Your mind runs over and over the same worrisome situation without ever reaching a useful plan to move forward. Your head aches and so do your muscles. Your heart pounds and your stomach churns. Your intestines – well, never mind. If it gets really bad you may have trouble swallowing and be convinced you’re having a heart attack. Everything in you says you need to get out of this misery as quickly as you can.
It’s ironic that an effective treatment for stress — and its even more intense relative, anxiety disorder — is to dive deeply into the experience.
Beginning in 1979 Jon Kabat-Zinn began applying mindfulness meditation to medical conditions, a marriage of science and art. Kabat-Zinn who holds a doctorate in molecular biology and is an avid follower of yoga, has studied for years with Buddhist teachers. He brought his interests together in what he called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and practiced and refined it at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Therapists use the practice, commonly called Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, with clients suffering from anxiety and depression.
Mindfulness is a Simple Technique
- Sit comfortably in a quiet spot – chair, couch, floor, whatever allows you to keep your back straight but relaxed. If standing or walking is more comfortable, that’s fine, but you should start with one position for each session at first. Lower but don’t close your eyes; keep your gaze soft.
- Relax your muscles and become aware of your breath. Feel each breath as the movement of air into your nostrils and out through your parted lips. Draw the breaths deep into your body; notice the rise and fall of your belly. This deep, slow breathing will be your anchor when your attention wanders.
- Stay in this moment. Your stress lies in the past and the future. If you dwell in the present moment, there’s no magnet for stressful thoughts or feelings. If your mind wanders, gently bring your attention back to this moment.
- Turn your attention to physical sensations. Don’t let them worry you, just notice the feeling and how your body responds. Move on to another sensation, and another – the movement of air against your cheek, your pounding heart, an itch on your foot. Use all your senses to be fully aware of your surroundings.
- Pay attention to the thoughts flowing through your mind. Draw yourself back to your body and your breathing when a thought takes you wandering away. Label the thoughts, if you like – fear, anger, curiosity, satisfaction.
- After 10 or 15 minutes, if you’re new to meditation, rise slowly. Take your time. Reflect on your experience and know that you can return to that peaceful place whenever you want.
You can practice mindfulness on your own or with a group, or with a therapist who will guide you through the practice and encourage you to practice on your own between sessions. The more you practice the technique, the easier it will become and the longer you can maintain a session.
The American Psychological Association Reports Benefits from the Practice
- Reduced “rumination” or obsessive thoughts about past experiences
- Reduced stress
- Improved sleep – one study found increased levels of the sleep-encouraging chemical melatonin in people who meditated before bed
- Better focus
- Improved memory
- Reduced emotional reactions to disturbing events
- Improved relationships through a less emotional perspective on disagreements
Many of those benefits arise from the mindfulness meditator’s practice of regarding their own feelings from an emotional distance.