“There is a saying in Tibetan, 'Tragedy should be utilized as a source of strength.' No matter what sort of difficulties, how painful experience is, if we lose our hope, that's our real disaster.”
Everyone has a wild mind. We all overreact to the demands of our lives when stretched to our limits. Our world collapses in on itself and we lose empathy for others who are struggling just as we are when stress has us in its grip. Fortunately, we need not lose hope that things can get better. Although mindfulness begins slowly and it’s not a quick, smooth ride to an instant stress-free life, if you practice, mindfulness can slowly and steadily soothe your mind and heart, positively nourishing all parts of your life. It’s a bit like gentle rain soaking into a land of drought. The rain is mindfulness. The drought is the constant doing of modern living.
To understand how mindfulness can relieve stress, we need to take a closer look at what stress is.
What Exactly Is Stress?
Here’s a definition:
Stress is the feeling of being under too much pressure.
Pressure can be classified as external (in the world around you) or internal (your thoughts, emotions, and attitudes).
Examples of external pressures include:
Having to complete work
Having to do chores and take care of other tasks at home
Taking care of yourself and those around you
Having to travel to work or social events
Managing your own illness or the illness of others
Emails, phone calls, and other communications
Needing to exercise
Examples of internal pressures include:
Negative, judgmental thoughts about yourself
Negative, judgmental thoughts about others
Negative thoughts or ideas about the world
Low self-esteem or low self-compassion
A tendency toward perfectionism
Difficult emotions such as depression, anxiety, anger, guilt, or shame that linger for weeks
Discomfort or pain in your body
You need some external pressure to motivate and excite you. If the pressure is too low, you’ll feel bored or useless. If the pressure is too high, you’ll experience high levels of stress. In some ways, your life is a balancing act of finding activities that offer the right level of pressure for you.
If the pressure is too high for you and lasts for long periods of time, it can cause chronic stress, and that’s where the danger lies.
The pressures you experience may not be much higher than you can cope with. But over long periods of time, they can cause problems. For example, imagine I asked you to hold a glass of water out in front of you. If you had to hold the glass of water for a minute, you’d have no problem. You could easily smile at the same time. If you had to hold the glass for 10 minutes, the task becomes trickier, and you may not be smiling so much, but you could manage. But if I asked you to hold that glass of water all day and all night, I’d probably have to call an ambulance by the end of the day.
The glass of water represents the pressure you face. As you can see, the pressure in itself wasn’t the issue--the issue was how long you were subjected to it. The duration of the pressure raised its level to the point where it caused stress. This shows how peaks of pressure now and then are unharmful, but long-term pressure can turn to stress.
Having the right level of pressure leads to a life of greater happiness. If you’re reading this article, I’m assuming that you’re currently under too much pressure rather than too little and will offer you ways to help yourself ease that pressure.
What Toll Does Stress Take on Us?
Stress, or more accurately the stress response, causes changes to take place in your brain and body. These changes can cause various kinds of harm when stress becomes chronic:
Persistent stress can cause a range of physical diseases. Some estimate up to 75% of visits to the physician are stress-related. Stress can cause high blood pressure, leading to heart problems including heart attacks. Stress can also cause migraines, back pain, and ulcers. Stress also weakens your immune system, making you susceptible to a range of diseases.
Chronic stress affects your mental well-being. Stress can lead to clinical depression, anxiety, and burnout. Stress also reduces your ability to focus effectively.
Stress affects your family life. When your stress levels are high, you’re more likely to snap at your partner or children. If this happens too regularly, the quality of your relationship will diminish. Stress weakens your emotional intelligence, making it difficult to see things from other people’s point of view.
Addiction to illicit drugs, alcohol, or nicotine can be linked to chronic stress. You may be using these substances to help relieve the feeling of stress, although the relief is shortlived and the addiction raises the overall level of stress.
Society as a whole suffers from stress. The cost to each nation due to reduced efficiency or missing work because of stress runs into hundreds of billions of dollars. And that doesn’t touch on the reduced levels of creativity and communication issues due to excessive stress levels.
How Can Mindfulness Reduce Stress?
Stress is a complex subject, and so the path to relieving it is not straightforward either--as Sarah discovered. However, for the sake of simplicity, here are some ways mindfulness reduces stress.
You become more aware of your thoughts. You can then step back from them and not take them so literally. That way your stress response is not initiated in the first place.
You don’t immediately react to a situation. Instead, you have a moment to pause and then use your "wise mind" to come up with the best solution. Mindfulness helps you do this through the mindful exercises.
Mindfulness switches on your "being" mode of mind, which is associated with relaxation. Your "doing" mode of mind is associated with action and the stress response.
You are more aware and sensitive to the needs of your body. You may notice pains earlier and can then take appropriate action.
You are more aware of the emotions of others. As your emotional intelligence rises, you are less likely to get into conflict.
Your level of care and compassion for yourself and others rises. This compassionate mind soothes you, and inhibits your stress response.
Mindfulness practices reduces activity in the part of your brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is central to switching on your stress response. So effectively your background level of stress is reduced.
You are better able to focus. So, your work is completed more efficiently, you have a greater sense of well-being, and this reduces the stress response. You are more likely to get into "the zone" or "flow" as it’s termed in psychology by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Later in this article I'll describe in detail how mindfulness can benefit you physically, mentally, emotionally, and in your relationships. First, however, it's important to understand the difference between our typical mental state, mindlessness, and mindfulness.
Mindlessness: The Usual Mode of Mind
Your normal state of mind during routine activities is probably a state of mindlessness. I don’t mean to be accusatory or rude--it’s just what the brain defaults to. In the mindless state, you are living a life of unconscious habits. You don’t give full attention to every activity you do, but just go through the motions.
Your brain is designed to form habits. This process can help you complete tasks more efficiently. A habit is actually the process of the neurons in your brain connecting to each other due to regular firing down a particular pathway. You can think of each habit as a computer program. It takes place automatically and quickly and doesn’t require any conscious awareness. The habits are formed through a process of repetition. Each time you repeat an activity, you’re beginning to create that habitual program. Habits have several benefits:
The activity can be done unconsciously so you use up less energy in your conscious awareness. You do not need to think "move left leg, move right leg" when walking. It just happens.
You don’t need to waste energy making choices. You wake up and brush your teeth--you don’t need to decide to brush your teeth today.
Habitual activities can be done much more quickly. Doing something new, like playing the piano, is far more difficult and slow at the beginning.
You feel more relaxed. You’re not trying hard to engage in the habit--it happens by itself. If you have a habit of eating an apple a day, you don’t need to try hard to force yourself to eat the healthy fruit.
You can be more effective in your activity. When you first try to juggle, it’s difficult and you keep dropping the balls. Once it’s an automatic action, you can hop on one leg and tell a joke at the same time.
However, there are several disadvantages of habits too:
As habits are normally unconscious, you’re not awake to the experience. If you’re playing with your child habitually, you miss the special and precious moment of being together. The experience can’t be savoured if habitual.
You lose choice. How can you make a choice if you’re acting automatically and habitually? If you’ve always traveled from San Francisco to Chicago by plane, you book the ticket automatically. You don’t consider a train journey or a road trip with friends.
When your thoughts, emotions, and attitudes are both habitual and negative, you’re much more likely to experience stress. Persistent unmindful, negative thinking turns on your stress response.
Habitual negative thoughts about yourself and others are at the root of a lot of stress. Mindfulness helps you undo those unhelpful habits and to rewire
your brain to generate greater happiness and less chronic stress.
Practice: Two-Minute Mindfulness Exercise
Try this exercise right now.
1. Set a timer for two minutes
2. Begin by taking a deep, slow breath in and out.
3. Now pay attention to the feeling of your breathing. Just breathe naturally.
Each time you notice your mind drift to other thoughts, gently bring your
attention back to your breath.
4. After two minutes, you can stop.
Give yourself a few moments to reflect on the following questions. If you feel like writing them down, you can enter your answers in your smartphone or tablet, or just a bit of paper.
1. What did you notice?
2. Were you able to focus your attention on your breathing?
3. Where else did your attention wander to?
4. How did you feel at the end of the exercise?
5. Was it easy or difficult?
REMEMBER--Your mind will drift to other thoughts. This is normal. It doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong.
Now repeat the experiment, but this time try sitting or standing up straight and close your eyes if they were open the first time. Then reconsider the questions above. Which of the two exercises was it easier to focus in?
Mindfulness is the opposite of habitual, automatic living. Mindfulness teaches you to live more consciously. You still have your habits, because that is the nature of the brain, but you notice them more and gain greater choice in your life.
Here’s my definition of mindfulness, which brings together the essence of the many different definitions that mindful teachers have shared:
Mindfulness means intentionally paying attention to your present-moment experience with mindful attitudes such as acceptance, curiosity, self-compassion, and openness.
Let’s break this definition down to make better sense of its meaning.
Mindfulness isn’t usually an automatic process. You don’t often find yourself being mindful. Mindfulness is a process that requires a decision. You need to choose to be mindful. And then you exert a certain kind of effort, at least initially. Once you begin to get into the flow of mindful awareness, your level of effort may decrease, but at least initially, there is a purposeful decision to pay attention.
Interestingly, you’re paying attention to something almost all the time. The question is what you’re paying attention to. While reading this article, your mind may be on the television on in the background. Or thinking about what’s going to happen at work today. Or replaying what happened yesterday. This is passive attention. Passive attention is involuntary. Mindfulness is more than just paying attention passively to wherever your attention goes.
Mindfulness is an active rather than passive attention. An active, or purposeful, attention requires choice and a certain degree of effort. We'll get into intention in more detail later in this article.
You can think of attention as a focused awareness. The word attention comes from the Latin attendere, meaning literally "to stretch toward." When you pay attention to a lecture, you’re stretching your awareness toward the speaker's voice.
Attention is about taking notice--being aware of what’s happening while it’s happening. We use our senses to pay attention to external experiences: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch. You can pay attention to, for example, the sight of this book, the sound of a baby crying in the distance, the smell of oil from a deep fryer in a fast-food restaurant, the taste of your morning orange juice, and the sensation of the weight of your body on your chair or tension in your shoulders. When you pay attention to these experiences purposefully, you’re being mindful.But you’re not restricted to your outer senses in mindfulness. Consciously focusing on your internal experiences such as your thoughts and emotions without being swept away by them, as best you can, is mindfulness. You can pay attention to thoughts like "I can’t be bothered to do this job" or "Why is that woman shouting?" or emotions like boredom, excitement, or frustration. To notice these internal experiences rather than just unconsciously having them, is mindfulness. That little sense of separation between you and your thoughts or emotions is key.
You may think, so what? Okay, so I’m not 100% aware all the time. I daydream. I think about other stuff. What’s wrong with that? Well, here’s a typical example of an experience I had last week. Imagine you were on this business trip:
You wake up, ready to get a flight back home from a business trip, from Chicago to London. You check the weather and discover the forecast is not good. Twelve inches of snow is predicted. The report says lots of flights will either be delayed or canceled. You think Oh no! My flight’s gonna be canceled. I was really looking forward to getting back home and spending some time with the kids before going back to work. Why does this always happen to me? It’s so annoying. Will I be able to get a hotel for an extra night? This airline always gives poor service when these things happen. You begin to feel tense and stressed.
Notice that the thoughts you had are in italics. Now consider an alternative scenario:
You wake up, ready to get a flight back home from a business trip, from Chicago to London. You check the weather and discover the forecast is not good. Twelve inches of snow is predicted. The report says lots of flights will either be delayed or canceled. You think Oh no, my flight’s gonna be delayed. Then you actually notice that you’ve had that particular thought. You recognize it as a prediction, not a fact. You then check your flight online and discover that it is actually flying and, with a bit of luck, you may take off on time. As you spend the morning in a coffee shop, you enjoy the beauty of the snow while sipping your cup of tea. You know that how much or little you worry will make no difference.
This is one example of mindfulness in action. By being aware of your thoughts, you’re able to take action rather than allow your mind to run away with itself. The example shows the following key principle:
Being unmindful actually causes you to suffer, often more than you think.
In the Present Moment
Most young children have their attention drawn to the present moment. They are intensely curious. Children notice the sound of the plane, the bird in the tree, and the taste of the grapes. As they grow up, their memory is filled with experiences of the past, and they are able to project into the future. With this unique human ability, as we grow up, we tend to be less connected with the present moment.
Your mind seems to naturally replay past incidents and worry about the future. While reading this, you may find yourself thinking about that comment your friend made: was she being rude?
Just as a swinging pendulum seems to drift from left to right, spending little time in the middle, so your mind spends a lot of time in the past and future. In fact, research in 2010 by Killingsworth and Gilbert at Harvard University suggested the typical human brain spends about 50% of its time thinking about the past and future and only 50% in the here and now, the present moment.
Why is present-moment living important? The great leader Gandhi once said: ‘The future depends on what we do in the present moment.” If your attention is excessively in the past and future, you can’t perform effectively in the here and now, the present moment. But tomorrow never comes. There is only today. What you do today and how you focus now matters.
The following example illustrates this point. I was chatting with one of my clients, Katie, the other day. She told me that before she did a mindfulness course she was constantly worrying about her children and their future. Was she a good mother? Was she bringing up her children well, using the right parenting approach? She read websites and books, and they all seemed to give different advice. She felt lost and confused and very tired. After practicing mindfulness, Katie decided to let all those thoughts go and be present with her child. She gave her little boy her full attention, and her time with him felt so much more special. Her worrying receded, and she felt she was a much better mother when she was living in the present moment rather than worrying about what was right and wrong all the time.
Without conscious effort, your mind wanders to thoughts about the past or the future. And the thoughts about the past can easily end up being about negative interactions. You think about the argument you had with your brother for the tenth time or consider all the different reasons your new girlfriend isn’t calling you.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with thinking. In fact, thinking is essential for survival as a human being in the modern age. The problem is the constant worrying that leads to unhappiness. Mindfulness helps to bring some balance back from relentless thinking, worrying, and planning.
Mindful Attitudes of Acceptance, Curiosity, Self-Compassion, and Openness
Mindfulness is more than just paying attention. It’s also about paying attention with
the right attitude. If your attention is infused with the attitude of negativity, self- criticism, and judgment, it’s not likely to be beneficial. You need to bring certain attitudes, what I call mindful attitudes, so that you build your attention on a positive foundation. All these attitudes don’t have to be cultivated perfectly and don’t need to be kept in your conscious awareness all the time. They are the flavoring in the soup of mindful awareness that you’re cooking. Any one of them is more than satisfactory in a mindfulness exercise that you do. You’ll learn a lot more about each of these attitudes as you read though this article.
Tales of Wisdom: The anger-eating monster
Once upon a time, there was a king who lived in a beautiful palace. The king had to go away for a while, and while he was away, a monster approached the gates of the palace. The monster was so ugly, smelly, and his words so disgusting that the guards froze in shock. He passed the guards and sat on the king’s throne. The guards soon came to their senses, went in, and shouted at the monster, demanding that he get off the throne. With each foul word they used, the monster grew more smelly, ugly, and disgusting. The guards got even angrier – they began to brandish their swords and use violence to remove the monster. But the monster just grew bigger and bigger, eventually taking up the whole room. He grew more smelly, ugly, and disgusting than ever. He was smellier than the restrooms in the roughest bar on a drunken Saturday night.
Eventually the king returned. He was wise and kind and saw what was happening in the confrontation. He knew what to do. He smiled and said "Welcome to my palace!" to the monster. He then asked the monster if anyone had offered him a cup of coffee. The monster began to grow smaller as he sipped the drink. The king offered him some take-out pizza and fries. The guards immediately called for pizza. The monster continued to shrink with the king’s kind gestures. The king then offered the monster a full body massage, and as the guards helped with the relaxing massage, the monster became tiny. With a final act of kindness to the monster, he just disappeared.
The source of your stress may be an anger-eating monster. Do you think your anger is making your anger-eating monster bigger? With some stressful circumstances, the more negative thoughts, words, or actions you have, the more difficult the situation becomes. Perhaps this story may help you open your heart to your challenge and see the value of a more friendly approach? Just being friendly toward yourself maybe what’s required.
Ready to discover what’s so special about the eight-week mindfulness course, based on this article and its associated book? Then check out The Mindful Way Through Stress by Shamash Alidina. This article was extracted from Chapter 1 of the book.