Mindfulness of stress and anxiety

Mindfulness is a solution to a stressful, fast-paced lifestyle. A way of being present and paying attention to yourself in the here-and-now. Creating a sense of relief and relaxation in body and mind to achieve a state of openness, tolerance and non-judgmentalism. It helps generate self-acceptance. Replacing rigid patterns of black-and-white thinking with a more flexible attitude. It releases us from the prison of our own distorted perceptions and fears.

However, it is based on very simple principles. We can live normal everyday lives and at the same time provide the space and time to become more self-aware. Learning to let go of the past, traumatic memories and catastrophic fantasies about the future. Mindfulness is not learned at the expense of living in the real world with its persistent demands. It is about learning a middle way. A move towards a more balanced way of living in the world. A way of acknowledging our instincts and being open to our senses.

Mindfulness helps to cultivate a state of relaxed concentration so we can step-back and reflect. You may have noticed yourself being caught in a moment of quiet reflection as you studied your natural surroundings, or explored your inner feelings, only to become aware that you feel at one with yourself or sit in silent reflection.

What is stress and anxiety?

Stress is a psychological and physiological response to events that make you feel tense, nervous or anxious. It can also be a response to relationships or an environment where you feel threatened or fearful. When stress is at a high enough level it may trigger your ‘fight and flight’ system, which upsets the balance of hormones (such as adrenalin, cortisol and serotonin) in your body and brain. When you are in an aroused state of tension - whether it’s real, perceived or imagined - your brain and body enters a hyper-vigilant state. Your thoughts start racing and you begin to worry disproportionately about problems. You may also experience paranoia or panic attacks, as you become overwhelmed. Emotions that may cause stress when they become too intense are anger, fear, sadness, grief and rage. All of these emotions are normal and can be expressed without coming to any harm, but not if they have been allowed to build up inside and become volatile.

Self-awareness of stress:

When you learn to become more aware of your own response to stress, you are more likely to find the solutions. When stress levels are out of control it is because you are overwhelmed or unable to regulate emotional states. Often we are unaware of how stress accumulates and can creep up on you over time. You become accustomed to it. And it starts to feel familiar, even normal. You can even get addicted to the rush of adrenalin caused by stress. As the range of stressful events grow and the symptoms overload your system can be almost anything. Stress affects the mind, body, and behaviour. It can lead to serious mental and physical health problems and take a toll on your relationships. If you look at your patterns of stress and observe your responses to them you will build up a level of self-awareness and better ways of coping to relieve stress.

Body:

  • tension and aches
  • heart burn
  • short of breath
  • heart palpitations or panic attacks
  • frequent colds and illnesses.

Emotions:

  • mood swings
  • irritability or anger
  • restlessness
  • feeling overwhelmed
  • fear of loneliness and isolation.

Thoughts:

  • memory loss or poor concentration
  • negative outlook
  • paranoia
  • anxious or racing thoughts.

Behaviours:

  • consuming alcohol, cigarettes or drugs
  • eating more or less
  • insomnia
  • procrastination
  • nervous habits (e.g. nail biting, pacing, finger tapping).

Mindfulness exercises

Mindfulness of breathing: Begin by finding a relaxed and comfortable rhythm of breathing, slowly shutting your attention down from other external sensations or thoughts. It helps to focus your attention on the sound and sensation of your breath, in order to let go of distracting thoughts and the stream of negative thinking which causes anxiety, stress and anger. This gives people an intentional, focussed way of observing the triggers which activate the sympathetic nervous system, heart thumping adrenaline and a cycle of negative thoughts or even depression. The next step is to consciously regulate breathing with your diaphragm to normalise your heart rate and the flow of stress hormones. Use this exercise for 5-10 minutes on a regular basis, after waking, before going to sleep, at lunch or walking.

Progressive muscle tension and relaxation: Begin breathing first, then progressively bring your muscles into tension for two minutes by contracting them. And relax. Repeat this again and again with each muscle group, contracting and releasing the muscles one by one. Starting with the toes, work your way up the legs, hips and body's core. Then from the arms, shoulder neck and head.

Body scan and mindfulness of discomfort: If you suffer significant pain from an illness or injury consult your doctor first. Begin the activity by using breathing to slow down your heart rate. Stand, sit or lie down with your back fully supported. Slowly, turn your attention away from the breath and focus inward on your bodily sensations. Develop a sense of openness and flux within. Try to hold balance between relaxation and focus. Begin scanning different sensations as they arise in your body. You may scan for signs of tension, pain or discomfort. Without forming any judgement notice the location of the discomfort. Develop a sense of curiosity. Observe any changes in intensity and gently soothe away the pain by letting go. Move your muscles, massage them a little, roll your shoulders and neck. Develop ways of relaxing yourself and releasing discomfort.

The pain should begin to disperse a little, although it may intensify at first. Be patient. All sensations change. Turn your mind inward. Scan each part of the body; paying attention to each sensation. Start by wiggling your toes, feet and lower legs. Let your awareness drift further up your hips, buttocks, pelvis, back. Then scan your fingers, hands, arms, shoulders, neck, head, face, eyes, nose, mouth.

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Written by Greg Savva - Counselling Twickenham, Whitton - Masters Degree

I am an experienced counsellor at Counselling Twickenham, EnduringMind. I've been profoundly affected by my work with other people as a psychotherapist, anthropologist and writer. I'm captivated by the interior lives of others and the cultures they thrive in. I've a Masters Degree in psychotherapy and lecture to counsellors at university.… Read more

Written by Greg Savva - Counselling Twickenham, Whitton - Masters Degree

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