According to the 2014 Stress in America Survey, conducted and published by the American Psychological Association:
• 72% of US adults reported feeling very stressed about money;
• 26% of respondents reported feeling stressed about money most or all of the time;
• 41% of those married or living with a partner reported having lost patience or yelled at their partner due to stress in the last month;
• 18% reported losing their tempers with coworkers;
• 35% reported constant nervousness or anxiety; and
• 32% reported prolonged periods of depression or sadness.
How Can You Keep Your Cool?
While you may not be able to change stressful external circumstances, you can change your response.
Mindfulness is a scientifically proven approach to self-calming and increased compassion toward others, and it can help alleviate all of these struggles you might be having.
So what exactly is mindfulness and how might it help you?
Mindfulness is defined as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally only to the unfolding of experience moment by moment” (Kabat-Zinn, 2003).
The definition of mindfulness has several components:
1. Using self-regulation of attention either by focusing on your inner experience or outer experience in the present moment. The focus is on being present to your immediate experience, which allows an increased awareness of the now.
2. Adopting an attitude of curiosity, openness, and acceptance toward your experiences in the present moment.
3. Refraining from turning away from unpleasant experiences and instead maintaining an open and compassionate attitude and a willingness to let things be as they are.
4. Focusing more on conscious control of your inner state instead of unconscious reliving of past learning.
Mindfulness is a systematic approach that has been rigorously studied by science. It is not a religion and it is compatible with many different faiths. Mindfulness practices have been found to reduce stress, anxiety, and burnout. Those who practice it are able to increase their self-esteem, empathy, self acceptance and regulation of emotion, due to their ability to take conscious control of thought processes.
Mindfulness has been extensively researched and shown to help with stress management, self-compassion, pain management, and overall happiness. Although it requires practice and attention, and is therefore not for everyone, there is a formal practice called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction developed and researched by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts Medical School Center for Mindfulness.
In my work as a psychotherapist, I developed a way to help my clients practice mindfulness throughout the day: Thinking of the word NOW is a reminder to drop into the present moment and pay attention without judgment.
• “N” stands for NOW, a reminder to stop, breathe, and attend to the present.
• “O” stands for OPPORTUNITY, a reminder to learn the lessons of living and become better instead of bitter.
• “W” stands for WITHIN, a reminder that regardless of life circumstances, you can find inner resources within yourself for healing and wholeness.
Train Your Brain
One problem with the evolution of our brains is that the “low road” part of our brain evolved for survival purposes, and has a quick startle response to anything that seems threatening. Of course, there are very few immediate threats in our current life, and so most of us overreact to things that we need not fear. We may overreact to a frown from an authority figure, backtalk from our child, or an unkind gesture from our spouse. We can benefit in all of these situations from taking what scientists call the “high road” in the brain, and not responding from a startle or fear response. This allows for more informed decision-making instead of simply reacting based upon past learning.
When you are able to be fully present and aware, you have an open mind and open heart that are better able to make creative and meaningful choices. You learn life lessons and develop flexible new behaviors that lead to realizing your full potential. When we follow the low road in our brain, our potential is limited by our past learning.
As a result of adopting a full awareness of the present reality, we discover new opportunities and focus on positive feelings connected with inner potential and strengths. In other words, we are better able to develop our best self-based on acting from love, not fear.
Change Your Brain
Mindfulness practices have been proven by neuroscience to actually change the structure and function in the brain. When we engage in a regular practice of mindfulness for at least eight weeks, there is a thickening of the high road regions of the prefrontal cortex, the area relevant to an individual's ability to focus and engage in reflection prior to taking action. There is also a thinning of fear activation in the amygdala, the low road part of the brain, and this helps us to break the pattern of reactive fight or flight responses. Science has also found that mindfulness practice can help people defuse ill feelings or negativity by augmenting the brain's gamma waves, which are associated with an increased ability to tolerate ambiguity and relinquish control.
When you are able to let go of the need to be right or perfect, there's an increased integration of body, emotion, and mind. You learn to see a person with the freshness of mind and an openness of heart. Although you care about the pain and suffering of others, you're able to remember that you can not make choices for them or control their lives.
Jon Kabat-Zinn also describes mindfulness as an inclusion of an affectionate, compassionate quality with the sense of openhearted friendly presence and interest. For example, rather than immediately reacting from the low road if someone has made a comment that you find threatening, you stop in a curious way and ask, what do you mean? Countless arguments could have avoided on the basis of that one question. Either you misunderstood the meaning, or if you take the high road, you become curious about what is going on and then take a more effective response.
• Mindfulness is a systematic and scientific approach to relaxation and stress reduction.
• Mindfulness helps take you to the higher regions of your brain such as the frontal cortex where you are able to make more informed and creative decisions.
• Mindfulness helps adapt to modern realities where most threats are actually in our minds.
• The physical structure of the brain can be altered through regular practice of mindfulness, for at least eight weeks.
• It is possible to train your brain to be more agile, flexible, and in a state of learning new and better ways to handle your life.