Individual Therapy > Mindfulness: Antidote to a Stressful World

Mindfulness: Antidote to a Stressful World

By Dan Pollets, PhD

Have you noticed? Modern day life with its breakneck pace, multitudinous demands and myriad distractions offers no safe haven or sanctuary.  We don’t seem able to keep up with the pace.  We attempt to cope but feel overmatched by the pressures.  Feeling overwhelmed (“never enough time to do…)” leads to chronic and harmful stress.  Unmitigated stress has been shown again and again to have a powerful deleterious effect on health and well-being.  The body responds with the “fight/flight” response when situations are appraised as threatening and there are not resources for coping with it. 

Our effort to deal with the stressful events and change in our lives is simply  over taxing our capacity for adaptation.  The result is a sense of deep dissatisfaction with life.  We suffer.  Change is certainly inevitable and we cannot simply step out of our busy lives.  However, if we do not find a way to cope effectively with stress, we are at risk for a variety of physical, stress-related disorders, emotional distress, and mental illness.  Epidemic rates of addiction, obesity, cardiac disease, and simply plain human emotional suffering is testimony to a society running on empty and burning out.

If life is not going to slow down, successful coping and adaptation must come from within in the form of self-care.  Mindfulness Awareness Practice or Insight Meditation is a possible antidote to stress and facilitator of coping and adaptation.  Mindfulness is actually an ancient technique that was bestowed by the Buddha 2500 years ago.  It is a fundamental part of his teachings that is called “The Eight fold Path.”  The Buddha’s primary intent was to develop what is actually a psychology for relieving human suffering.  It has been adopted and transformed into a form that western man can understand and apply.  It has become mainstream thanks to the work, in part, by John Kabat-Zinn, who began to apply what he called “Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction” to a range of medical diagnoses including chronic pain, cardiac disease, and arthritic conditions.  There is now a body of evidence regarding its effectiveness in a plethora of applied settings.  There is clear physical evidence on how a relatively simple mindfulness awareness practice can actually modify neural patterns, alter over-conditioned behavior, improve emotional regulation and overall coping and adaptation.

Mindfulness is not a religious belief or a formal philosophy or theory.  It is a state of consciousness that can be developed and refined. It is achieved by practice (meditation) and analogous to improving baseline cardio fitness by regular exercise.  You train your mind to pay attention in a particular way and then really see how things are and work to accept them as is. Thus, it can help turn off and stress response and calm the human brain.  Practice leads one towards freedom from self-defeating thought streams, problematic and re-enacting behavior patterns, and runaway negative emotions.

The benefits of meditation, the trait of Mindfulness, however, do not occur overnight.  It is not like taking a drug or medicine with the expectation of quick results.  As suggested, it is more on parallel with developing a fitness regimen – for the mind.  It takes intention, motivation, self-discipline, and consistent practice to achieve the benefits. You very much reap what you sow here (like fitness training).  It does not take long, however, to produce positive change.  Over time and practice, the brain like muscle, has the characteristics of resilience and plasticity.   New neural patterns are formed and old and problematic patterns modified and re-worked.  The change is subtle.  There is a developing awareness that one does not have to believe one’s thoughts. You slow it down and step away from the knee jerk reactivity.  A path emerges and it can look very much like a wise one. There is the subtle ability not to identify with your thoughts or beliefs and a capacity to let go, or not be attached to automatic and conditioned attitudes. An even hovering awareness develops and becomes a constant and friendly companion and like a best friend, is forgiving and compassionate.  Life with its impermanence and continuous experience of loss and change becomes a bit easier to flow with.

What is Mindfulness: 

  • Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to things as they are.
  • Mindfulness is intentional.  It is the opposite of being on automatic pilot, ruminating on, or being lost in thought or ceaselessly reacting to situations that cause fear.
  • Mindfulness is experiential; that is, the focus is directly in the moment of the present experience.
  • Mindfulness is non-judgmental.  Letting things be as they are.  We let go of judging and criticizing which implies that things have to measure up in some way to an internal or external standard (in order to be “better”).
Mindfulness in everyday life helps us enter intimately into moments of living no matter what their content. Even under great stress and anxiety we can learn to maintain a mindful and non-judgmental awareness.  We can develop the capacity to observe very closely our feelings, thoughts, breath, and bodily sensations as they are, and as they interact.  We cultivate wholehearted and “bare” attention to the present moment, just as it is.

Mindfulness Approach:

  1. You stay in awareness mode:  being not doing.
  2. Examine your unfolding inner experience.
  3. Attention is poured into your inner landscape.
  4. You turn towards fear and anxiety, towards thoughts and sensations as the object of your kind attention.
  5. You don’t attempt to fix anything (doing).
  6. You bring compassionate attention to what you are experiencing.
  7. Allow whatever is to be present.
  8. Anchor yourself in your breathing as you stay present: feelings, thoughts, sensations come and go.
  9. You recognize all these occurrences simply as impermanent, passing events.

The goal of fitness training is to achieve a temporary state of strength and flexibility when you exercise that is eventually becomes a baseline characteristic of your physical well being. Likewise, the goal of Mindfulness training is practice a temporary state of clarity and equanimity (inner peace) that develops into a trait of consciousness that simply allows one to traverse the difficulties and stress of life with less wear and tear.  “Clarity” can be thought of as the ability to keep track of or be attentive to your sensory experience as it arises moment to moment.  This is also called “present moment awareness.”  You develop awareness of the physical sensations in your body, emotional-type sensations in your body, mental images, internal conversations, and so forth.  This awareness can become a deep knowing of yourself.  “Equanimity” can be thought of as an attitude of gentle matter-of-factness with regard to your sensory experience.  This aspect of Mindfulness is about meeting whatever arises with acceptance, forgiveness, non-judgment and compassion.  To sum it up, Mindfulness practice trains your nervous system.

Antidote to Stress:

Meditation practice can elicit physical ease and mental stability which provide a foundation for health and wellness as they directly influence one’s ability to meet the challenges resulting from stress, burnout, and illness.  You train your mind to notice the ground falling away from under you and you recognize and allow but do not get caught up in the fray. Feelings of anxiety, depression fear, and anger, helplessness are commonly present for all of us at certain times in our effort to deal with life’s impermanence.  The emotional reactivity that arises from what cannot be controlled can lead to stress-related disorders and negatively impact on any problem you have to cope with, illness or otherwise.  Applying the simple practice of nonjudgmental present-moment awareness does not stop the fact that things will always be changing and we have loss, aging and death to deal with but it can reduce the suffering one experience.  How we respond to any situation that befalls us is within our capacity to control.  Mindfulness controls the faucet on how we response and meditation primes the pump.

An Old Zen Story:

The old farmer had a prized stallion that escaped. When the neighbors found out, they said, “oh, that’s bad news!”  The wise old farmer said, “who’s to know if it’s good or bad news?” A few days later, the stallion returned with a small herd of healthy mares. “What great news!” the neighbors proclaimed.  “Who’s to know if it’s good or bad?” said the farmer.

Days later the farmer’s grown son, in trying to break one of the new horses, was thrown and broke his leg.  “Oh, what terrible news,” said the neighbors.  “Who’s to know…”said the farmer.    Days later, the country went to war and the military came seeiking men as soldiers, but they could not enlist the farmer’s son as he had a broken leg.  “what good news,” said the neighbors.  “Who’s to know…” said the farmer.

The Moral: 
As long as you deal with change without judging it as good or bad, you can deal with it more happily.  Change simply IS. When we lat go of judging change as good or bad, we have more resources to make the most of the change  Embrace change, learn from it, and stay in equanimity.

Dr. Dan Pollets is an ASSECT credentialed sex therapist and well trained in cutting edge couples, individual and group therapies. 

Dr. Pollets is in private practice in Medford, Massachusetts and treats patients from Boston, Cambridge, Arlington, Winchester, Somerville, Melrose and the greater Boston Metro MA area.  He is Associate Clinical Professor at Boston University School of Medicine and a published author in the Psychology Today web site.