What has stress got to do with mindfulness? This is a popular question I get whenever I tell people about the 8-Week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program. For those of us who are not too familiar with mindfulness, we may not be able to easily relate it to stress. So to first understand how mindfulness supports us in reducing stress, we must first look at what stress is, and the role of stress in our health and well-being.
The Stress Response
Let's hop onto a time machine for a minute and travel back to the time of our ancestors - a time without smartphones or Starbucks. We were just surviving in the wild, foraging for food every day.
One day as you are looking for food in the jungle, you come face to face with a tiger. What happens within your mind and body at that moment? Perhaps your heart starts to race, your blood rushes to your arms and legs, and you feel your muscles tense up. Basically, your mind has perceived the tiger to be a stress - a (very dangerous) threat to your survival, and your body's sympathetic nervous system has been activated, triggering a fight, flight or freeze response in the body - to either fight off the tiger, run away, or become immobilized when we think fighting or fleeing is not possible.
Now let's time travel back to the present. In the modern world, it is highly unlikely that we will cross paths with a tiger. But we do get that email from the boss, that business presentation we need to give to the client, that child who refuses to cooperate, or the spouse who won't communicate. These are our modern tigers that the mind still perceives as threats to our survival, and the mind and body have been evolutionarily conditioned to activate the same stress responses of fight, flight, and freeze.
Think about some of the reactions you have had in response to a stressful situation: perhaps you shouted back or slammed the door in a fit of anger, or bulldozed your way through; maybe your first instinct was to hide, run away from the situation, or call it quits; or perhaps you chose to withdraw and remain silent, or you stood on the spot feeling helpless and dazed, not knowing what to do.
Because our mind is very efficient in warning us of stressors that could potentially threaten our survival, the stress response gets triggered so fast and out of our conscious awareness, and usually before we know it, we have already reacted in a way that isn't usually the best response for the situation. You may have experienced the unpleasantness of reacting to the stress, such as being overcome with emotions or overwhelmed by the negative thoughts in your head; or you might have regretted your actions and on hindsight felt you shouldn't have behaved in that way. You might also feel out of control.
What many of us don't realize is that our stress response can trigger even more stress in the mind and body, thus developing a habitual pattern in the brain over time. We might find ourselves on autopilot reacting to similar stressful situations in the same way, over and over again! This is when stress becomes chronic and can cause serious problems to the mind and body, such as high blood pressure, insomnia, immune and digestive disorders, maladaptive coping behaviours like eating disorders or addictions, as well as anxiety and depression.
So, how does mindfulness come into the picture?
In mindfulness training, we are learning to be non-judgmentally aware of our present and inner experience, and in this kind of mindfulness practice, non-judgmental awareness is key to stress management and reduction.
With mindful awareness, we are able to take a pause and stay with the stress, without automatically reacting to it or pushing it away. This pause that we train the mind to take allows us to break the automatic pattern of negative reactions and behaviours, and from here we can recognise that we do have the choice to make a better response that isn't as detrimental to our health and well-being.
For example, when a stressful situation arrives, the mindful brain is aware that our muscles are tensed. Instead of automatically reacting to the stress (e.g. arguing back in anger), we have the ability to take a pause, rest with the tension in the body, and come back to our breathing. We then take some time to offer a better response (e.g. explaining or reasoning with calmness, or offer a listening ear), thus effectively changing our relationship with stress.
Interested in training the mind and changing your relationship with stress? Read more about our 8-Week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program, on which many positive research outcomes are based.
) Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness; by Jon Kabat-Zinn (2013)
Mindfulness Made Simple
When people come to know that I practice and teach mindfulness, quite a number of them would ask me this same question: What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a word that we see everywhere in the media and at our workplaces nowadays. Through reading editorials and articles, we probably have a roughly idea about what it is, although we may not really understand what it encompasses. Many of us define mindfulness as a kind of meditation, but this concept of mindfulness might stop at images of sitting still and quiet in a cross-legged position, attempts to empty the mind, or of other rituals such as prayers and chanting.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the classic 8-Week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program, explains mindfulness as "paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally" (see source). If we tried to understand this definition conceptually, it might be difficult to fathom what this form of paying attention truly means. What do we mean by paying attention on purpose? Why the emphasis of the present moment in mindfulness? What does being non-judgmental have to do with mindfulness?
In this article, I will aim to explain in the simplest way possible the key words and terms used in describing and practicing mindfulness. It is worth noting that experiential practice of mindfulness is much more important for understanding what mindfulness is, than the terms I discuss below.
All of us have awareness. In the broader sense, awareness refers to the capacity of knowing or perceiving events, objects and situations. In mindfulness, we talk about knowing what is happening while it is happening, often referring to one's inner experience.
When someone makes you happy and you smile, you are aware that your face is smiling. When you are angered by another driver rudely cutting into your lane, you are mindfully aware of the grip of your hands tightening on the steering wheel, and the wave of heat rising in your body. You are aware of your own likes and dislikes, the thoughts and voices in your head, your emotions, actions and behaviours.
Awareness is different from reflection - reflection often takes place on hindsight, after something has happened and you're pondering about what had happened. Awareness takes place as the event itself is taking place, i.e. in the present moment.
There is a great emphasis on being present in practicing mindfulness. We cannot be practicing mindfulness if we are not in the present moment. By the present, we mean the here and now - what is going on in your inner experience at this particular moment.
The opposite of the present moment is the past or the future. The mind often carries us to the past to relive (and dwell in) memories, or carries us forward to think about (or worry about) the future. When the mind is engaged in the past or the future, we are no longer in the present moment.
For example, while you are having lunch, you start to worry about the business presentation you are about to give in an hour, or you begin to think about the comments your colleagues had made about your work earlier in the morning. Your mind is caught up about the past or the future, and you have lost the ability to pay attention to the present moment: i.e. the food on your plate, the tastes on your tongue, the way you are eating, etc.
In mindfulness, we are learning to be in the present, moment-by-moment - one moment at a time. We take each moment as it comes - learning to let go of the moments that have passed, and learning not to anticipate the upcoming ones.
Autopilot is the opposite of mindfulness. When we are mindful, we are aware of what is happening and what we are doing. But when we are in autopilot, we are doing something without being aware that we are doing it. For example, when we are driving, our mind shifts to autopilot and does the driving for us without us having to put too much conscious attention into the skill, and before we know it, we have reached our destination quite effortlessly. Autopilot is a function of the mind that allows us to carry out learned habits and skills efficiently, thus freeing the mind to engage in other activities or thoughts.
But when we are in autopilot, we also act out ingrained patterns of the past without knowing it, and some of these patterns are often negative or destructive. For example, when faced with new challenges, the mind automatically retrieves information about past failures and we react with the same cycles of fear and anxiety. Or we might shove unhealthy food down our body simply out of habit, or light a cigarette time and again without being aware of it until we have taken the first puff.
With mindfulness of the present moment, we learn to be aware of our negative patterns and behaviours, thus beginning to break out of our automatic patterns.
Mindfulness is one of the most effective antidotes to stress. When we talk about stress, we are referring not only to the stress itself, but also to the relationship we have with the stressors in our lives. These stressors can be internal or external, but more often than not, it is the stress we feel internally that really affects our health and well-being.
External stress is inevitable in life, and we often add on to the stress by reacting to the stress, such as allowing ourselves to engage in negative thoughts, feelings and behaviours. For example, your boss calls you into his or her office. This may feel a little stressful for you, but you tend to react to this initial (and external) stress by thinking: What does he want from me? Is she unhappy with my performance? And before you know it, these negative thoughts are taking over your mind, and you are ruminating not just about the stress at hand. Everyone in the office is looking at me with sympathy. This is so embarrassing. Why can't I do anything right with this job? What am I doing with my career? What am I doing with my life?
Mindfulness trains the mind to be aware of the stressors as they arrive, and learn to weaken and break out of the negative and automatic cycles of thoughts and emotions. With the practice of mindfulness, we are working on greater acceptance towards stress, without fighting with reactivity or avoidance or running away, thus changing our relationship with stress.
Doing versus Being
The modern pace of life, with its never-ending stream of tasks and communications, as well as roles and responsibilities we have to take on, has us engaging in the mode of doing all the time - we focus on to-do lists and check-lists; we think and plan ahead, we make decisions and problem solve.
Although these types of doing are important in getting us through the day, the doing mind also often gets into the habit of thinking non-stop, and we find that it gets increasingly difficult for the mind to shut off at night when it's time to rest and sleep. The doing mode also encourages the mind to make judgments and appraisals, assess and criticise, speculate and make assumptions, or dwell in what had happened (the past) and worry about what's to come (the future). For example, you might spend the whole night going through your to-do list for the next day over and over again, or get lost in regretting what you had done today at the workplace.
The practice of mindfulness encourages the being mode of the mind, and simply allows us to rest in the present moment instead of getting drowned in the turmoils of the inner mind.
As humans, we tend to be judgmental beings. We like to appraise things, people or events we encounter, deciding whether they are good or bad, beneficial or detrimental, useful or harmful. We have preferences, hoping for pleasant experiences to continue, and avoiding or pushing away unpleasant ones. We often want things to go the way we like, and when they don't, we react. These reactions we have greatly add on to the stress in our lives.
When we practice mindfulness, we simply pay attention to our inner experiences non-judgmentally. We learn to observe things just the way they are, without the adding of judgments, without preference, and without attempting to change the experience. Whatever that arises in the mind, we train the mind not to engage or react, but to simply observe non-judgmentally.
Paying attention is the fundamental practice of mindfulness. We always set an intention to pay attention at the start of each practice. We have learned how to pay attention - without judgment and in the present moment. But what are we paying attention to?
We can pay attention to anything that arises in our inner experience. To practice the foundations of mindfulness, we often start with paying attention to physical sensations of the breath and body. We also learn to pay attention to the physical sensations in movement. These practices help to anchor our attention to the present moment. As we progress along our practice, we learn to also observe the thoughts and emotions that come and go in the mind, without engaging in them.
Through paying attention this way, we acquaint ourselves with the nature of our mind, and over time we learn to concentrate better, increase our self-awareness, manage stress more effectively, shift the neurology of the brain to embrace more positive outlooks, and improve our health as well as emotional and mental well-being.
Do you have more questions about mindfulness, or need further explanation on a mindfulness term you have come across? Leave a comment, or drop Erin a message here or via email!
What's the big deal about mindfulness? You might have wondered. You see it everywhere in the news and media; you've received emails and newsletters about mindfulness events; perhaps you've read an article or book about mindfulness; maybe you've even engaged in a little mindfulness practice yourself. You've noticed that companies, institutions and other organisations are paying increasing attention to this field and beginning to conduct mindfulness workshops and training for their employees and stakeholders. Why the fuss over this seemingly new discipline?
The fact is, mindfulness is getting a lot of attention, and it is not all just media hype. It is being increasingly backed by scientific research spanning the fields of neuroscience, psychological therapy, healthcare, education, and parenting - just to name a few. The proven benefits of practicing mindfulness has, in the recent decades, attracted more and more people to incorporate mindfulness in their daily lives.
This free information session, conducted by Erin Lee from Mindful Moments Singapore, will cover the background and develop of mindfulness, applications and research of this field, as well as an introduction to the classic 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program, on which many positive research outcomes are based. Participants will also be invited to join in a little experiential mindfulness practice, and have their questions about mindfulness answered.
The event offers two sessions: Session A at 2:30 pm, and Session B at 4:00 pm. Participants will only need to register for one of the sessions. If you're bringing family and friends, please register a seat for each attending person.
A friend of mine, upon seeing Mindful Moment's Facebook update on our Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program, sent me an image along with a cheeky question: which version are you teaching?
The image, which you may have seen before since it is commonly featured on mindfulness-related websites and social media, is a drawing of a man taking a walk with his dog along a row of leafy green trees and a big warm sun shining from above; there is a thought bubble above the man's head, showing that his mind is filled with thoughts about work, communications, tasks, traveling, etc.; and then there is another thought bubble above the dog's head, showing the exact scene they are in - the row of leafy green trees and the big warm sun shining from above. And then the big question on the image asks the viewer: Mindful, or Mind Full?
It is not difficult to understand from the image that despite taking a walk in a lovely environment, the man is miles away caught up in his own train of thoughts about everything other than the beautiful scenery around him - his mind is full. The dog, on the other hand, is noticing his immediate environment as he walks - aware of the trees he is passing by, and the warmth of the sun - it is being mindful of its surroundings.
My friend understood that, and his tongue-in-cheek question was, which version does a mindfulness teacher teach in an MBSR class? Mindful, or Mind Full?
I answered: Actually, both!
It is without a doubt that participants learn to be mindful in a mindfulness class - during practices we work really hard to pay attention to the present moment, instead of allowing the mind to be pulled away by the past or the future. But through practicing mindfulness, we might find that there is also a lot to learn from paying attention to a mind that is full!
What happens when the mind is constantly overloaded with checklists, to-dos, and tasks to complete? Or when the mind is playing an upsetting event that had happened over and over again? Or when the mind loops questions about uncertainties, or when it frequently airs an unpleasantly critical, judgmental voice?
Through practice, we might discover that the mind virtually never stops, and is almost always full, or at least filled with something. Even though we frequently hear the advice: "Clear your mind" or "Empty your mind", we can be sure that this "emptiness" we are hoping for as a relief from the never-ending busyness of life will not last beyond a moment before the mind begins to be filled up again. It is equally important for mindfulness practice, then, to train the mind to be mindful of the present moment, and also be mindful of the mind that is full.
It is worth highlighting here that it is not enough to ponder over the "Mindful or Mind Full" question as an intellectual exercise. Only personal experience from engaging in mindfulness practices can bring us true insights and discoveries into the nature of the mind. And I invite you to further explore this with mindfulness training.
Click here to find out the latest dates of our next Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program.
The Proven Benefits of Mindfulness
There has been a rapid growth in the number of mindfulness research publications over the past three decades, suggesting that mindfulness has become more and more widely-used in clinical interventions.
We have summarized the key benefits of mindfulness and gathered in this post some of the more accessible research on the benefits of mindfulness for your reference (you can click on the embedded links to read more):
Mindfulness and Anxiety
Mindfulness and Emotions
Mindfulness and Brain Change
Mindfulness and Children
Mindfulness and Educators
The classic 8-Week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program is one of the most established mindfulness programs taught and practiced around the world today. Do check out the latest MBSR program we are offering!
About The Author
MiMo founder Erin Lee is a Mindfulness Coach and MBSR Teacher at Mindful Moments, and advocate of mindfulness as the way of life. She conducts the classic 8-Week MBSR Program, as well as the 8-Week MBSR Workplace Program.
Are you a mindfulness practitioner and have meaningful experiences or thoughts about mindfulness that you'd like to share? You can contribute an article on the MiMo blog! Please contact Erin to find out more.