The Mindful Path to Stress Reduction

meditationThe Mindful Path to Stress Reduction
by Ben Gaibel, LCSW

When someone asks me what I do for a living, I often mention that I teach Stress Reduction as part of my work. I can almost always count on hearing the response: “Stress reduction? Oh, I could use that!” Feeling stressed is such a common human experience, felt across the board in our fast paced society. For many of us, stress can take away from our quality of life and negatively impact our health and overall well-being. The practice of Mindfulness, of fully opening to the present moment, can be an extremely healthy way to reduce stress and feel more alive.

Mindfulness practice has been around for thousands of years, coming from Eastern Wisdom, particularly from the Buddhist tradition. It was developed as a way to develop greater awareness and wisdom, allowing people to live each moment – positive or negative – as fully as possible. It has been used as vehicle to reduce suffering. Over recent years, mindfulness practice has gained worldwide popularity since it has been found to be an extremely useful method for handling stress and other challenging conditions.

Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn has been instrumental in bringing mindfulness practice into Western medicine as a way to cope effectively with stress, pain and illness. He developed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center’s Stress Reduction Clinic. The program is structured as an eight-week course meeting once a week with daily homework involving the use of guided mindfulness meditation audio CDs. The clinic involves relatively intensive training in mindfulness meditation and its application in daily life. Over 20,000 people have completed the MBSR program, and it has become internationally acclaimed for its successful outcomes. Research has shown that most participants that complete the MBSR program have a long lasting reduction in stress and pain, and an increase in health and positive attitude. There are now over a thousand MBSR programs in the U.S.A. and internationally that model the original MBSR program because of its recognized success.

Mindfulness is a way of paying full non-judgmental attention to the present moment. There is no need to reach a particular state of mind or to avoid anything in particular. With mindfulness meditation, it is not so import what you feel; it is more important how you relate to what you are feeling. It consists of being aware of whatever is happening at the time it is happening, relating with full acceptance. Mindfulness is an observation of our nature and the phenomena of emotions and sensations. In an article in Mind/Body Medicine, Dr. Kabat-Zinn states, “Its true aim is to nurture an inner balance of mind that allows you to face all life situations with greater stability, clarity, understanding, and even wisdom, and to act or respond effectively and with dignity out of that clarity and understanding.”

A key element of Mindfulness is practice is “non-judgmental” awareness. For example, let’s say we are overcome with a feeling of anxiety. Our natural tendency is to judge the feeling and have aversion toward what is happening, which can make it even more difficult. We may have thoughts such as, “No, I shouldn’t feel this way! I need this feeling to go away!” In mindfulness, we shift gears and actually open to and welcome the anxiety. We allow it to simply be, without fighting it. We breathe with it and observe the tightness in the body and perhaps the highly charged thoughts. By opening up to stress and tension with acceptance, we are able to give the challenging feeling the space to arise and pass naturally without constricting it. Mindfulness practice can be extremely empowering because we no longer become dependent on having to feel a certain way. We learn to be comfortable in our own skin, cultivating an openness that allows us to have a deep sense of peace, even in the middle of an emotional storm.

There are two ways to practice mindfulness in order to make it a part of your life: Formal practice and informal practice. Formal practice involves specific methods used to focus on the present moment for a set amount of time. Formal practice can include sitting meditation, body scanning, and yoga practice, just to name a few. Awareness of breathing is an essential part of formal practice since the breath is used as an anchor to the present moment. Formal practice is best done on a daily basis, perhaps around the same time every day so it can become part of one’s routine.

Informal mindfulness practice consists of moment to moment awareness in daily life. This can include bringing awareness to any activity such as eating, showering, driving, working, etc. Informal practice includes bringing awareness to both pleasant and unpleasant experiences. Bringing mindfulness into a stressful circumstance as it is happening can allow us to handle any difficult moment with ease, clarity and wisdom. Bringing mindfulness into pleasant moments can help us fully appreciate and soak in those many wonderful moments that may pass us by, such as experiencing a beautiful sky, a hug from loved one, a delicious meal, or a comfortable cool breeze. The formal practice of mindfulness, of setting aside time for a daily mindfulness practice, will help to nourish and strengthen the informal practice of being mindful in daily life.

Mindfulness is much more than just a stress management technique; it is a way of life. While it involves a significant daily commitment and lifestyle change, the benefits are priceless. Mindfulness leads to a continual enhancement of mental and physical well-being with greater confidence to handle life’s many challenges. Mindfulness also provides the gift of living each of life’s precious moments more fully, allowing us to be more available to ourselves and to those around us.

Recommended Readings
Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Full Catastophe Living. Delacorte, New York, 1990.

Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Mindfulness for Beginners. Sounds True, Boulder, CO, 2012.

Stress Reduction Group for People with Cancer
The Good Samaritan Comprehensive Cancer Center is offering a Six Week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for People with Cancer starting June 24th, 2014 on Tuesdays 9am-10:30am. The group is facilitated by the Comprehensive Cancer Center’s social worker, Ben Gaibel, LCSW. The fee for the class is 25 dollars which includes guided mindfulness audio CD’s for at home practice. Pre-registration required by June 19th. For more information, please contact Ben Gaibel at 303-673-1620.

From Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn

EXERCISE 1 [Mindfulness Meditation]
1) Assume a comfortable posture lying down or sitting. If you are sitting, keep the spine straight and let your shoulders drop.
2) Close your eyes if you feel comfortable.
3) Bring your attention to your belly, feeling it rise or expand gently on the inbreath and fall or recede on the outbreath.
4) Keep the focus on your breathing, “being with” each inbreath for its full duration and with each outbreath for its full duration, as if you were riding the waves of your own breathing.
5) Every time you notice that your mind has wandered off the breath, notice what it was that took you away and then gently bring your attention back to your belly and the feeling of your breath coming in and out.
6) If your mind wanders away from the breath a thousand times, then your “job” is simply to bring it back to the breath every time, no matter what it becomes preoccupied with.
7) Practice this exercise for fifteen minutes at a convenient time every day, whether you feel like it or not, for one week and see how it feels to incorporate a disciplined meditation practice into your life. Be aware of how it feels to spend some time each day just being with your breath without having to do anything.

EXERCISE 2 [Mindfulness in Daily Life]
1) Tune in to your breathing at different times during the day, feeling the belly go through one or two risings and fallings
2) Become aware of your thoughts and feelings at these moments, just observing them without judging them or yourself.
3) At the same time be aware of any changes in the way you are seeing things and feeling about yourself.

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