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With so much on our plates, it’s easy to think if we just keep rushing, multitasking, sleeping less and working longer hours that success is inevitable. But eventually these habits and behaviours backfire and make us less effective, dissatisfied, exhausted and heading for burnout.
Have you bought into the myth that you cannot be calm, stress-free, and still achieve your goals? Because with mindfulness you can!
Even under pressure, you can be present, focused, calm and stress free!
Mindfulness meditation works on several levels to proactively manage stress and anxiety while providing you with tools to respond at your best under pressure.
It is the key for calming and focusing your mind and body under any circumstances, even challenging ones, not just while you are meditating.
There are numerous ways it helps; however, it pays to understand why we experience stress and anxiety in the first place.
The brain’s number one job is to keep us safe. We are constantly scanning for risk and erring on the side of caution. The reason this is so important is because left to its own devices our minds naturally ‘go negative’. We have an inbuilt ‘negativity bias’.
Being biologically programmed to focus on anything even remotely risky, makes us prone to ruminate on things we wish hadn’t happened and worry about things that might.
Consequently, our untamed mind wandering activates our sympathetic nervous system (called the red zone) and unwittingly bathes us in stress chemistry like adrenaline and cortisol.
The quicker we can interrupt mind states that sustain stress and anxiety the faster our body can return to the ‘green zone’ and our parasympathetic nervous system - responsible for rest, digest, and repair - can restore balance.
Finding that ideal state of peaceful balance is where meditation comes in.
Meditation develops the focus necessary to deal with life’s challenges within the green zone of wisdom, acceptance, and clarity.
You won’t find freedom from stress in a busy mind. The best way to deal with stress is to cultivate a clear and balanced mind.
Meditating on the breath by noticing how your body gently and rhythmically expands and subsides calms your mind and body and brings you back into the green zone. If your mind wanders, you’re reminded to gently return back to the breath.
If you are in the red zone and there is stress or anxiety, you can learn to acknowledge it. What does it feel like in the body? Maybe there’s tension, tightness, discomfort, butterflies? Just notice how emotions show up as physical sensations in the body.
Meditation is not a practice for resisting or trying to change your experience. We’re creating space for our thoughts and emotions, not pushing them away.
It’s about taking the time to sit in that green zone of clear awareness, allowing things to be there while staying still, grounded and aware.
Learning how to relax with your experience breaks the cycle of endless thinking and resistance. Gently connecting your awareness to the breath, and anchoring yourself into your body, grounds you in the present moment.
Once the body and mind has settled why not try a longer body scan meditation. As you move through your body, you’re guided to notice any feelings of stress, anxiety or tension, and to breathe into these areas while allowing them to be there.
Even if the body and mind are stressed or overwhelmed, we can still turn towards our experience with a kind and welcoming heart. Kindness and awareness tend to settle things. We practice allowing these feelings to be there…stay with them…feeling, breathing.
Scanning the body is also a wonderful way to build self-awareness.
It interrupts the unconscious reactivity and busy mind chatter associated with the red zone. We learn through meditating to be able to accept our thoughts or emotions without getting lost in them, fighting them, or making them wrong. If there is anxiety, we train in breathing into it.
If you are really struggling with difficult emotions, you might mentally acknowledge what you are feeling. Naming the feeling gives it some space. For example, if you are feeling anxious, you can say something like, "hello anxiety, I see you're here again in my body. Okay, no problem."
It’s only when we constantly tell ourselves that we shouldn’t be experiencing a particular emotion or thought that it intensifies.
What you mentally resist persists!
Meditation is particularly useful for managing stress by extending the amount of time you spend in the present moment. And a counting practice is a wonderful way to stay focussed, present and to steady the mind for longer.
Cultivating a single point of focus by repeatedly counting your ‘in and out’ breaths up to 5 or 10 can quickly shift your energy from the red to the green zone.
Aside from developing mindfulness, it has enormous benefits for reducing stress and increasing performance. Something to remember the next time you feel your stress or anxiety bubbling up.
To try a focusing meditation which includes a counting practice click here.
Our mind is relentlessly seeking out and wanting ideal conditions. The ideal job, the ideal bank balance, the ideal outcome.
Underneath this constant seeking is the belief that happiness and a stress-free life depends on getting the ideal conditions. We think when things are ‘ideal’ then we’ll be happy.
Life will always have its ups and downs, difficulties, and challenges. Our wellbeing is not dependent on getting the ideal life conditions.
Meditation reminds us that we can find a calm centre of wellness and freedom from stress even during the endless changes and challenges of life.
This is your life now - this is your body now. Feel the body. Accept it. Allow it.
Instead of waiting for life’s conditions to be perfect, we can practice sitting non-reactively with our strong feelings and sensations, whatever they are.
If we can sit with the sensations themselves, and let them be there, we will notice that difficult emotions shift, change and dissipate. Nothing is permanent.
When your attention wanders off, notice if your thoughts are associated with getting the ideal conditions, getting plans completed, projects won etc. The mind believes that freedom from stress only comes when conditions are ideal again. The mind is delusional.
True peace and freedom from stress can only ever come from being present, deeply in the moment and cultivating a clear balanced mind.
Meditation enables us to feel what it truly feels like to be present, grounded, aware, and engaged here now. This is real resilience.
Practising the ‘pause’ is a powerful mindfulness tool. Sometimes during moments of anxiety and stress - those red zone moments - we forget to stop and take a moment to step back.
Pausing and taking a step back, activates our parasympathetic nervous system so we can step into the green zone where things are more peaceful and calmer.
Anytime you feel the slightest bit stressed, try a ‘mini-meditation’ by simply watching the breath for a few moments, feeling your feet on the floor, or mindfully gazing out the window.
It's about learning to break the cycle of obsession, fear and tension with the power of observation.
The more you practice formal meditation the more you will remember to pause in your everyday life.
Resisting or running from uncomfortable feelings simply increases stress and fuels a frantic negative mindset.
Meditation helps you become more aware of the feelings associated with stress and how you respond to those feelings, by interrupting the mind’s frantic narrative and bringing us back to clarity, positivity, and focus.
The earlier you interrupt the mind from spiralling out of control the easier it becomes to stop feeding mind states that amplify stress and make it worse. As thoughts come to you, you learn to let them pass without needing to get lost in the storyline.
Focusing on the physical sensation of breathing, means you are less likely to get caught up in the frantic mind. You can return to balance.
With more mindful awareness, we notice how easy it is to feed anxiety and magnify stress. Mindfulness allows us to shift our focus and see things with more clarity and sanity.
With this noticing comes the opportunity to question our thoughts, to see challenges as opportunities for growth and to choose to reconnect with being present. After all, if we are going to deal with life’s endless challenges well, we need to be more grounded, present, and aware.
Then, outside of our meditation practice the next time we find our mind racing and catastrophising in a haze of stress, we can take a moment to take a step back and practice being mindful.
We learn how to ground ourselves in the moment by riding the waves of life’s ups and downs in a strong resilient boat.
It’s easy to feel anxious before important events. While mindfulness isn't a substitute for good preparation, it’s easy to stress out by over-preparing and second guessing ourselves.
People reliably perform at their best when their mind is clear and focussed, when emotions are settled, and the body is at ease, so the best thing we can do is mindfully cultivate that peak performance state.
It's a good idea to take time to stop and meditate; to breathe into any uncomfortable feelings as they arise and to just allow and accept them. You are fine, you can be focused and balanced even with anxiety or tension.
Allow any anxious thoughts or emotions to gently flow through you. No problem, all just part of the process. Come back to the breathing, your feet on the ground…balanced.
If things are intense and difficult, breathing more slowly or simply extending your out-breath helps balance and regulate that sympathetic fight or flight response and takes your focus away from anxiety or fear.
You can even use your meditation as a mental rehearsal by imagining yourself standing up on that stage or starting that big event with confidence, seeing yourself as calm and focused.
We all have moments when we feel completely overwhelmed. In these moments, our sympathetic stress response focuses on self-preservation and unfortunately, these reactions rarely help us or the situation (unless we’re in real physical danger!).
Meditation is great for those times when you are feeling overwhelmed. Your body reacts to stress and feelings of overwhelm by releasing adrenaline and cortisol. This causes your breathing and your heart rate to speed up and your blood pressure to rise. This is also a time when the mind can spin out of control.
Whenever you feel overwhelmed, it’s a good idea to interrupt the mind’s frantic activity by focusing on the breath. We can still acknowledge the fight or flight fear-based reaction, but skilfully help it to settle and pass so we can respond with more wisdom and balance.
Breathe in deeply through the nose pulling the breath deep down into the body. Slowly exhaling through pursed lips slows your exhalation and is calming.
Feel the air as it enters the body and moves down into the lungs. Now take a moment to be curious about how this feeling of being overwhelmed manifests in the physical body.
If the mind starts revving up into thoughts, come back to the breathing. This is the best thing you can do now.
Human beings are programmed to survive by constantly scanning for what might go wrong to the extent that it impacts our mental health.
Priming your brain to look for and stay with satisfying, happy, positive moments help overcome our innate negativity bias and builds amazing levels of resilience.
The more you focus on and absorb pleasant joyful experiences, the more it becomes a habit. When you stay with positive, happy emotions they go from being a transient state to a lasting trait.
This process of staying with the good changes the brain by building positive neuroplasticity. We can literally wire happiness and resilience into our brain.
Meditation intensifies these effects when you practice regularly. The longer you can stay present, the less likely you are to overlook positive experiences.
You might like to try this out right now? Go back in your mind to a time in your life when you were happy. Think of a time when you felt totally protected and safe, it might have been a time when you felt loved, or when you reached a certain goal. You might recall a happy celebration.
As you focus on this pleasant memory - see how long you can stay with the memory.
Notice how thinking about a happy pleasant experience makes you feel?
You might feel a big smile opening up, or simply a warm happy feeling emerging in the chest or belly.
This practice reminds you that you can choose to focus on something positive and feel happy now.
The longer you absorb these good feelings the more you reinforce those neural pathways.
The meditation ‘Staying with the Good’ helps you to train your mind to let the good experiences in and to stay a little longer with the many wonderful moments in your day.
Over time meditation helps us to manage stress and anxiety by cultivating a rock-solid inner calm, and the clarity to see what is really going on, so we can respond purposely with poise and composure.
None of this is a quick fix. We need to work with our mind in the same way we work any muscle to change it, through constant practice and repetition.