Do you know why mindfulness is an effective stress management tool?

I thought I should kick off this podcast by explaining just why mindfulness is the best stress management tool around.

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I’ve been an instructor at a post-secondary institution for 18 years. I took the job, because I love to teach. Teaching is my passion and I’m good at it. What I don’t love is the stress that comes from working in a big, bureaucratic organization where individual people and their accomplishments are not considered important, where decisions are made without consulting those who are affected by them, and where managers are more interested in controlling employees than in supporting their efforts to produce quality work. It got so bad for me about 10 years ago I couldn’t get through a workday without thinking “this is day I quit.” I was exhausted and bitchy all the time. I would walk through the doors to the office saying to myself “I hate this place.” Not a good state of mind, but I didn’t quit, because I just didn’t want to give up on my passion.

So, I began reading self-help books. Stress management, happiness, influencing other people, self-confidence… you name it, I read it, and none of it helped. Yes, those books gave me some insights into my behaviour and mental state, but they didn’t help me de-stress in any lasting way.

Then, entirely by accident, I came across an article about meditation. At first, I meditated sporadically and I jumped around a lot trying different types of meditation, searching for the best one. I felt frustrated that I couldn’t focus my mind, but I think I stuck with it because, at least for the duration of the meditation, I felt less anxious and stressed.

The real payoff, however, came to me after I’d been meditating regularly for a couple of months — and I discovered it by accident, too. I was heading down the hallway at the office, on my way to the bathroom. Coming the other way was my supervisor. She marched right up to me and started shouting. Loudly, in front of students and staff, she berated me for something that absolutely was not my fault. Normally, this kind of situation would’ve made me instantly angry and anxious. I’d have had to exert a lot of control not to yell back and, worst of all, I’d have stewed about the incident for days afterward even if the supervisor admitted she was wrong.

But, that’s not what happened. Instead, I was utterly, completely calm. I stood and listened to my supervisor and when she was finished venting, I calmly explained to her that she was wrong. The situation resolved quickly and best of all, when it was over I just went on my way. I had absolutely no need to revisit it in my head over and over again.

And then I realized what had happened. My ability to stay calm and not automatically react in a negative way was a direct result of my meditation practice. Finally, I had a solid method for managing stress. Ten years later, I’m still teaching at the same institute and I’m still practicing meditation. It’s such powerful stress management strategy, I will never give it up.

So, how does mindfulness help to manage stress?

To be mindful is to be aware of what is happening right now, in this very moment, without judging it.

Typically, we react automatically to things that happen to us. Our human brain has evolved to make judgements quickly and easily, without much thought.

If the thing we’re reacting to has potential negative consequences for us, our reaction is very likely to be a stress reaction. If someone yells at us, it’s likely that we’ll respond with anger or anxiety or both. It’s important to understand, though, stress isn’t the thing that happens to us. Stress is our reaction to the thing that happens to us.

We can respond to something with a stress reaction, or we can respond to that same thing in another way. The problem is the stress response is so quick and so automatic it feels like it is the only way we can respond. The situation feels entirely out of our control.

Mindfulness teaches us how to get our responses under our control.

When we are mindful, we are clearly seeing what’s happening to us, but we’re observing it objectively, without deciding that it’s good or bad, happy or sad, liked or hated. Because we don’t automatically judge what’s happening, we don’t automatically react to it.

When we can observe mindfully, we gain a little precious time in which we can decide how to react. Now, the stress response isn’t so automatic. We get to choose how to respond. And, we can choose to respond in a way that is less stressed.

Yes, learning to be mindful takes some practice, but when you can respond to a potentially stressful situation in a calm, controlled manner, you will be very happy you put in the time.

Try a meditation right now (or download for later)

This is a 10-minute guided meditation on awareness without judgement.

 

Do you have questions about mindfulness? I’ll do my best to answer them in upcoming posts.


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2 comments

Hardeep Kaur

I found your website while I was searching for stress management, building confidence etc. as at the moment I am really stressed about my job search. Your podcast is amazing and relaxing. I liked the idea of being mindful and taking a pause to make decision. I found this similar to the idea of “gap between stimulus and response” that I read in a book. I think you are doing an amazing job by sharing these ideas and your experiences with people.

Hello Hardeep,
Thank you for the kind words. You’re right, mindfulness helps you to see the gap between stimulus and response and use it to make better decisions about your response.
I wish you all the best with your job search. To reduce anxiety a bit, you might like to try tracking the positive actions you are taking to get a job. Keep a record of every time you send out a resume, every time you attend a networking event, etc. Celebrate the small actions that will eventually help you get that job. And they will. I have every confidence in you.
Take care,
Sandra

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