In this blog post, we will discuss the benefits on mindfulness practice for individuals in the areas of stress management and stress prevention.
Guillen and Ribera define stress as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change” or “a physiological response to any change, whether good or bad, that alerts the adaptive fight-or-flight response in the brain and the body” (2014). It is worth noting here that the fight-or flight response is indeed an evolutionary adaption, that allowed our ancestors to respond appropriately to any life threating dangers in the past. If there is a big animal approaching, our ability to act swiftly and get out of the way is crucial. However, thousands of years later, physical threats are fairly rare in our daily lives, and the same adaptation all of the sudden proves to be maladaptive.
Of course, some degree of stress can be described as positive stress or eustress. According to Csikszentmihalyi’s flow model, the key to eliciting a flow experience while performing any activity, is having the right balance between the challenge level and the skill level of an individual (1990). The problems occur when we don’t have the proper skills or resources to deal with the challenges, especially over a long period of time. Dr. Hassed ascertains that “anxiety leads to smaller working-memory spans” and that “performance pressure harms individuals most qualified to succeed by consuming the working memory capacity that they rely on for their superior performance” (2013).
In his flagship book, Full Catastrophe Living, Dr. Kabat-Zinn describes in detail the physiology of the fight-or-flight reaction on our human body (2013). The “habitual or autonomic” stress reaction involves the following organs: hypothalamus, pituitary gland, adrenals, autonomic nervous system, and the immune system. However, “chronic hyper arousal” comes about due to maladaptive coping and dysregulation, the symptoms of which include: arrhythmias, sleep disorders, chronic headaches and backaches, anxiety, panic, and inflammation. Down the road this leads to further physical and psychological exhaustion, depression / burnout, and genetic predispositions to disease manifesting at a more rapid speed. On the flipside, the same diagram revised by Dr. Kabat-Zinn describes the mindfulness-mediated stress response, which also affects the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, adrenals, autonomic nervous system, and the immune system; although to a lesser extent. Furthermore, the mindfulness-mediated stress reaction includes: “possible arousal, but also an awareness of the body: breathing, sensations, awareness of thoughts and emotions, greater acceptance; awareness of the full context, emotions-focused strategies, seeing new options, quick recovery of mental equilibrium and allostasis” (2013). The second alternative stress response undoubtedly sounds like a way better option!
Stephen R. Covey in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People emphasizes the importance of having a proactive focus which essentially involves enlarging our sphere of influence into our sphere of concern, in other words: focusing predominately on things within our control. Mindfulness training certainly provides that very advantage of helping practitioners to focus on things which are within their sphere of influence. Some causes of stress in our environment are indeed outside of our control, but we have control over how we handle those challenges.
As Viktor Frankl once wisely said: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom” (2014).
Mindfulness is about being present in the moment. Chronic stress and depression typically worsen through the process of negative rumination. Sometimes bad moods triggering bad memories, and to make the whole situation worse… we end up feeling bad about feeling bad. On the other hand, mindfulness practices bring us back again to the present moment. Circumstances in the environment that are not immediately life threating can be accurately classified and dealt with as such in the present moment.
Typically, bringing the attention back to the present moment is primarily done through bringing attention back to our breathing, the sounds and smells in the room, the sensations in our body, and also our emotional reactions, but from a more accepting point of view. It is helpful to use metaphors and visualisations during our mindfulness practices, for example: imagining that our mind is like the sky and the thoughts are just like the passing weather.
Chade – Meng Tan, the legendary Jolly Good Fellow of Google and the Co-founder and Chairmen of the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI), gives the following advice and “general principles for dealing with any distressing emotions”:
1. Know when you are not in pain.
2. Do not feel bad about feeling bad.
3. Do not feed the monsters.
4. Start every thought with kindness and humor. (2012)
The reference to ‘feeding the monsters’, is a particularly effective metaphor in this context, since as discussed in our previous blog our brain plasticity allows for strengthening neurological connections that are being frequently used. In other words, we can program our brain to filter reality through a pessimistic or optimistic lens which then ends up becoming almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
What would happen to our lives if our unnecessarily pessimistic and unpleasant thoughts were no longer entertained?
Just to recap once again, mindfulness gives us the opportunity to stop and pay attention to what is happening in the present moment, which is also useful in the context of effective stress management and even stress prevention as described above in a theoretical and practical sense.
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Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper & Row.
Covey, S. R. (2004). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. Free Press. New York.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013). Full Catastrophe Living – Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. Bantam Books Trade Paperbacks. New York.
Ribera, A., & Guillen, J. L. (2014). Mindfulness and Business. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from http://www.hrb.org
Ribera, A., & Guillen, J. L. (2014). Mindfulness: Multiply Productivity Through Undivided Attention. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from http://www.hrb.org
Tan, C. M. (2012). Search Inside Yourself – the Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace). Harper One. Harper Collins Publishers.