Mastering Mindfulness

Reducing Stress through Meditation

Mtn Living Mag September 2009

IMG_1134e-WSarah held a raisin and explored it with her nose, eyes and hands before putting it in her mouth. There, she noted the fruit’s lumpy shape before chewing through its firm skin to the fleshier inside. Finally, she swallowed it, reflecting on the sweet taste. “It sounds simple enough when you describe it (the class exercise), but each member of the group agreed that we’d never experienced anything quite like it,” she assured me. This was practice in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).

Sarah Hatch, who is with Hatch River Expeditions, is on the go. Between voicemail tag and her jaunt out of the country, I could barely catch up to her. Eventually, she said, “Now I’m not the type of person you would expect to meditate or even take a class like this. I’m a Type A business owner with two young children and an incredibly busy life.” Yet, she said, “Like many working moms, I’m always multi-tasking, feeling guilty about what I’m not accomplishing and always feeling like I’m dropping a ball somewhere.”

In recent years, Hatch has suffered emotional and physical trauma and travesty, causing some depression. Following a further diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder, she made a conscious decision to improve her life. An invitation to reduce stress through mindfulness and focus arrived. “I was immediately hooked after the first class.”

Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Nicolette Sachs, who has practiced for more than 20 years and taught MBSR for seven, said, “Mindfulness is a way of being present in the only moment when we are alive now. The focus is on what is happening within ourselves and around ourselves. Too often, we tend to the past and future. Being present in the moment is like waking up to our lives.” Realistically, this is our best chance at assessing the past for shaping future events.

How do people apply mindfulness? The quickie primer hinges on the word “STOP” with related actions: S is stop; T is take a breath; O is observe; and P is proceed. Our vibrating world mistakes busy as good, but this can lead to unpredictable, unproductive outcomes. “Pausing is key. The idea of slowing down, taking stock and acting is radical, but the payoffs are great,” Sachs said. “A big part of the class focuses on stress reactivity versus stress response.”

Creatures are set up for fight or flight under stress. This can save a deer in a burning forest or a driver in an impending car wreck. These stresses come from outside sources as well as internal forces like illness or disease or emotional pain. All cause the pituitary and adrenals to fire up. The problem stems from how often we send this signal and how fired up we get. MBSR teaches us to be aware of bodily tensions and breathing and to reframe, creating emotion- and problem-oriented strategies. This response leads to new options, quicker recovery, balance and calm.

On the other hand, constant heightened alarm sets up a chain reaction within the body of hyper-arousal with tamping down that surface as insomnia and headaches. If the cycle isn’t broken, self-destructive behaviors like overwork, drugs or alcohol can be employed. Each step feeds the spiral of stress towards exhaustion, resulting in depression and disease.

Meditation short-circuits the meltdown. The irony of complex testing on this simplistic approach showed measurable improvement. Through brain imaging, researchers proved that life’s ups and downs alter brain activity, but meditation can revise our natural set point for good and bad moods – our tendencies toward happy and serene or anxious and sad.

MBSR began in 1979 with Dr. John Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. After attending a meditation retreat, he asked doctors to refer patients who weren’t healing properly with standard care. Mindfulness helped with psoriasis, depression, anxiety, immune disorders, glucose control in diabetes, improved heart function and more. Today, 18,000 students have trained in stress-reduction and 250 mind and body clinics scatter the US, many in conjunction with research institutions.

The core practice cultivates a 30-45 minute progressive awareness and relaxation – a mental and physical exercise like Sarah Hatch performed. Sachs’ said of her role, “I help a student with the process of self-inquiry, providing a safe space and teaching – to re-introduce you to yourself.” Learning more about ourselves tames our response in crisis.

So getting back to the car wreck, Sachs said, “You’ll still react and hit the brake, but you’ll be less likely to use either an expletive or suffer a panic attack. It’s easiest to learn mindfulness by slowing down. The qualities are non-striving, non-judgmental, compassionate, inquiring and patient, trusting the process to achieve integrated results.”

Formal practice of MBSR begins with an eight-week class, but grows to informal application like an afternoon walk with awareness. “The underpinning is a curious mind and open heart, but it’s not for the faint of heart,” Sachs warned. “As Saki Santorelli advises in his book Heal Thy Self, ‘you must turn to the bandaged place.’”

Hatch did this and said, “I noticed the effects of mindfulness practice overflowing to other areas of my life. I was less stressed, slept better, my chronic neck pain dissipated. Perhaps most importantly, I found myself really enjoying the little moments in my life, rather than constantly double-checking my mental to-do list. I wish I could say I keep up my mindfulness practice on a daily basis…however, when I get stressed or I don’t sleep well, that’s my cue to start again.”

“We innately know these things,” Sachs said, “but need to be reminded.” NAMLM Gail G. Collins

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