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Take a deep breath. Feeling less stressed already? Bestselling author Shamash Alidina shows just how simple it is to master the proven techniques of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) in this engaging guide. MBSR has enhanced the physical and emotional well-being of hundreds of thousands of people around the world. In as little as 10 minutes a day over 8 weeks, you'll be taken step by step through a carefully structured sequence of guided meditations (available to purchasers for download at the companion website) and easy yoga exercises. Vivid stories, everyday examples, and opportunities for self-reflection make the book especially inviting. Science shows that MBSR works--and now it is easier than ever to get started.
|Publisher:||Guilford Publications, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||6.90(w) x 9.80(h) x 3.20(d)|
About the Author
Shamash Alidina has been helping people to manage stress using mindfulness for more than 14 years. He is the author of the bestselling Mindfulness for Dummies. Based in London, he teaches mindfulness internationally to health professionals, executive coaches, and the public. He also offers mindfulness teacher training programs online. His website is www.shamashalidina.com.
Read an Excerpt
The Mindful Way Through Stress
The Proven 8-Week Path to Health, Happiness, and Well-Being
By Shamash Alidina
Guilford PressCopyright © 2015 Shamash Alidina
All rights reserved.
How Mindfulness Helps with Stress
There is a saying in Tibetan: "Tragedy should be utilized as a source of strength." No matter what sort of difficulties, how painful experience is, if we lose our hope, that's our real disaster.
— Dalai Lama
AS SARAH began to practice mindfulness exercises, she became more aware of how wild her mind was. All kinds of thoughts, many unconnected to what she was attempting to focus on, entered and exited her mind. She also noticed how negative many of these thoughts were: "I'm useless" and "What's wrong with me?" and "I can't cope with this job and all the other stuff going on." These thoughts kept going around and around in her head. Through mindfulness, she learned to step back from the thoughts in her mind so that they gradually had less of an impact on her feelings of stress.
As her head began to feel a bit clearer, she felt more in control. She found herself less reactive when her son didn't do as he was told. She could see why he was acting out — he hadn't eaten for hours or was tired after school. She felt more compassion for him, and he responded more positively to her calmer tone of voice.
Sarah also felt less tired at work due to an improved ability to focus, and so managed to work more efficiently and leave the office earlier.
In the evenings, when she got home from work, she did a short mindfulness exercise. This helped her shift out of work mode and be more calm and relaxed at home. She learned not to feel so guilty when doing nothing; just sitting down and resting or playing with her son was okay, she realized. In fact, it was essential.
Everyone has a wild mind. We all overreact to the demands of our lives when stretched to our limits. Our world collapses in on itself and we lose empathy for others who are struggling just as we are when stress has us in its grip. It's not our fault — it seems to be the way nature made us. Fortunately, we need not lose hope that things can get better. Sarah's story illustrates that, although mindfulness begins slowly and it's not a quick, smooth ride to an instant stress-free life, if you practice, mindfulness can slowly and steadily soothe your mind and heart, positively nourishing all parts of your life. It's a bit like gentle rain soaking into a land of drought. The rain is mindfulness. The drought is the constant doing of modern living.
To understand how mindfulness can relieve stress, we need to take a closer look at what stress is.
What Exactly Is Stress?
Here's a definition:
Stress is the feeling of being
under too much pressure.
Pressure can be classified as external (in the world around you) or internal (your thoughts, emotions, and attitudes).
Examples of external pressures include:
Having to complete work
Having to do chores and take care of other tasks at home
Taking care of yourself and those around you
Having to travel to work or social events
Managing your own illness or the illness of others
E-mails, phone calls, and other communications
Needing to exercise
Examples of internal pressures include:
Negative, judgmental thoughts about yourself
Negative, judgmental thoughts about others
Negative thoughts or ideas about the world
Low self-esteem or low self-compassion
A tendency toward perfectionism
Difficult emotions such as depression, anxiety, anger, guilt, or shame that linger for weeks
Discomfort or pain in your body
You need some external pressure to motivate and excite you. If the pressure is too low for you, you'll feel bored or useless. If the pressure is too high for you, you'll experience high levels of stress. In some ways, your life is a balancing act of finding activities that offer the right level of pressure for you. Everyone's different and at any one time we all require different levels of pressure, whether it's internal or external, to live optimally.
If the pressure is too high for you and lasts for long
periods of time, it can cause chronic stress, and that's
where the danger lies.
The pressures you experience may not be much higher than you can cope with. But over long periods of time, they can cause problems. For example, imagine I asked you to hold a glass of water out in front of you. If you had to hold the glass of water for a minute, you'd have no problem. You could easily smile at the same time. If you had to hold the glass for 10 minutes, the task becomes trickier, and you may not be smiling so much, but you could manage. But if I asked you to hold that glass of water all day and all night, I'd probably have to call an ambulance by the end of the day.
The glass of water represents the pressure you face. As you can see, the pressure in itself wasn't the issue; the issue was how long you were subjected to it. The duration of the pressure raised its level to the point where it caused stress. This shows how peaks of pressure now and then are not harmful, but long-term pressure can turn to stress.
Having the right level of pressure leads to a life of greater happiness. If you're reading this book, I assume that you're currently under too much pressure rather than too little and will offer you ways to help ease that pressure.
What Toll Does Stress Take on Us?
Stress, or more accurately the stress response, causes changes to take place in your brain and body. These changes can cause various kinds of harm when stress becomes chronic:
Persistent stress can cause a range of physical diseases. Some estimate up to 75% of visits to the physician are stress related. Stress can cause high blood pressure, leading to heart problems including heart attacks. Stress can also cause migraines, back pain, and ulcers. Stress also weakens your immune system, making you susceptible to a range of diseases.
Chronic stress affects your mental well-being. Stress can lead to clinical depression, anxiety, and burnout. Stress also reduces your ability to focus effectively.
Stress affects your family life. When your stress levels are high, you're more likely to snap at your partner or children. If this happens too regularly, the quality of your relationship will diminish. Stress weakens your emotional intelligence, making it difficult to see things from other people's point of view.
Addiction to illicit drugs, alcohol, or nicotine can be linked to chronic stress. You may be using these substances to help relieve the feeling of stress, although the relief is short lived and the addiction raises the overall level of stress.
Society as a whole suffers from stress. The cost to each nation due to reduced efficiency or missing work because of stress runs into hundreds of billions of dollars. And that doesn't touch on the reduced levels of creativity and communication issues due to excessive stress levels.
How Can Mindfulness Reduce Stress?
Stress is a complex subject, and so the path to relieving it is not straightforward either, as Sarah discovered. However, for the sake of simplicity, here are some ways mindfulness helps you with stress.
You become more aware of your thoughts. You can then step back from them and not take them so literally. That way, your stress response is not initiated in the first place.
You don't immediately react to a situation. Instead, you have a moment to pause and then use your "wise mind" to come up with the best solution. Mindfulness helps you do this through the mindful exercises.
Mindfulness switches on your "being" mode of mind, which is associated with relaxation. Your "doing" mode of mind is associated with action and the stress response.
You are more aware and sensitive to the needs of your body. You may notice pains earlier and can then take appropriate action.
You are more aware of the emotions of others. As your emotional intelligence rises, you are less likely to get into conflict.
Your level of care and compassion for yourself and others rises. This compassionate mind soothes you and inhibits your stress response.
Mindfulness practice reduces activity in the part of your brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is central to switching on your stress response, so effectively, your background level of stress is reduced.
You are better able to focus. So you complete your work more efficiently, you have a greater sense of well-being, and this reduces the stress response. You are more likely to get into "the zone" or "flow," as it's termed in psychology by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
You can switch your attitude to the stress. Rather than just seeing the negative consequences of feeling stressed, mindfulness offers you the space to think differently about the stress itself. Observing how the increased pressure helps energize you has a positive effect on your body and mind.
Later in this chapter I describe in detail how mindfulness can benefit you physically, mentally, emotionally, and in your relationships. First, however, it's important to understand the difference between our typical mental state, mindlessness, and mindfulness.
Mindlessness: The Usual Mode of Mind
Your normal state of mind during routine activities is probably a state of mindlessness. I don't mean to be accusatory or rude — it's just what the brain defaults to. In the mindless state, you are living a life of unconscious habits. You don't give full attention to every activity you do, but just go through the motions.
Your brain is designed to form habits. This process can help you complete tasks more efficiently. A habit is actually the process of the neurons in your brain connecting to each other due to regular firing down a particular pathway. You can think of each habit as a computer program. It takes place automatically and quickly and doesn't require any conscious awareness. The habits are formed through a process of repetition. Each time you repeat an activity, you're beginning to create that habitual program. Habits have several benefits:
The activity can be done unconsciously so you use up less energy in your conscious awareness. You do not need to think "move left leg, move right leg" when walking. It just happens.
You don't need to waste energy making choices. You wake up and brush your teeth — you don't need to decide to brush your teeth today.
Habitual activities can be done much more quickly. Doing something new, like playing the piano, is far more difficult and slow at the beginning.
You feel more relaxed. You're not trying hard to engage in the habit — it happens by itself. If you have a habit of eating an apple a day, you don't need to try hard to force yourself to eat the healthy fruit.
You can be more effective in your activity. When you first try to juggle, it's difficult and you keep dropping the balls. Once it's an automatic action, you can hop on one leg and tell a joke at the same time.
However, there are several disadvantages of habits too:
As habits are normally unconscious, you're not awake to the experience. If you're playing with your child habitually, you miss the special and precious moment of being together. The experience can't be savored if habitual.
You lose choice. How can you make a choice if you're acting automatically and habitually? If you've always traveled from San Francisco to Chicago by plane, you book the ticket automatically. You don't consider a train journey or a road trip with friends.
When your thoughts, emotions, and attitudes are both habitual and negative, you're much more likely to experience stress. Persistent unmindful, negative thinking turns on your stress response. and to rewire your brain to generate greater happiness and less chronic stress.
PRACTICE: Two-Minute Mindfulness Exercise
Audio track 1: 2 minutes.
Try this exercise right now.
1. Set a timer for 2 minutes.
2. Begin by taking a deep, slow breath in and out.
3. Now pay attention to the feeling of your breathing. Just breathe naturally. Each time you notice your mind drift to other thoughts, gently bring your attention back to your breath.
4. After 2 minutes, you can stop.
Remember: Your mind will drift to other thoughts. This is normal. It doesn't mean you're doing anything wrong. In fact, if you noticed that your mind drifted, it means you're doing the exercise correctly.
Now repeat the experiment, but this time try sitting or standing up straight and close your eyes if they were open the first time. Then reconsider the questions above. Which of the two exercises was it easier to focus in?
Mindfulness is the opposite of habitual, automatic living. Mindfulness teaches you to live more consciously. You still have your habits, because that is the nature of the brain, but you notice them more and gain greater choice in your life.
Here's my definition of mindfulness, which brings together the essence of the many different definitions that mindful teachers have shared:
Mindfulness means intentionally paying attention
to your present- moment experience
with mindful attitudes such as acceptance, curiosity,
self- compassion, and openness.
Let's break this definition down to make better sense of its meaning.
Mindfulness isn't usually an automatic process. You don't often find yourself being mindful. Mindfulness is a process that requires a decision; you need to choose to be mindful. And then you exert a certain kind of effort, at least initially. Once you begin to get into the flow of mindful awareness, your level of effort may decrease, but at least initially, there is a purposeful decision to pay attention.
Interestingly, you're paying attention to something almost all the time. The question is what you're paying attention to. While reading this book, your mind may be on the television on in the background. Or thinking about what's going to happen at work today. Or replaying what happened yesterday. This is passive attention. Passive attention is involuntary. Mindfulness is more than just paying attention passively to wherever your attention goes.
Mindfulness is an active rather than passive attention. An active, or purposeful, attention requires choice and a certain degree of effort. We get into intention in more detail later in this chapter.
You can think of attention as a focused awareness. The word attention comes from the Latin attendere, meaning literally "to stretch toward." When you pay attention to a lecture, you're stretching your awareness toward the speaker's voice.
Attention is about taking notice — being aware of what's happening while it's happening. We use our senses to pay attention to external experiences: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch. You can pay attention to, for example, the sight of this book, the sound of a baby crying in the distance, the smell of oil from a deep fryer in a fast-food restaurant, the taste of your morning orange juice, and the sensation of the weight of your body on your chair, or tension in your shoulders. When you pay attention to these experiences purposefully, you're being mindful.
But you're not restricted to your outer senses in mindfulness. Consciously focusing on your internal experiences such as your thoughts and emotions without being swept away by them, as best you can, is mindfulness. You can pay attention to thoughts like "I can't be bothered to do this job" or "Why is that woman shouting?" or emotions like boredom, excitement, or frustration. To notice these internal experiences rather than just unconsciously having them, is mindfulness. That little sense of separation between you and your thoughts or emotions is key.
You may think, "So what? Okay, so I'm not 100% aware all the time. I daydream. I think about other stuff. What's wrong with that?" Well, here's a typical example of an experience I had last week. Imagine you were on this business trip: You wake up ready to get a flight back home from a business trip, from Chicago to London. You check the weather and discover the forecast is not good. Twelve inches of snow is predicted. The report says lots of flights will either be delayed or canceled. You think, "Oh no! My flight's gonna be canceled. I was really looking forward to getting back home and spending some time with the kids before going back to work. Why does this always happen to me? It's so annoying. Will I be able to get a hotel for an extra night? This airline always gives poor service when these things happen." You begin to feel tense and stressed.
Excerpted from The Mindful Way Through Stress by Shamash Alidina. Copyright © 2015 Shamash Alidina. Excerpted by permission of Guilford Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction 1. How Mindfulness Helps with Stress 2. Discovering Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction 3. Getting the Most Out of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction 4. Week 1: There's More Right with You Than Wrong with You 5. Week 2: From Automatic Reacting to Creative Responding 6. Week 3: The Joy and Value of Living in the Present 7. Week 4: Understanding and Managing Stress 8. Week 5: Taking a Stand—Responding to Stress 9. Week 6: Mindful Communication 10. A Day of Mindfulness: Deepening Your Awareness 11. Week 7: Taking Care of Yourself 12. Week 8: The Rest of Your Life 13. Mindful Stretching and Yoga Resources
Readers seeking proven techniques for managing stress and tension; also of interest to mental health professionals.