How can mindfulness help with stress?

Cover Image for How can mindfulness help with stress?
Reeva Misra
Reeva Misra

Dr. Trudi Edginton is a clinical psychologist, cognitive neuroscience lecturer and mindfulness practitioner. Dr Edginton is interested in how our thoughts and emotions relate to our physical responses and how practices such as mindfulness help with stress reduction and management. We discuss the importance of applying a personalised approach to mindfulness-based stress reduction to be an effective aid in the treatment of many mental and physical disorders.

What is mindfulness based stress reduction?

Mindfulness-based stress reduction is about cultivating a sense of calm by fully experiencing the moment you are currently in, as opposed to thinking about what you are going to do later in the day or tomorrow for example. It’s about being really present and letting thoughts of the past or future (and all the worry, anxiety and stress that often come with those thoughts), fade away for even a few breaths.

Does mindfulness based stress reduction work?

I’ve always had a mindfulness practice of my own so I knew how mindfulness reduces stress before I started incorporating it into my work. I started my career as a nurse and found that working with patients, in times of distress, I was able to use mindfulness to form a real connection with my patients based on compassion. It allowed me to be present with another person in a really authentic way. If you’re not able to talk about your concerns, worries or fears it ends up being something you suppress. There is a lot of research showing that if you don’t express a negative emotion, your body holds onto it. That chronic stress that you live with on a day to day basis can really affect your immune function, your muscle tone, the way you hold your body, and your cognitive function as a result of the effects on your hippocampi and their connections to the prefrontal cortex. Over time this can have a very gradual, detrimental effect on your physiology unless you are able to start diffusing this chronic stress by observing the body and the mind without judgement and noticing the patterns of thought that are often driving the stress in the first place.

How does mindfulness reduce stress?

It’s true that some level of stress is good for us as it motivates us–we actually require a minimal amount of stress to thrive. However, there is a different optimum level of stress for every single person so it’s about being in tune with yourself and getting to know what works for you. If you are someone who likes working with tight deadlines and you know you function better with a looming deadline ahead of you, then you can put yourself in those situations. However, if you’re someone who finds last minute situations overwhelming then you should avoid those kinds of pressure points. Interestingly, the detrimental impact of stress is actually determined by your perceived response to the stress. So, you can have a long term physiological effect of stress on your body and mind but it’s only when you perceive the situation as stressful that the stress will start to have a negative effect on your body. Essentially, it’s your mindset that dictates whether the stress is perceived as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ by your body. So, by practising awareness over the internal monologue that accompanies your experiences, you can start to see how mindfulness reduces stress, or at least the perception of stress.

How can mindfulness be incorporated into more traditional therapies?

I’ve trained in a number of different psychological approaches so I tend to use an integrative approach that combines multiple methods and is tailored to an individual’s particular needs. I would describe it as neuro-CBT with compassion and mindfulness. For example, when working with someone who has chronic fatigue, I know there is a neurological impact of the disease but there is also an additional psychological element in terms of how you feel about it and respond to it. If you feel like the exhaustion is having a really negative impact on you as a person and you feel others are judging you, it can add to the burden of the problem you are experiencing which then drives the mental and physical exhaustion you feel. There’s an emotional toll that needs to be managed alongside the physiological condition. I find it very effective to add compassion into the experience while also trying to understand what is happening at the neuronal level. I bring in mindfulness practices to guide patients to experience and be with what they have in the moment rather than worrying about the future or what other people will think of them. It’s almost like a toolbox where you can pick and choose what tools to use depending on the situation and an individual’s response to treatment as you go.

Can everybody practice mindfulness therapy?

While it’s possible for anybody to practice mindfulness, it’s also important to note that it isn’t right for everybody. There are times when it might not be the right time to practise mindfulness and it could actually have a negative effect, particularly if you have experienced trauma, a recent bereavement, acute depression or psychosis as your cognitive and emotional resources may be limited at that particular time. If you ask someone during a time of overwhelming grief or depression to practise mindfulness, the negative thoughts can be incredibly difficult to manage, and it is possible for people to experience a sense of depersonalisation or dissociation, and feel like they are an outside observer of their thoughts, feelings or body. It’s crucial to avoid a ‘one size fits all’ approach, instead ensuring you individualise treatment on a case by case basis. That’s really the best way to see results and appreciate how mindfulness reduces stress on a more personal level.

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