by Sheryl Bruce
If there was a way to reduce stress would you do it or at least learn about it? Well there is and any one can do it almost anywhere. So what is stopping you? Yes, even you, the stressed out caregiver or the person who has mental health challenges. Believe it, because it has been proven many times over: Yes, PROVEN to be effective. It is called Mindfulness. It is the best lifestyle tool available to control stress, improve sleep and avoid illness. It has been proven to benefit your mood. It can give you a deeper sleep. It can reduce anxiety and make your heart healthier. It can also increase your oxygen intake which has all kinds of health benefits. Challenging things happen all the time in life and we need to find a way to cope, sooner or later. Why wait? How can mindfulness help me? Firstly Mindfulness teaches you how to breathe and how to focus on breathing so that you are initially distracted from thinking or ruminating on the problems or stresses at hand. It seems too simple and boring and some may say, “Do I really need to learn to breathe?” Yes you do! Just practicing breathing and focusing on your body you are learning ways to detect subtle messages from your body, about your body and about the thoughts and feelings that trigger stress. The benefits can be appreciated early on and they are documentable by image scans. After 8 weeks of practicing daily (increasing incrementally your length of time meditating) MRI scans have shown a thickening of the brain covering. What we know is that as the brain thickens reactivity is reduced.
Over the 8 weeks your body is learning how to automatically gear down and not react, which is really helpful in stressful situations such as real threats or perceived threats. For example when we put expectations on ourselves sometimes our thoughts are our threat; for example: I could have…, I should have…, If I only had done…” . “What If …”? We also say; “I need to do this now”, or “he should do that…” Or, “If she had only done… then this would not have happened”. In our society we make to do lists and we find ourselves rushing to various appointments and activities. We may be at one event and we are thinking of some other problem or something else. We may be driving, talking and thinking about the daily to do list. This kind of life reinforces multi-tasking and we may be proud of all the things we accomplish in a day. But, this fervor can take a toll on the body and our emotional resources. Many care givers seem to be rushing to get the loved one fixed. If the loved one is fixed then they will feel better. However many cases that we see are marathons, not sprints and if you keep preparing for a sprint you will get fatigued and you are at risk for burnout. Learning to notice the beauty in life There is a lot to appreciate in life even while being in a marathon. Marathon racers need to learn to breathe and pace their emotional energy for the long haul. If they do not monitor their body’s functioning they can do harm to themselves. Learning to read your body is the first key to stress management. Also your ability to be creative becomes taxed, problem solving abilities are reduced and you cannot be present to new experiences. You will miss the present moment and live in the past or the future. The goal in developing mindfulness is to experience life with more ease and centeredness each moment of the day; and so increase our effectiveness and relieve tension in day to day problems. Finding happiness Jon Kabat-Zinn has done research to clarify the benefits of mindfulness. He teased out the essential elements and has developed Mindfulness Based Stress Management Therapy. To quote Jon Kabat-Zinn “This is the path of working where you find yourself with what is found here and now. This then, really is it –this place, this relationship, this dilemma, this job. The challenge of mindfulness is to work with the very circumstances you find yourself in; no matter how unpleasant, how discouraging , how limited, how unending and stuck they may appear to be and to make sure that you have done everything in your power to use their energies(of the circumstances) to transform yourself. It is right here that the real work needs to happen.” (From: Wherever you go there you are. 1994.) As we search for peace, we may not realize that we can find peace within ourselves despite what is going on around us. Carol Wilson says, “Part of finding peace is to be fully present and alive in this moment, no matter whether it is pleasant or not. Only when we learn how to stop resisting what is happening right now, and learn to stop spending our time and energy searching for something else to try and make things better, will we find true happiness”.
Making room for growth The goal in mindfulness is to learn to suspend judgments of our thoughts and emotions. Through non-judgemental attention acceptance is cultivated (it does not come easy). It is a different way of thinking about situations. Some people say things happen for a reason. I disagree. There may not be a predetermined reason for the suffering that you have nor a reason this person has a mental illness but I can say that we can learn something from these times. I have developed very close enriched relationships with people who suffer. It is a different way of being and a deeper connection. Of course the mental illness should not be there but it is. What can be learned? Many things can be learned when the resistance is down and the desire to experiment starts. For instance a woman who could no longer walk developed her artistic side; a side she never would have known, if not for the illness. Mindfulness meditation is not about being a good meditator it is about being aware of our experiences. Some people might learn that they are fine and that the situation is not as bad as they fear. Perhaps when a loved one has mental health problem it is not fine, I can be aware of this and I can accept that I am angry or that I feel life is fair. We acknowledge the real feelings and accept them IN the acceptance we can develop “an attitude of loving, focussed, calm accepting attention to whatever is happening” (Carol Wilson). With acceptance of what is, a peace of mind (equanimity) will be developed over time. Accepting difficult emotions I may have given the impression that only wonder will be experienced. But other emotions can pop up, some distasteful or fearful. It is in accepting all of these that a balance is learned. We can learn- “It is, what it is”. Jean Vanier, considered a man of deep compassion and a humble prophet in the struggle to “become more fully human,” (he is the founder of L'Arche) now aging reported that he spent most of his time running here and there developing homes for the mentally challenged and now he can no longer run, so he sits and notices what he missed all those years. Mindfulness has been adapted from Buddhist tradition and approach to life that has been handed down over many years. Mindfulness is not a religion but there are many similarities to Christianity or Judaism. Mindfulness may not be for everyone, but if you want to learn more check out Time Magazine: Special Issue January 2017.
We have several books you can borrow to help you experiment with this approach and I encourage you to sign up to join our Mindfulness class in September or the Spring. Susan Orsillo and Lizabeth Roemer. The Mindful Way through Anxiety: The Guilford Press, 2011. Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal, and John Kabat –Zinn: The Mindful Way through Depression: The Guilford Press, 2007. John Teasdale, Mark Williams and Zindel Segal: The Mindful Way Workbook: The Guilford Press, 2014. Jon Hershfield and Tom Coprboy: The Mindfulness workbook for OCD: New Harbinger Publications, Inc., 2013 Colette Portelance: L’acceptation et le Lacher-prise: Les Editions duCRAM, 2014. Guy Finley: Lacher Prise, Les Editions de l’Homme, 2003. Jon Kabat-Zinn:Wherever you go There you are: Hachette Books, 1994.