Posts tagged ‘Stress Reduction’

Driving Yourself Sane

“Patience is something you admire in the driver behind you and scorn in the one ahead.”
— Mac McCleary

Driving is an activity that most of us do on a daily basis.  It also tends to incur a significant amount of stress.  In fact, commuting to and from work may be the most stressful part of the day for some people.  It is, at a minimum, a contributing factor to the accumulation and cycle of stress within daily life.  Therefore, this an especially fruitful place to apply mindfulness skills.

The practice of mindful driving entails paying attention to your experience (what you see, hear, feel, smell) while driving rather than getting engaged in other stimulation or being preoccupied by your thoughts.  There is plenty to pay attention to while you are driving.  In fact, for many people, driving is a very stimulating experience on its own, even without adding other distractions.  So when we then engage in additional stimulation, it can be overwhelming to our system.

Here are some suggestions for driving with more mindful awareness:

  • Turn off all optional sound (radio: music/news/talk; CD/tape; mp3 player)
  • Eliminate other distractions (phone, food, etc.)
  • When you are stopped, either at a red light or in heavy traffic, use that as an opportunity to check in with yourself.   Notice if you are holding tension in your body and see if you can release that.  Areas particularly vulnerable to tension while driving are your jaw (notice if you are clenching your teeth) as well as your arms and hands (notice if your fists are tightening).  Notice if your mind is preoccupied and see if you can return your awareness to the moment.  Taking a few abdominal breaths can be helpful to bring yourself back to balance.
  • When on the freeway, select one of the right-hand-most lanes and drive at or close to the speed limit, unless conditions demand that all drivers slow down.  Allow other drivers to pass you if they seem to want to exceed your speed.  People commonly have a misconception regarding how much time will be saved by going faster.  It may surprise you to learn that calculations estimate by increasing your speed from 65mph to 75mph you may only save 1 minute 14 seconds every 10 miles.  According to Natural Resources Canada, speedy and aggressive driving burns excessive fuel and money and only saves a matter of minutes.
  • In heavy highway traffic, pick a lane and stay in it, but not the fast lane. Over the course of many miles, all lanes will go approximately the same speed. In the end, excessive lane changing will not get you to your destination any faster, and ultimately only makes traffic run more slowly overall. It also increases your chances of a collision.  According to some statistics, 10% of crashes are due to lane changes.
  • Leave a few minutes earlier than you think will be required to arrive at your destination.  Giving yourself this buffer may be one of the best ways to reduce the stress that arises from time pressure.  Tip: Google Maps will not only provide you with driving directions to your destination but you can also ask to see up-to-date traffic conditions to help you plan your route before you leave.
  • And if you are running behind schedule while you are on the road, or get caught in unexpected traffic, accept that you will arrive whenever you arrive.  Let go of your tendency to strive to make up for lost time or change the circumstances you are in.  Once you are on the road, you have fewer means to significantly impact when you will arrive.

Driving need not be a necessary evil.  Instead, it can be another opportunity to bring mindfulness into your daily life.  Try some of these suggestions to see if you can reduce the toll that driving takes on your health and well-being.

May 10, 2011 at 4:06 pm Leave a comment

Let My People Go: Mindfulness as a Path to Freedom

“Freedom is from within.

– Frank Lloyd Wright

Every year at this time, seven or eight days honor the Jewish festival of Passover. Passover is the Jewish holiday that commemorates the story of the Exodus, in which the ancient Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt.  As told in the Book of Exodus in the Bible, God instructs Moses to confront the Pharaoh and tell him to “Let my people go.”  This departure was just the beginning of the long journey of the Israelites out of Egypt, through the wilderness to Mount Sinai. And it is this time each year when Jews all over the world celebrate their escape from bondage and release of oppression.

Whether you are Jewish or not, you can celebrate the meaning of this holiday.  After all, we each value, and aspire to have, freedom in our lives.  And, through mindfulness practices, we all can attain a greater experience of it.  Just as it is told that Moses led the Jews on a journey out of slavery to freedom, mindfulness is a path to freedom as well.  This path, however, is an internal one.

To understand this better, it is first helpful to distinguish that the interpretation of “freedom” in the West revolves around the rights of the individual.  We tend to think of it as the freedom to do what one wishes; it is determined in many ways by our external environment. While in Buddhism, “freedom” refers to a release from the traps of personal desires or attachments; this state arises from within.  More specifically, according to Buddhism, suffering is understood to exist as a universal phenomenon, and every individual has the potential for liberation from it.

The main objective of mindfulness practice, therefore, is to free ourselves from the fundamental causes of suffering.  In this context, the roots of suffering are considered to be certain mental events that are afflictive, that cause us pain.  The primary afflictive mental events are described as desire (craving or greed), hatred (the wish to harm), and delusion (which distorts our perception of reality).  There are others, too, including pride and envy.1  It is through the practice of mindful awareness that we can begin to recognize when we are caught in these afflictive mental states and only then have the choice and opportunity to release ourselves from the suffering they bring about.  In other words, with mindful awareness we can start to recognize the triggers and preoccupations that cause us to react in habitually unhealthy ways and instead choose a response that may serve us better.

Instead of Moses confronting the Pharaoh with the statement, “Let my people go,” we can remind ourselves to “Let our attachment go,” whenever we notice we are caught in these unhealthy states of mind.  By doing so, we can free ourselves of that suffering.  This freedom from the suffering that arises within us is something we can each do for ourselves, regardless of the external conditions in which we reside.  It is an ongoing practice, however, not just one pilgrimage.  As we embark upon this life-long journey, the more we recognize and release our attachments, the freer we become.

1. Ricard, Matthiew.  Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill.  New York: NY, Little, Brown and Company (2006)

Between stimulus and response there is a space.  In that space is our power to choose our response.  In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

– Viktor E. Frankl

April 19, 2011 at 10:46 am Leave a comment

What, Me Worry?

“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.
– Mark Twain

“What, me worry?” is the signature phrase of Alfred E. Neuman, the fictional mascot and iconic cover boy of Mad magazine.  His mischievous character is depicted as not having a care in the world.  Unlike Alfred, many of us are plagued by worries from time to time.  In fact, there are times when you might relate more to Ray Lamontagne’s lyrics from his song, Trouble: “Worry …  Worry, worry, worry, worry.  Worry just will not seem to leave my mind alone.”

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a worry as a “mental distress or agitation resulting from concern usually for something impending or anticipated.”  From a cognitive-behavioral psychology viewpoint, a worry is a type of distorted thought, one that is exaggerated or irrational – out of balance from reality.  More specifically, worry can be categorized as a form of catastrophic thinking: believing that something is far worse than it actually is.  These thoughts can stem from an event, from which you think of all of the worst consequences, dwelling on the worst possible outcome.  Or they can come from your own imagination of the future, anticipating all of the possible things that can go wrong, thinking of all of the “what If’s,” or expecting disaster.

In a mindfulness class last year, I asked my students whether worries are really necessary for our lives to function well.  One student, Kirk, inquired further, “If you aren’t worrying, does that mean that you don’t care?  Will things still get done if I don’t worry about them?”  He pointed out that sometimes we get into the habit of believing that worry is a representation of how much we care about someone or something.  So if we aren’t worrying, we are afraid that we don’t care or things won’t get done.  In fact, worry can become so habitual that lack of worry may feel foreign or unsettling.  Kirk pointed out that he was even worried about not worrying.  Another student, Gloria, felt the same way.  She then started to question whether the results of things were different when she worried or didn’t worry about them.  In her exploration, she found that the results were the same whether she worried or didn’t; therefore, the worry wasn’t necessary or helpful.  A third student, Arlene, suggested that it can be detrimental to try to go “cold turkey” reducing worry.  Instead, she finds it more helpful to have something to replace it, such as a song, or a poem that is affirming.

Sometimes we start to believe that our worry is what is responsible for keeping things from happening.  For example, I may unconsciously think that as long as I worry about a certain possibility, it won’t happen.  One student, Robert, told a illustrative story about a man who watered his lawn even when it was raining.  When neighbor asked why, the man replied, “To keep the elephants away.”  When the neighbor pointed out that there weren’t any elephants anywhere near, the man claimed, “See, it works!”  Sometimes, we rationalize that the worry is working – keeping bad things at bay.  And then, when bad things don’t happen, we attribute it to the fact that we worried, thus, reinforcing the pattern. In this way we can mistakenly develop an illusion that we actually have control over the outcome of the future, merely from our thoughts about it.

These patterns of thought are not harmless.  Preoccupation with our worries may keep us from noticing the toll that it actually takes physically, emotionally and interpersonally. The energy that you are spending worrying may actually be reducing the quality of your life in each moment.  For instance, if you check in with your experience when you are in the midst of worry; you may notice physical impacts, such as tension in your body, digestive disruption, inability to sleep or even pain; you may notice emotional impacts such as anger or frustration; you may notice interpersonal impacts, such as not listening to other people when they are trying to communicate with you.  Additionally, you may begin to notice a chain of distorted thoughts that get triggered, escalating this state or keeping you engaged for a prolonged period. By paying attention, you might recognize that there is a cost to your worry, not only for you but for others around you!

There is an alternative, however.  Instead of allowing your worries to continue to take a toll on you, try working with them in a more mindful way:

  1. Start to notice when you are caught in worrying thoughts
  2. Write the worrisome thoughts down to make a record of them when they occur along with some notes about how you are feeling physically, emotionally, interpersonally (how you are reacting) and other thoughts that may get triggered.  This helps you develop greater awareness not only of the thoughts themselves, but of the price you are paying as you engage in them.
  3. You may begin to see patterns emerge: what conditions trigger these worries, or how you end up feeling physically, emotionally or interpersonally.
  4. The next time you catch yourself engaged in worrisome thoughts, try rebutting those thoughts with a more balance or affirmative alternative.


An example of this process:

Situation: Your teenager when out to a movie with friends in the evening.  It is raining very hard and he was supposed to be home by 11pm.  It is now 11:30pm.

A catastrophic thought: “He was hurt in a car accident or in some other terrible situation.”

A rebuttal to that thought: “He is a teenager and may not be paying as much attention to the time as I’d like him to.  He might still be having fun with his friends instead of recognizing how late it is.”

With mindful awareness, you have the opportunity to minimize the amount of time and energy you spend worrying.  You may find that your life continues to function well without it and, moreover, you may actually find that the quality of your moment-to-moment experience improves.

In every life we have some trouble
When you worry you make it double

– Bobby McFerrin

March 28, 2011 at 1:11 pm Leave a comment

8 Reasons For Business People to Meditate

It is no secret to those who know me that meditation, and mindfulness in general, is one of my passions. Like many others, I originally developed a meditation practice to address challenges I was experiencing in my daily life.

Upon graduating from college, with a background in engineering and a progressive attitude, I chose a career in the high tech hardware and software industry in the Silicon Valley. The high tech industry is excessively demanding—those who work in these environments undergo highs and lows similar to being on a roller coaster and are faced with constant and rapid change, as well as arduous time commitments and workloads that can take a toll on other aspects of one’s life. “What life?” some may ask! This has not been an easy path, especially as I have matured and increasingly taken on more responsibilities besides my work. To thrive under these conditions, I turned to my mindfulness practice with the intention of achieving greater balance, satisfaction, and effectiveness in my life.

Role models I met along the way had been advocating the value of meditation in the workplace, Les Kaye and Lewis Richmond among them. Inspired by their values of integrating meditation into one’s work life, along with my personal experience attempting to do so, I set out to explore the effects of meditation for people who work in the business world as my doctoral thesis for a PhD in psychology, “Business people who meditate: The impact of the practice on their experience in the workplace.” *

This study explored the impact of a long-term meditation practice on business professionals’ experience in the workplace. The participants consisted of business people (4 females and 4 males, ranging in age from 37 to 63) who maintained long-term meditation practices. The duration of participants’ meditation practice ranged from 2.5 to 33 years with a mean of 11.8 years. Participants held a variety of professional positions, including 2 executives, 1 manager, 3 individual contributors, and 2 consultants. One-on-one in-depth interviews were conducted to investigate the effect, if any, their meditation practice had on their experience in the workplace.

Analysis of the data revealed 8 major themes related to aspects of the participants’ work life. Take a look and see if you can relate to any of these themes, and if they motivate you to continue to practice:

  1. Improved inner state
    100% of the participants in this study reported being less stressed and calmer or more patient at work as a result of their practice, enabling them to interact more fully with coworkers, cope with difficult situations, or face adversity. Moreover, several of the participants described this as the most significant impact their practice has had on their experience in the workplace.
     
  2. Increased functioning at work
    Participants reported positive effects of their meditation practice such as improved ability to listen to coworkers or clients and truly hearing what they are saying, increased productivity, improved concentration, and greater mastery or competence in their work. Instead of getting caught up or agonizing over all of the things that needed to be done, participants reported being able to do what was in front of them, working each problem as it comes up, minimizing procrastination and, ultimately, being more effective.
     
  3. Improved perception of self
    Participants reported greater compassion for, or acceptance of, themselves, increased self-esteem or self-confidence, and improved ability to trust and forgive themselves. In turn, they believed that this has had a positive impact on their work experience in a number of ways, such as being more positive, more willing to contribute, or more at ease.
     
  4. Increased sensitivity toward others
    All of the participants in this study revealed that their meditation practice has impacted the way they see their colleagues and customers. Without exception, the responses indicated an increase in sensitivity and openness toward others in the workplace: greater compassion; ability to have and show more respect for individuals at work, regardless of their position; and more forgiving.
     
  5. Shift in priorities of work toward greater balance
    Participants reported that they invested less of themselves in work: they worked fewer hours or were not as compulsive about work. For example, one participant said she wasn’t “willing to drive [herself] 80 hours a week anymore. Another said, “I’m not 110% devoted to the success of the business at the expense of every other aspect of my life. (It is relevant to note that this shift in priorities did not come at the expense of perceived productivity; instead, participants reported increased productivity, as stated in the second theme above.)
     
  6. Increased focus on ethical behavior
    All of the participants discussed ways in which they have increased their focus on ethical behavior in their work as a result of their meditation practice including greater attention to ethical speech, greater attention to ethical actions, increased ethical standards, and more selective business associations. Half of the participants acknowledged having always had ethical values; however, their practiced has confirmed and enhanced those innate values for them in their work.
     
  7. Improved relationships
    A majority of the participants reported a positive impact of their meditation practice on their relationships in the workplace: paying more attention to relationships and experiencing less conflict in relationships. Several of the participants described this to be one of the most significant impacts their meditation practice has had on their work experience: enriching their work, making it more enjoyable, and providing greater personal satisfaction.
     
  8. Integration of practice with life
    100% of the participants indicated that their meditation practice permeates all aspects of their life. Moreover, the participants reported that they are no longer able to separate their practice and its impacts from the rest of their life; their life and practice have become integrated. As one participant stated, “It’s apparent to me, in a way that it never has been before, that I can’t differentiate. The practice is not something different than my life. And I’ve often thought of them as little bit dichotomized or zero/one. That’s just not true anymore.”

These results suggest that long-term meditation practice may have positive impacts for not only the individual in the workplace but also for coworkers, customers, and the organization as a whole. As a mindfulness teacher and practitioner, as well as someone who works in the business world, I am grateful each day for the benefits I receive from my practice. I’d like to hear more about how your mindfulness practice impacts your experience in the workplace. Please let me know.

* Forbes, J. (1999). Business people who meditate: The impact of the practice on their experience in the workplace. UMI Number:9958678.

March 14, 2011 at 7:42 am 1 comment

Mindfulness Can Change Your Brain: improvements in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking

Most people come to learn mindfulness meditation with the hopes of improving their well-being and quality of life.  However, one of the challenges of undertaking a commitment to mindfulness practice is that the changes you experience may be gradual and subtle.  The benefits are not always obvious to the practitioner as they develop over time.  Therefore, it can be helpful to receive reinforcement for your on-going practice.

Here’s some reinforcement for you.  Encouraging results were released in a study published in the January 30th issue of Psychiatry Research: Imaging.  In this study, MRI images were obtained from 16 participants before and after taking an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program and compared with a control group of 17 individuals who did not take the program.  The MRI images from those who practiced mindfulness every day found increases in gray matter concentration in the left hippocampus, an area important for learning and memory.  Increases in other areas of the brain were also identified in the MBSR participants as compared to the control group.  “The results suggest that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.”

Take these affirmative results to heart and have confidence that your mindfulness practice may improve your memory, emotional regulation, empathy and perspective in life.  Let this be encouragement for you to continue to practice mindfulness, return to your practice if  it has waned, or begin a practice if you have not tried it yet.  And as more research is performed, I look forward to sharing more information on the positive effects of your mindfulness practice.

January 28, 2011 at 12:06 pm Leave a comment

Recognizing & Reducing Stress “Creep”

 “For many men that stumble at the threshod are well foretold that the danger lurks within.”
— William Shakespeare

 

In engineering, creep is the tendency of a solid material to slowly move or deform permanently under the influence of stresses. It occurs as a result of long term exposure to levels of stress that are below the yield strength of the material.1 The yield strength of a material is defined as the stress at which a material begins to deform non-reversibly. It generally represents an upper limit to the load that can be applied.  Prior to the yield point the material will deform elastically and will return to its original shape when the applied stress is removed.2

As human beings, we experience a similar phenomenon.  Often stress in our lives is not acute; rather, it is a slow accumulation of stress without release.  When we don’t recognizing this accumulation of stress, eventually it may build up to a breaking point where the consequences of the stress are more severe for us. It is possible, however, to dissipate the stress that has accumulated, if you recognize its presence, and, in this way, minimize the emotional and physical wear and tear that you ultimately experience.  Awareness is the key to this process.  Recognizing that stress has been accumulating requires that you periodically check in with your body and mind to notice your state.  If you can identify tension in your body, or an uneasy mind, then you have the opportunity to address it before it reaches a threshold.

Bryan’s story reflects this process.  He first started becoming aware of residual tension in his body when he would lie down to being his yoga practice or sit down to start mediating.  Even though he believed he was relaxing in a comfortable position, Bryan noticed that his shoulders, in particular, were tense.  When he paid close attention, he could feel that his shoulders were creeping up approximately two inches toward his ears.  Once he noticed this tension, he could let it go.

After this experience, Bryan started to consciously check in with his body periodically throughout the day.  When he checked in, he, again, discovered tension in his shoulders that he was not aware of.  Bringing his attention to his shoulders, Bryan found that he could drop them down about two inches as he released the tension in that region of his body.

Moreover, Bryan discovered that his body was reflecting the state of his mind.  He noticed that when his shoulders were holding tension, his thoughts were also agitated.  Accordingly, Bryan found he could use his body as a measure of his actual stress level, like a thermometer.  When he found tension in his body, he recognized that he was stressed.  And by releasing the physical tension in his body, he realized that he could positively impact his mental and emotional state.

You, too, can reduce the accumulation of stress in your body and mind.  Here are a few ways you can release some stress when you take the time to check in with yourself:

  • Take several deep breaths (see The Power of the Breath in my blog postings)
  • Do some mindful shoulder rolls and/or neck rolls to release the stress in your shoulders and neck.
  • Remove yourself from the stressor, or environment, and go for a walk.
  • Engage in some postures to stretch out your body or do a balance posture.

The key is to find triggers or methods of checking in with your experience even when you don’t know that you are stressed, rather than waiting until you hit a point of breakdown!

“Men who know themselves are no longer fools. They stand on the threshold of the door of Wisdom.”
— Henry Ellis

 

References:
1  Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creep_(deformation)
2  Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yield_strength

April 2, 2010 at 1:50 pm Leave a comment

Thriving in an age of attention deficit

“Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.”

Gertrude Stein

 
Living in the 21st century is an exciting time.  One of the advantages of our technology is the breakdown in barriers we have to information.  The increased access we have to information is amazing, but also comes along with its challenges; the same information that adds value to our lives can also, at times, be overwhelming.  Each of you knows what it feels like to be on “information overload,” saturated with more information than you can absorb or respond to effectively: too many channels on the TV to find something that you are interested in watching, emails arriving in your inbox faster than you can read and respond to them, social media that keeps you connected to your network of friends and colleagues but provides more than you need to know.

One of the downsides of our information age is the development of a chronic attention deficit disorder in the general population – not a clinical diagnosis, rather, more of a societal plague we are suffering.  You can see the signs of this around you:  trying to have a conversation or meal with someone when they are in the middle of emailing or texting, people talking on the phone or texting while they are driving, being in a meeting in which other participants are online reading/responding to their email or texting, or even feeling the persistent need to check email or FaceBook.   I experience people all around me who live as if they are on an electronic leash, constantly wired to incoming information, persistently reactive to their electronic devices.  More than once, I have taught a mindfulness program in which a participant insisted on engaging with their Blackberry throughout a class that is intended to teach them to pay attention to the present moment; the irony of this needs no explanation.  It points to the challenge that many of us have dealing with the onslaught of information at our finger tips and the expectations that we will respond immediately to requests placed upon us 24/7.  Whereas Jon Kabat-Zinn’s second book on mindfulness is entitled, “Wherever You Go, There You Are,” I suggest the title, “Wherever You Go, There You Aren’t” more accurately describes the reality of our day-to-day existence.

This symptom of chronic attention deficit disorder in our society is beyond overwhelming; in addition, it takes a physical, emotional, and cognitive toll on us.  The attempt to consume and respond to an excess of information contributes to your body being in a heightened state of stress arousal, which ultimately creates wear and tear on you, challenging your well-being.  At a minimum, you may have trouble focusing, may become exhausted or start feeling burned out; worse, you may begin to have health problems that force you to slow down, or even come, involuntarily, to a screeching halt.

Before you reach these physical, emotional or cognitive limits, you can learn to relate differently the information that surrounds you.  Unplug!  Take the example of some companies that have initiated the “topless” meeting, in which not only laptops but iPhones and other tools are banned, to combat a new problem they are calling “continuous partial attention.”  You can set similar boundaries for yourself.  Although the plethora of information accessible to you can be very seductive, try to notice when your attempts to consume it leave you depleted rather than feeling better off.  Be more deliberate about how and when you give your energy away.  For instance, try driving without doing anything else, including listening to the radio.  Choose some specific times to turn off your cell phone and be away from your computer so that you aren’t accessible to incoming requests or interruptions at all hours.  Limit the time you spend absorbed in social media.  Pay attention and reclaim your energy for yourself so that you can make conscious choices about how you expended it.  By doing so, you can thrive in an age of attention deficit.
 

“…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it”

–Herbert Simon

September 27, 2009 at 1:37 pm Leave a comment

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Julie Forbes, Ph.D.

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