Mindfulness for stress relief
By Leslie Partin
Whether you're a busy, working parent or a teen trying to balance a full social calendar and school, life can be stressful at times. Mindfulness, otherwise known as mindful meditation or mindfulness-based stress reduction (MSBR), is a tool any one of us can use as we navigate through the demands of our days.
The basic tenet of mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment. So much of the time we're thinking ahead to the next task or mulling over something that happened in the past. For example, have you ever driven past the exit you intended to take, only to realize you missed it because you were thinking of something else? When we are caught up in our thoughts, we miss what is happening around us—like that missed freeway exit.
Our minds are powerful, and we can harness that power to help us manage difficult experiences and distressing (or afflictive) emotions. When we are in the midst of a strong emotion or physical sensation like anger, sadness, disappointment or physical pain, it can feel like things will never get better. But if we're able to step back andobserveour distress, we may notice that it changes, ebbs and flows. Noticing and recognizing that the intensity varies, whether it's an emotion or physical sensation, offers hope and reassurance that it won't always be so hard. And when we focus on what we're experiencing right now, instead of what's going to happen — "I don't want to have a headache at the dance," "I don't want to be stressed out at my child's game," etc. —then we don't add the additional suffering of anticipation or worry. We suffer when we focus too much attention on what may happen in the future.
Mindfulness doesn't mean trying not to think or making one's mind blank. Instead, mindfulness teaches us to watch our thoughts, observe them while not attaching to them. Many teachers suggest visualizing thoughts as leaves floating down a stream or as clouds drifting by in the sky. Practitioners of meditation say that having a regular "practice" — a time set aside to practice meditation — allows us to develop our capability to be mindful in times of distress. It's like building our mental muscles in the same way we build physical muscles by lifting weights or working out. Committing to a meditation or mindfulness practice helps us develop those muscles so we have the ability to use them when we need them most.
Neuroscience studies show us that the brain develops neuro-pathways as a result of our thinking habits and patterns. Similar to the way a trail through the woods is developed by animals and people following the same path over and over, our neuro-pathways, or thought habits, are made as we repeatedly take the same path of worry, fear, joy, happiness, etc. Mindfulness is one technique we can use to help form new neuro-pathways or mental habits. When we practice mindfulness we increase awareness ofallof our thoughts and emotions, the positive as well as the afflictive ones. We then can choose which thoughts, emotions and sensations we want to focus on and nurture, and of which ones we want to let go. Remembering that we have this choice can help us cope when we hit stressful times.
If you're interested in learning more about mindfulness, here are few links that can help you and your family get started (the first six links are centers that are located in the Twin Cities):
Children's Integrative Medicine Program has medical providers that work with children to teach relaxation techniques that can include the use of mindfulness. These strategies are very helpful for chronic conditions such headaches and abdominal pain or problems with sleep and anxiety.
Jon Kabat-Zinn developed Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction programs in Massachusetts and has several books and CDs, which provide a good starting point. "Everyday Blessings" is his book on mindful parenting, with Myla Kabat-Zinn.
Leslie Partin is a social worker at Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota.