It’s not what happens to us, it’s how we deal with it. Lets talk about stress and mindfulness.
In the current world we live in, stress is something that most of us are far too familiar with. We often experience many different stressors within our daily lives. The stress from living abroad, stress from work, stress from our children, stress from technology, and stress from, well, the stress.
Stress, in and of itself however, is not necessarily a problem. In fact, in moderation it can be productive as it motivates us to be successful members of society. Rather, it is our reaction to stress that causes us to suffer and leads to stress related illnesses such as heart disease, insomnia, burn-out, anxiety, and depression.
In order to distinguish between healthy stress and that which causes illness it is important to understand the different types of stress – circumstantial and emotional. Circumstantial stress is stress caused by events – both big events (such as having a baby, moving abroad or starting a new job) and small events (such as losing your keys, getting stuck in traffic or getting in an argument with someone).
Emotional stress is stress caused by what we tell ourselves about particular situations, how we feel about them and our reactions to them. Contrary to what we often believe, emotional stress is what causes the most harm, not stressful situations. What this means is that sleepless nights are often due to our interpretations of particular events and the worrying that goes with them, rather than the actual event itself, unless of course the event happens to be a new baby!
It is inevitable that at some point in our lives we will feel overly stressed. What is important to realize is that both circumstantial and emotional stress need not cause detrimental effects on our well-being. If we are emotionally resilient, that is, able to cope with and adapt to stressful circumstances, we are less likely to suffer from stress related illnesses caused by emotional stress. Resilience is important for helping us manage all types of situations that cause stress, from the little daily annoyances to tragic life events. When we are emotionally resilient we are able to deal with adversity in healthy ways, avoiding harmful strategies such as substance abuse, overeating, excessive shopping or gambling.
Emotional resilience varies from person to person depending on personality traits, background, and resources. If you find it difficult to manage stress, one approach that can help foster a greater capacity for resilience is a simple yet powerful method known as mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a way of paying attention to the present moment using mind-body awareness techniques involving meditation, breathing, and/or movement. It is a process of mental training that is learned through active experience. Just as learning to ride a bicycle requires that you get on a bike, practicing mindfulness involves actively focusing your awareness on what is happening, while it is happening.
Since we often are not cognizant of our lack of awareness with what is happening from moment to moment, we might believe that we constantly live our lives in the present. However, there are many moments within our day that we are not fully conscious of. For example, have you ever driven to a familiar destination and realized upon your arrival that you could not remember how you got there or if you stopped at the red lights along the way?
Or have you ever finished a plate of food only to realize that you hardly tasted anything? It was as if your body participated in the action while your mind was completely elsewhere. In other words, you were operating on automatic pilot.
When we are on auto pilot our minds are very active, just not on the task at hand. We are lost in thought, either pondering the past or projecting into the future. This absorption in thinking about the past or future means we wind up missing what is actually happening in the present.
Mindfulness helps us step out of the auto pilot mode and become more aware of what is actually occurring in any situation as well as the habitual thinking patterns, emotions and behaviors that coincide. Through practicing mindfulness we become more aware of our thoughts and feelings so that we are better able to understand and manage them. Rather than reacting to situations automatically we gain the ability to respond in a manner that is less likely to cause emotional distress. This leads to a reduction of stress and creates a sense of calm.
There are currently two popular evidence based mindfulness programs which have been widely studied and shown effective in reducing emotional stress while increasing resilience. The first program, called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), was developed more than thirty years ago at Massachusetts General Hospital in the United States. This course, which was originally offered in a stress reduction clinic, was designed for patients with chronic pain and terminal illnesses in order to teach them how to cope with the emotional stress caused by their conditions. The second program, called Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), was developed by cognitive therapists in the 1990’s as a treatment for preventing relapse in depression.
The popularity of these two programs is rapidly expanding as research continues to support the many benefits such as, reduced stress and anxiety, improved quality of sleep, increased concentration and focused attention, plus positive effects on heart disease and chronic pain.Recent studies have also demonstrated that areas in the brain associated with stress and emotional regulation actually appear to change in participants of these programs.
Aside from MBSR and MBCT, there are several other mindfulness courses that have been developed for different populations. Examples include mindful eating workshops for weight loss, mindfulness-based relapse prevention (MBRP) for treating individuals in recovery from addictive behaviors, mindful parenting programs for parents and caregivers, and mindfulness classes for children and adolescents.
In the Netherlands mindfulness courses are typically offered by professionally trained mindfulness instructors, many of whom have a background in psychotherapy, counselling or other health professions. Both MBSR and MBCT are suitable for those interested in learning how to relate differently to their thoughts and emotions, reducing stress and improving general health. Either course can be helpful for anyone, not just those suffering from a stress related illness or depression. Both courses are similar in nature and content, are offered in groups, are eight weeks in length, and teach participants various mindfulness techniques including guided meditations for home practice.
If you are experiencing stress or anxiety in a way that you feel is hindering your life, take heart, practicing mindfulness daily for as little as eight weeks can help you tame the tiger of your own mind!
Originally posted on Amsterdam Mama’s