Mindfulness for Stress Reduction, Balance and Wellbeing
Summary of a public talk given at a BC Balance and Dizziness Disorders Society meeting at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver on November 19, 2014.
Speaker: Dr. Geoffrey Soloway, MEd, PhD. Dr. Soloway has been working in the area of health promotion, mindfulness and wellbeing for over 12 years. He is currently a partner at MindWell Canada.
We can understand stress as a response. We all have red buttons that get pushed and trigger our stress response. But what’s happening physiologically in our bodies is the same for everyone. The stress response is evolutionary. As Dr. Soloway said, “It worked well for the zebra who was trying to get away from the lion.”
In the stress response there is an imbalance in the sympathetic-parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight response) increases and the parasympathetic nervous system (rest-and-digest response) decreases. Humans have the cognitive capacity to replay activities in our minds. That ability can chronically trigger the stress response. Unlike the zebra who manages to escape the lion, we’re not very good at kicking up the parasympathetic nervous system and going back to baseline.
The stress response is a mind-body-brain process. When our mind interprets an event as a perceived threat, something is triggered in the brain that results in secretion of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. When the stress response kicks in, our heart rate and blood pressure skyrocket, our hands start to sweat, blood is pumped to the muscles and away from digestion, and our cognitive capacity goes down.
We all have different stressors but everyone has the same stress response. A stressor is a perception of a threat to our physical or psychological wellbeing coupled with our perception of whether we’re able to cope with it. No two things will trigger the same stress response in different people.
And it’s not only things in the external physical world that trigger a stress response. Just thinking about when the next attack of vertigo might happen, for example, can trigger a physiological response in the body. It’s not the actual stimulus – the vertigo – that is stressful. It’s the thinking about it and when it might happen next, that triggers the stress response.
As Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote in 1994, “The ultimate effect on our health of the total psychological stress we experience depends in large measure on how we come to perceive change itself, in all its various forms, and how skillful we are in adapting to continual change while maintaining our own inner balance and sense of coherence. This in turn depends on the meaning we attribute to events, on our beliefs about life and ourselves, and particularly on how much awareness we can bring to our usually mindless and automatic reactions when our “buttons” are pushed. It is here, in our mind-body reactions to the occurrences in our lives that we find stressful, that mindfulness most needs to be applied and where its power to transform the quality of our lives can best be put to work.”
Jon Kabat-Zinn popularized a program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and wrote Full Catastrophe Living in 1979. His work started with chronic pain patients at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. This is a difficult population to work with because chronic pain cannot be effectively controlled with medication. He started to teach them the mindfulness program and they exhibited benefits from the training.
Over the last ten years considerable research has been done on the health benefits of mindfulness meditation – in 2013 alone 549 research papers were published. From these studies we know that mindfulness meditation works well in the areas of chronic pain and stress. We also know that it is more broadly helpful for general health and wellbeing.
A recent study found that completing an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Tinnitus Stress Reduction program helps tinnitus sufferers reduce depression and phobic anxiety while improving social functioning and overall mental health.
Meditation isn’t about thinking – it’s kind of a different process. It’s a way of reconnecting with our senses and reconnecting with our body, with our sense of felt touch, hearing, seeing and smelling. Mindfulness is very simple. At a very basic level, it’s just reconnecting us with our bodies.
It’s not about blanking your mind. Most people’s minds are very busy and the practice of meditation isn’t trying to stop thoughts. As Dr. Soloway put it, “If thoughts are like clouds, I don’t control the clouds but I can just watch them float by. If thoughts are like buses, I can sit at the bus stop and watch the bus go by. I don’t have to get on that bus, which is talking to me about what happens when I next have an attack of vertigo. I’m going to stay at the bus stop and let that thought go by.”
So as a mindfulness practitioner, you don’t need to try and stop that thought. It’s going to happen, because that’s what minds do, they think. And they like to go into the future and they like to go into the past. But where we have control is that we can observe our thoughts and we can choose not to pay attention to them.
The brilliance of mindfulness-based stress reduction is that Kabat-Zinn took a contemplative principle around mindfulness and turned it into a secular science of the mind. There’s no dogma or “ism” around it. It’s not about learning Buddhism; it’s about learning a practice that is adopted from contemplative practices. It’s a practice around learning to pay attention. You can practice mindfulness meditation anywhere. But you might have to give up a few minutes of your day. You might have to make the intention to practice.
Mindfulness is about attention. The mind wanders. It’s projecting about the future. And when we’re thinking about the future, we’re often worrying about the future and that can bring up anxiety. Or sometimes we’re ruminating about the past. We’re thinking, “Oh, I should have done this,” or “Why did that happen?” We’re constantly rehashing something that happened in the past. And that can lead us down the road towards low mood.
Part of mindfulness is just noticing the tendencies of your mind. Where’s it always going? And the freeing thing is that we don’t have to change it. We don’t have to make ourselves bad or wrong for having certain thoughts, but we do learn to have a new relationship to our thoughts. We don’t have to feed those thoughts, because if we feed them, they get stronger.
So if mindfulness is like attention, we can understand attention to be like a puppy. Why is attention like a puppy? It wanders around sniffing aimlessly – it doesn’t stay where we want it to. It makes messes – so does our attention – and it brings back things we didn’t ask for.
If we want to train our attention – just like with our puppy – we have to be firm, patient, kind and we have to do it repeatedly. These are kind of principles that we need to adopt when we’re learning to be mindful. We need to be firm, patient, kind and repetitive.
Mindfulness is just like going to the gym and exercising our muscles. It’s just the mental gym where we strengthen our mind’s capacity for attention. The diagram below is framework for understanding this mental exercise. It involves using our breath as a point of focus. We use the breath to focus on because we all have one, we don’t have to go anywhere to find it, it’s right there under our nose and it brings us back into contact with our body, our senses.
There are three key parts to mindfulness. First is intention – your intention to focus on the breath. Second is attention – paying attention, focusing on the breath. And third is non-judgment or compassion – a quality of mind that is brought up when you notice that the mind has wandered. Compassion for yourself. And then come back to intention, attention. So you’re always cycling between those three.
There is nothing mystical or very special about mindfulness. It’s really about learning to cultivate attention in the present moment. It’s heightening our sense of appreciation for what is now, what is here. And that’s actually really special. So it’s a very simple and portable practice. But it’s not easy.
There are many different practices you can do to cultivate mindfulness. From a traditional standpoint, there’s a practice called the body scan, mindful yoga, mindful movement, loving kindness, and compassion practices. And there are informal mindfulness practices – for example, can you just be intentional about washing the dishes without trying to solve the world’s problems?
Mindfulness is about bringing greater balance between thinking and sensing. Whereas we’re more attuned to a hyper-thinking mode, mindfulness cultivates more of our sensing mode. And the good thing is everybody can do it. Mindfulness is an inherent part of being human. We just need to strengthen that capacity. All you have to do is practice. It’s that simple. If you want to get good at anything you have to practice. And it doesn’t stop. You can practice all the time.
So think about what are the stressors in your life, perhaps around your balance and dizziness disorder. What are those thought buses saying and how are they triggering stress in your life? If you can start to become more aware of what they are and learn to let them go, then you’re going to start to experience less stress in your life and start living with this precious human life that you have.