by Dr Colinda Linde, a clinical psychologist at Akeso Clinic

 

2016 has been quite a ride. The world is reeling from the refugee crisis, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States; while closer to home we continue to ride a roller coaster of political instability and economic uncertainty.

 

As we approach the beginning of 2017, it seems that there has never been a better time to try and reduce personal stress.

 

‘Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction’ or MBSR is an adaptation of the Buddhist practice of Mindful Meditation for modern-day health care, and has been linked with reductions in anxiety, depression, stress, irritability and exhaustion, as well as improvements in general mood, concentration, focus, emotional stability and even sleeping patterns.

 

Jon Kabat-Zinn defines MBSR as paying attention on purpose (with intention), in the present, without being judgemental. Others (David Barlow) have described mindfulness as being aware, in the present, non-judgmentally.

 

In other words, it involves the deliberate intention of paying attention at any given time, whether that is during meditation or in the rituals of daily life (sitting in traffic, waiting in a checkout line, working at your desk, preparing a meal), along with an attempt to remain aware and focused on that current experience, both physically and emotionally – without judging this experience. The emphasis is on remaining in the present, wherever that happens to be and whatever you may be experiencing.

 

There is a good reason for this: when we remain focused on the here and now, we have a realistic awareness of what is happening NOW and this helps us to respond to that specific situation, instead of being influenced by past experiences or future projections. Too often, our responses to current situations are coloured by past memories or future fears.

 

An emphasis on ‘what if’ thinking can lead to catastrophising and a huge fear reaction, based on what MIGHT (or usually, might not) actually happen.  In practice, for example, I often observe massive anxiety from parents who worry in a vicious cycle about what might happen if they get sick with a dread disease, and their children grow up without a mother or father. Or what might happen if the economy goes to wrack and ruin.

 

But the reality is these people are usually not currently sick, nor are they currently facing financial ruin. Catastrophising can transform a normal degree of concern into crippling anxiety.

Similarly, ruminating about the past can be just as dangerous, as it prevents you from living in the present. People who focus on the past tend to idealise ‘the good old days’, making it difficult to notice or acknowledge positive happenings in the present. This pattern of thinking can then quite easily result in depression.

 

Closely linked to the notion of being fully aware and in the present, is that of trying to remain non-judgmental. Judging implies thinking, and mental verbalising, whereas mindfulness is about simply being. Apart from taking the mind into the past or future, and away from the present, judging is also one of the quickest ways to cause mental and physical distress. The thinking, worrying, and judging of a negative mood or bodily state, transforms one ‘problem’ into two – now you not only have to contend with a negative mood or state, but also the worry about this mood or state.

 

Judgement has a snowball impact because it is constructed by our thoughts, whereas mindfulness – because it involves simple awareness and observation – provides us with a more realistic, sensory experience. Being based in reality (‘what is’), allows a more realistic response to the situation.

It sounds simple, but the reality is that in order to benefit from MBSR, you have to learn the ropes and practice the practice of meditation.

 

Jon Kabat-Zinn puts it very simply “You don’t have to like it. You just have to do it.” He has also famously stated that it is simple, but not easy. There is no shortcut.

That said, anyone can learn mindfulness, even children. Start slow, start small, be consistent. Combine it with something you do daily, like brushing your teeth or packing your bag. Then add a 5 minute meditation in a specific place during your morning or evening routine.

 

It is more important to begin and sustain a daily practice, than it is to be able to sustain long periods of meditation. You will notice a beneficial effect with just five minutes of daily meditation, and you may well find that it naturally extends to longer meditations. Being present in the current moment as opposed to worrying about that past or future, also brings a sense of calm and mastery to any situation. Over time, as you become more familiar with the practice, it will become a default reaction to life, especially in emotional situations, when you need it most.

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