Mindfulness and Stress
SERVING TOGETHER BLOG
Submitted by Neil Goodman (aka: kneel), NCW, disabled Vietnam Veteran
There is an enormous quantity of wonderful articles and approaches to reducing STRESS. However, why aren’t we writing more about calm, peace, harmony, balance, and tranquility in America? In the nightly news there is not nearly enough “good-stuff” being reported, most likely because the media believes their ratings would drop and after all, the sad fact is that good news is considered boring. By the way, I highly recommend NOT viewing the news before bedtime. Give yourself several hours of non-news buffering before retiring. I actually believe that much of our daily stress can be attributed to the daily dose of what is reported in the media!
Food for Thought or Thought for Food?
William James, often considered to be the father of American psychology, is quoted as stating, “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” (1) I’ve heard it said: If you want to know what thoughts you have been thinking, just look at your present life! This idea also stems from biblical writings: ‘Who among us by worrying can add a single hour to our lives … Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will worry about itself’ (2).
I often feel as though we are POW’s – “Prisoners of Worry”. Recently, I read that many of us can only keep our attention on a thought or image for 4 seconds and then there comes another thought and another – to the tune of some 60,000 thoughts per day (3). I wonder how these numbers were determined? Additionally, we humans have a unique ability: 90 percent of these thoughts are of previous thoughts and past occurrences.
Within these numbers, approximately 70 to 80 percent of our thoughts and images are negative (4), leaning towards additional worry, concern, anxiety, and fear.
So, America, what do you say we stop this nonsense! How you may ask? Let us begin by discussing some of the recent buzz around a topic called “mindfulness.” My definition of mindfulness is as follows:
“Being aware of what you are doing, while you are doing it and how you are feeling in body and mind as you are doing it”.
Let us test this theory. Do you think you are even partially mindful of your actions and choices during your day? Here’s a simple test: The objective of this exam is to observe your breath while conducting a very brief exercise. Get ready for a very telling experiment. Let’s prepare to stand and do the exercise together. Are you ready? Okay, you may stand now. (After standing, continue with this article.) Actually, standing was the exercise! Now let me ask: as you stood, did you observe your breath? Did you breathe in, out or hold your breath? Not sure? Okay, sit back down please. The next question may now be obvious. As you sat down, did you breathe in, out or hold your breath? Note: many of us tend to hold our breath during quick movements. Most actions are performed automatically, with little to no mental preparation.
The previous example demonstrates one idea behind mindfulness: before you even move a muscle to begin standing, be very aware that you have just decided to stand. Observe your breath and the muscles involved, the various positions and body angles achieved and the associated sensations within your muscles and body as you begin the process we call “standing”. Sounds like a lot? Mindfulness can take us to even greater levels of the “present moment”, when the individual is fully aware of their forthcoming actions.
Consider a family meal together. Are you having conversations during dinner? Is the TV on, in or even near the room where you are eating? Do family members bring their tablets or iPhones to the table? If any or all of these conditions exist, how then could you possibly be aware of the following: observing the colors, shapes, textures and smells of the food you are about to eat; the aroma and temperature of the food as you draw it toward your mouth? Oh, so you can multi-task! Sorry, this is not a valid aspect of mindfulness. Next there is the opening of the mouth as you welcome this gourmet, take-out / fast-food menu which someone lovingly took an inordinate amount of time (a minute or so) to put together for your family’s pleasure.
I believe you get the picture. Mindfulness, in our world today takes all our focus and concentration as we merge body and mind into the incredibly delicate process of awareness. It is also the key to dramatically reducing the many stressors in our daily activities. Being observant of beginning to breathe more rapidly with the onset of a stressful event, is the first step in your ability to consciously diffuse the impending stressor. You may be familiar with the acronym HRV? No, this is not a Honda.
“Heart Rate Variability” is a measurement of our health. If you take your pulse, with practice, you may detect a slightly higher heart beat during inhalations, along with a slower rate during exhalations. The greater the difference between the two, the healthier the tone of the body (5).
Note: many of us find ourselves breathing thoracically; “upper chest breathing” (rapid shallow breathing). This is primarily apparent during stressful events when the Sympathetic Nervous System produces the hormone, Cortisol, for more energy availability during a “fight or flight” scenario (6). This could be why we call it the nervous system.
During normal, relaxed breathing, when our exhalation slows and deepens, our heart rate slows. We produce Oxytocin and Serotonin (stress reduction hormones / neurotransmitters that help to regulate mood and social behavior). Our bodies are designed to have a longer exhalation, about one-third longer than our inhalation (6). When we are under stress, we typically revert to shallow upper chest breathing. We can calm our nervous systems by slowing our breathing and balancing inhalation with exhalation to the point where our exhalation begins to become slightly longer again. We do that by using the intercostal muscles between our ribs and forcing more air out at the end of our exhalations. You can feel it in the lower ribs as you gently force a little more out of your lungs on the exhalation (7). You should notice that the next inbreath is automatically deeper as your breathing becomes more balanced and slower to the point of relaxation; again, with slightly longer exhalations.
Note: The diaphragm acts as a bellows. We pull in the stomach lightly on the exhalation. As our belly relaxes toward the end of the exhalation, it drops slightly and moves outward. At this point, more oxygen is drawn into our lungs on the following inhalation via this pressure differential created by the diaphragm (8). This is not to be confused with the “Bellows Breath,” sometimes referred to as “The Fire Breath”, which is an intensive rapid nostril breathing technique based on ancient Pranayama traditions from India (7).
Breathing – a miraculous process. In my opinion, it’s the foundation to mindfulness and meditation. It is also a key to monitoring stress. One of the greatest mysteries of the human body is trying to understand where the breath came from and where it goes. We arrive in this world on the in-breath and go out on the out-breath. Why not pay more attention to this process of Mindful-Breathing as we go through the day, consciously aware of how we are embracing the miracle of the breath!
Please take some of your valuable time to visit my website @ kneel9.com and especially the supporting blogs. They outline numerous techniques for reducing the components of debilitating stress, to which we are frequently exposed in our lives. My hope is that you will explore some of these powerful tools. They are free and available to all.
- James, W. Top 10 William James Quotes.
- Book of Matthew. NIV Bible. Matthew 6:27, 6:34.
- Davis, B., PhD. HUFFPOST Blog. July 23, 2013.
- Hawthorne, J.R., PhD. ”Change Your Thoughts, Change Your World.” jenniferhawthorne.com, 2014.
- Rosenberg, S. “ACCESSING the HEALING POWER of the VAGUS NERVE.” 69-71.
- Miller, R., PhD. “iRest Meditation.” SoundsTrue audio CD. Session Two, Track 7.
- Weil, A., MD. “BREATHING” SoundsTrue audio CD. Disc Two, Track 4.
- Caponigro, A. “The Miracle of the Breath.” 2005. pp.15-26
- Kabat-Zinn, J. “Full Catastrophe Living.”47-49.
About Neil Goodman
Mr. Goodman is a disabled Vietnam Veteran who volunteers at the DC VA Medical Center. Mr. Goodman facilitates monthly Mindfulness Meditation workshops for Veteran.