditional forms of practice are not to everyone’s taste. They often require regular meditational and physical discipline and may well strike the average person as a little too ‘exotic’! In particular we may find difficulty in integrating with the demands of our modern life style. For these reasons forms of mindfulness practice have been developed that are far more compatible with modern habits. For many years Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) has been used in medical settings and now, increasingly, in corporate settings as well. Vivation, a mindfulness based practice developed by Jim Leonard, has been specifically designed to provide a mindfulness discipline that is easily learned and can be practiced – unobtrusively and without the need for some kind of formal mediation – anywhere, anytime. So there are many practical options now available to us.
Stress is a fact of life for all of us, but we can learn to manage it much more effectively. The critical factor in achieving mental, physical and emotional well-being is the quality of our conscious awareness. When we master the ability to enter a state of present moment, non-judgmental awareness, we can start to live our lives more fully, more effectively and with greater joy and happiness.
Copyright © Peter Mark Adams 2009