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Managing Stress: Learning Mindfulness

by Ann S. Williams, PhD, RN, CDE

This column is Part 2 of a continuing series on stress management. The last column contained a definition of stress (a reaction to a change or strain), and a few basic ideas about stress. It said that stress can be a response to a change or strain that is physical or emotional; that high stress can be a result of either an accumulation of many small stresses, or a large stress; that even positive changes can produce stress; that being in a high-stress state produces physical changes that are not good for people with diabetes; that no one can entirely avoid stress; and that people can choose how they react to stress.

One of the ways people can choose to react to stress is to begin becoming more aware and present in their daily lives. This practice is often called mindfulness, a practice of focusing deeply on simply being aware and alert in the present moment, without judgment, and without moving into thinking about either the past or the future. Many mindfulness meditation techniques currently taught in American health care settings are derived from Buddhist practices. However, similar practices exist in all contemplative traditions.

Modern health researchers have conducted studies on the health effects of mindfulness meditation techniques, and have learned they can promote both mental and physical health. The immediate effect of basic mindfulness meditation is to reduce the stress reaction in the present moment. When practiced over a longer period of time, mindfulness can help people to become less reactive to stress, and to have insight into their automatic responses and habits. With that insight, people are more easily able to change habits they no longer want.

To begin learning mindfulness meditation, it’s best to set aside a short period of time (about 10 to 20 minutes) in a quiet place to focus on being in the present moment. Many people find it is helpful to practice meditation regularly, in the same place, at about the same time each day.

Ultimately, mindfulness itself can be practiced in any place, in the middle of any activity. However, to learn mindfulness, it’s best to start with focused meditation, in a situation with as few distractions as possible. You might choose to sit in a comfortable position, or to walk slowly. It’s probably best not to lie down, at least at the beginning, because if you lie down, you could easily fall asleep; and sleep is really not the same as meditation.

So once you have decided on a place and time, either sit comfortably, or begin to walk slowly. If you are sitting, it’s best to sit up straight, with your feet on the ground, and your whole body well supported, so you can completely relax. Next, just pay attention to your breath. Breathe naturally, in a normal rhythm, and pay attention to the feeling of the breathing. Notice the air moving in and out of your nostrils. Notice the feeling of your lungs expanding and contracting. Simply follow the movement and rhythm of your breath.

Your thoughts might turn to other physical sensations of the present moment. For example, if you are sitting, you may notice the pressure of the seat against your legs and buttocks. If you are walking, you may notice the increasing feeling of weight on the bottom of your foot as you place it on the ground, and the simultaneous feeling of decreasing weight on the other foot. You might notice small sounds in your environment: A bird, a distant voice, a passing car, the mechanical hum of a fan or a computer. You might notice a smell in the air: The smell of the local weather, a plant smell, a food smell, or the smell of a pet who has come to sit with you.

If you notice such things, name them, accept them as they are, and incorporate the naming and accepting into your breathing. So you might think as you breathe: “I breathe in and I feel my legs against the chair; I breathe out, and I accept the feeling. I breathe in and I hear a car pass outside; I breathe out, and I accept the sound. I breathe in and I smell the dry wind; I breathe out and I accept the smell.”

Similarly, if you notice feelings and thoughts passing through your mind, you can name and accept those too, and return your focus to your breathing. You don’t need to fight the thoughts or feelings, or make any effort at all to deal with them. Simply name them and breathe. So, for example, you might find yourself thinking: “I breathe in, and I remember that I’m angry at someone; I breathe out, and accept that feeling. I breathe in, and I feel sad; I breathe out and I accept my sadness. I breathe in, and I think about what I plan to eat later today; I breathe out, and I accept those thoughts. I breathe in, and I remember that I need to do the laundry; I breathe out, and I accept that I’m thinking about laundry.”

As you continue to focus on your breathing, you may notice that you are becoming very relaxed. This is a common side effect of focusing on your breathing. The relaxation is very helpful for both physical and emotional health, but it is not the point of mindfulness practice. The point is to simply be present in the present moment, without an agenda, and to continue to return your focus to your breathing.

After the time you have allotted for meditation has ended, take a deep breath. Notice your sense of being present in your body and mind. Broaden your awareness to include what is happening near by, just around you, and whatever is happening a little further out in your environment. And then you’re ready to go back to your daily life.

If you practice mindfulness meditation regularly, you may notice that you are gradually becoming more aware of the present moment in all of your life. You might find it’s easier for you to focus when you choose to, and also that you have a deeper awareness of what is happening in your mind and emotions. You might also notice you are becoming less emotionally reactive. All of these are common effects of the practice of mindfulness meditation. And along with all of these effects, you may find you have greatly decreased the effects that the stresses of life have on you.

(to be continued)