Mindfulness is the key element of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR). But how exactly can you use mindfulness to reduce stress and foster resilience?
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a practical program developed by American scientist and author Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is also the founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic in Boston. MBSR uses mindfulness meditation, mindful yoga and a practice in body awareness called body scan to foster mindfulness and reduce anxiety and distress.
Mindfulness can be described as paying attention to whatever is at the present moment without judging or thinking about it. Mindfulness is at the heart of all the elements of MBSR and its key element in reducing stress.
But how does mindfulness reduce stress?
Reacting to Stress
Stress research shows that stress isn’t only about the external factors that tend to make us feel stressed – such as a heavy workload, chronic illness, a negative emotional environment or difficulties in the relationship or the family.
There are also internal factors, such as a negative self-image, unrealistic expectations, perfectionism or excessive thinking and worrying.
How much one perceives an external factor as stressful is to a certain degree determined by our internal response to this external situation. While some people react strongly to these factors, others seem to have an inborn resilience.
Mindfulness can be regarded as one possible way of fostering resilience to stress.
How Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction Works
The practice of mindfulness aims to address unconscious thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that may increase stress and lead to unhealthy, unbalanced behavior, thus starting a vicious circle of stress.
There are different levels on which mindfulness-based stress reduction works.
Firstly, there is the physical level.
Through the practice of gentle, mindful yoga and the body scan, there is an improved awareness of the body and its signals. This enables one to recognize and listen to signals of the body like tense muscles, pain or other sensations that signal stress, tension or the need for relaxation.
In fact, many people are so disconnected from their bodies that they may not realize tension, tiredness or even hunger in the first place!
Concentration and Awareness
Secondly, there is the level of the mind.
Through the practice of mindful yoga, body scan as well as mindfulness meditation (usually centered on watching the breath), there is an increased ability for concentrating the mind as well as an increased awareness of the workings of the mind.
Increased concentration reduces rumination and distractive thinking. The increased awareness of the mind’s patterns helps one recognize and eliminate unhealthy and unwise ways of thinking, such as negative self-talk (for example catastrophizing, exaggerating the negative and discount the positive) as well as negative interpretations of events or other people’s actions.
The unraveling and replacing of negative mind patterns allow for different reactions to external events and to a more balanced, peaceful state of mind.
Informal Mindfulness Practice
The training in awareness is not only part of the formal practice of mindfulness meditation but can and should become part of one’s everyday life through the so-called informal practices. This simply means trying to do everything mindfully – whether it is brushing your teeth, eating your lunch or driving your car.
In mindfulness meditation, one may work in four different steps: recognize, allow, investigate, non-identify (RAIN).
These steps help one become aware of, and let go of, harmful and unhealthy patterns of behavior and thinking, for example tensing the shoulders unnecessarily while working at the computer or dwelling on unpleasant and painful memories.
Mindfulness training may enable one to realize unnecessary tension and learn to relax those muscles when no tension is needed or let go of negative thoughts.
Acting with Awareness and Intention
But this heightened awareness offers even more benefits. It extends the space between stimulus and reaction.
For example, when being shouted at by somebody, most people would automatically react by getting angry or afraid (fight or flight response).
Mindfulness allows one to react more intentionally in every such a situation and maybe de-escalate the situation instead of entering into an argument.
Even thinking about difficult situations of the past may trigger a stress reaction in the body.
Mindfulness also helps one become aware of negative trains of thoughts and feelings and realize that there is a choice of not entering into this particular stream of worry, anger or fear. This has been confirmed by several scientific studies.
Through the practice of MBSR, one can learn to respond intelligently and with awareness instead of unconsciously reacting to external influences, people and events.
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