Mindfulness meditation is undergoing a surge of interest all over the world, not least because of its incredible success treating some of our most common psychological ailments. Some of the most common and widespread of these are stress, anxiety and depression. These disorders are endemic in a time-poor societies in which people work a lot and have little or no education about ways to reduce stress that are healthy and sustainable.
To understand how to use mindfulness to eliminate the negative effects of stress, we have to understand that stress itself isn’t the problem. Stress is anything that puts strain on an organism – technically being asked to pass the salt at dinner is a stressor. The negative effects of stress come about entirely due to our inability to react healthily to stress, and the closely-related confusion around the various ways to permanently reduce stress.
Our bodies have evolved to help us survive in stressful situations by secreting hormones like adrenaline and cortisol when we are faced with danger. Once these chemicals are coursing through us, we have two simple options: fight or run away. For most of our existence as a species this danger was physical and this served us very well. It may have been activated when we spotted a lion on the savannah, or when faced with the threat of losing our place in the tribe.
The mechanism whereby these chemicals are released is a part of the body’s autonomic nervous system called the SNS (Sympathetic Nervous System). As soon as its activated blood is diverted from the organs to the limbs, adrenaline and cortisol are released to increase strength and alertness, the pupils dilate and our heart rate increases.
But here’s the catch: the SNS is intimately linked with your mind, the filter through which you perceive experience the world. As such it doesn’t matter if something is a real threat or not; what matters is that you think it is. So a tight deadline at work might activate the SNS, or an insult that hurts your ego, or simply a generalised sense of uncertainty about your future. Because of this, many of us walk around with SNS hormones moving through us on a slow drip, negatively affecting everything from concentration to the immune system to your sex drive.
Luckily your body has ways to reduce stress. Intertwined with the SNS is the PNS (Parasympathetic Nervous System). The PNS is responsible for rest and recovery and is essential to your body. In fact, if your SNS were removed you wouldn’t die (just be useless in an emergency) but you would if you didn’t have a PNS. When activated it releases ‘feel good’ endorphins that automatically reduce the levels of SNS hormones.
So where does mindfulness meditation fit in? Mindfulness is one of the most well-researched ways to reduce stress. What’s so special about it is that it’s one of the only things you as a human being can do that will not just reduce your stress in the moment, but can actually lead to you never being negatively affected by stress. This isn’t to say that stressful things won’t happen to you, just that you won’t get stressed when they do. A bold claim I know, but the tips below will help you get there and are great ways to reduce stress using mindfulness.
Tip 1 – Change your perspective
Mindfulness is quite simply observing your mind without judging what you’re experiencing. It is a fundamental shift from ascribing value to objects in your perception to realising that nothing matters at all outside of your decision that it matters.
So the next time you’re stressed, take a step back, take a breath, shrug and say ‘it doesn’t matter’. Whatever you’re experiencing doesn’t matter if you decide it doesn’t matter. It really is that simple. The challenge is being able to do this when everyone around you thinks everything matters, but that’s why mindfulness requires daily practice. If you can dedicate yourself to this, you will have stumbled across the best ways to reduce stress you’ll ever find.
Tip 2 – Come into the body
If you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, bring your mind to your body. This means feel your physical presence and become conscious of yourself as a body, distinct from everything else. This works in part because it’s impossible to create irrational fantasies about the future or fret about the past if you centre yourself in the here and now, which is where your body always is.
Method 3 – Be easy on yourself
Much of our stress comes from beating ourselves up needlessly. Human beings are notoriously intolerant of themselves, and many of us are more understanding of someone else’s failings than our own (because we should know better, right?). This is in part to not having enough space between your thoughts and feelings and the part of you that is observing them.
So the next time you’re beating yourself up, take a few steps back in your head and take a more objective look at your own behaviour or perceived failings. You may notice that you’re just doing your best and that beating yourself up is never going to make you happier, more productive or be a good way to reduce stress.
Hopefully the above tips help you have a more balanced, happy and lighter life. Mindfulness is one of the best and most powerful ways to reduce stress, but it does require practice, so get in touch if you’re having trouble meditating every day, or better still come to one of our mindfulness meditation classes or weekend meditation retreats in London!