Mindfulness for Stress

Niamh O’Connell of The Wellness Clinic shares some insights into how mindfulness can improve the quality of your life by helping you remain in the present moment. Niamh holds a Certificate in the Therapeutic Use of Mindfulness from Institute of Integrated Counselling and Psychotherapy and uses mindfulness with clients to deal with stress.

One of our biggest challenges is staying present and appreciating what is happening right now in our lives. We can get caught up in rumination about the past or anxiety about the future, and both of these states can rob us of the joy of the present. Mindfulness is a practice that brings you back to the present and can help lower your stress and anxiety by helping you focus on the now. This article is aimed at helping you introduce some simple mindfulness techniques to your busy lifestyle to help you reduce the effects of stress.

When we are ruminating, we are listening to our internal critic. That little voice in our head which tells us we didn’t do something correctly, or well enough, that we should have done something else instead. We may have imaginary conversations with people in our head and fall into a rabbit hole of “should have”. Mindfulness can divert our mind from that rabbit hole and stop the endless cycling of negative thoughts about the past. We can tell ourselves “Let it be” and move on with appreciating the present.

When we are anxious about the future we are imagining events that may not even happen. We visualise negative outcomes and feel the stress as much as if it had actually already happened. Our brain does not know the difference between reality and fiction, so when we imagine a negative event our body releases the stress hormones, the fight or flight response, and we have to deal with the physical effect of this as well as the mental stress we have created. Constantly being anxious keeps our brain and body in a state of tension and this can be an exhausting way to live. Mindfulness is the key to stopping those anxious thoughts dead in their tracks and refusing to entertain them. We can use a phrase such as “Not now” to ourselves when we find these anxious worries building up. This simple distraction can send our thoughts down a more productive path and reduce our stress.

When the body is under stress some basic functions are affected. Stress affects the digestive system so eating and absorbing nutrients gets more difficult. Sleep goes out the window. Memory loss is common, as the part of the brain that creates memories is shut down in times of stress. Even breathing can become an issue. Deep, slow breathing which refreshes the body can be difficult when you are stressed, you may find yourself taking quick shallow breaths through the mouth. This leads to increased anxiety levels as the brain is flooded with oxygen, giving us a light-headed feeling and making it hard for the brain to focus. Simply remembering to close your mouth and breathe through the nose, feeling the breath as it enters and leaves your nostrils is a great mindful exercise to ground you.

Mindfulness helps us “take half a step back” as the psychotherapist Padraig O’Morain says. It helps us develop a practice of calming down, taking a few seconds before we respond to a situation rather than instinctively reacting to it. A difficult phone call, a traffic jam, a piece of bad news, all these can trigger a stress response in us and when we are frazzled, in survival mode, any one of these can make us lose our reason. But mindfulness can bring a centered feeling where you are grounded and calm in yourself, able to control your reactions and respond calmly and more thoughtfully to situations, which benefits us all in the long run.

A simple breathing technique I use with my clients is to close the mouth and breathe through the nose. Even if you are feeling congested, a few minutes of nose breathing will usually clear the airways. Concentrating on the feeling of the air at your nostrils going in and out gently. You can also bring some counting to the breath, count one on the inhale, two on the exhale, three on the inhale, four on the exhale and continue up to ten. This exercise has the dual purpose of (a) focusing the body on relaxed breathing, which lowers blood pressure and heart rate, and (b) focusing the mind on the counting task, which immediately stops the inner critic’s chatter. Try this as you go about your business today, whenever you catch yourself falling down a rabbit hole of stress in your mind. Even if you just breathe and count up to 4 you will catch yourself and divert your attention to the present moment. This is mindfulness in action. 

As well as breathing and mentally reminding yourself to stay present, some people like to tap into the other senses. When you are eating, focus on the taste, texture, smell and sound of the food as you eat it. Eating is one of the great pleasures of life and we get to do it multiple times a day. Try to eat at least one meal a day without distractions. No screens / no heavy discussions, just enjoy your food. I guarantee if you begin eating mindfully you will be satisfied with less food, you will seek out better quality food, and you will digest your food better.

I hope these tips have given you an insight into what mindfulness is and how easy it is to bring it to your life. It is a practice and it takes time to develop it, but right from the beginning the results can be felt. Use it in bed before you go to sleep. Use it when you wake up. Yoga can be mindful, as can sipping a hot cup of coffee / walking around the block / eating lunch / petting your dog. It is all about staying present. Try to stop multitasking and just stay in the present moment as you go about your daily life, and see how your mental space increases, your joy returns and you gain confidence and empowerment. 

Niamh O’Connell runs The Wellness Clinic, a nutrition and lifestyle consultancy service based in Dublin 8. She is a speaker for conferences and events, runs wellness programmes for the workplace and sees individual private clients in person or over Skype. For more information please contact niamh@thewellnessclinic.ie