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Finances. Work. Relationships. Nutrition. Politics. We all deal with an endless list of daily stresses, so it’s no wonder that so many of us are overwhelmed and burned out, feeling swept along by our lives without a sense of control or choice over what happens to us.
We may know that thoughts drive our attitudes — and stress levels — but how can we actually put this knowledge into action to feel more in control? The secret is to stop reacting and start responding through the practice of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a state of active attention to the present, both internally and externally. As author and journalist Dan Harris, explains, “It’s the ability to recognize what’s happening in your mind and body right now — anger, jealousy, sadness, or even the pain of a stubbed toe — without getting carried away by it.”
Here’s an example: Imagine you’re catching up with a colleague after a long meeting. You have a pile of work to get back to, but your colleague just keeps chatting away. Your internal dialogue may become frantic, filled with thoughts like, “I’m so overwhelmed right now! I don’t have time for this conversation!”
A reactive reply to this internal dialogue might include self-judgment, like worrying about whether you’ll offend your colleague by rushing through the conversation, causing more stress and frantic energy.
A more mindful response might simply be, “I’m noticing that I’m overwhelmed.” Your observation stops there, without adding any additional qualifications or judgments. Rather than getting stuck inside reactive judgments or fears, you now have a moment to acknowledge what is happening for you and decide on a more productive course of action. Whether it’s being able to address your colleague’s thoughts without outburst or withdrawal, or deciding some other way to be more efficient, you have now avoided getting carried away by an inner whirlwind.
When we are mindful, we simply notice and observe our thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them. We can respond to a stressor as opposed to emotionally reacting.
When we practice mindfulness, we pause and become more aware of what we are experiencing. Which in turn means we can make more informed decisions, take stock of what stands before us, and have greater choice over our thoughts and actions, rather than feeling like we’re at the mercy of the chaos of our stress and reactivity. After all, as one of my colleagues, Ginger Coach Erica Hayes, wisely says, “It’s difficult to learn how to swim when you’re already drowning.”
When you’re in a state of stress, you’re reacting. You’re less efficient and more likely to make a snap decision that you may regret later. Even taking a simple 10-second pause can allow you to tackle a problem strategically, not emotionally.
Despite the benefits, many people are reluctant to explore this practice of slowing down. Even the most successful people often believe that taking a moment to breathe and reflect will waste precious time that could be spent working. But quite the opposite is true; mindfulness has an overwhelmingly positive impact on brain function over time.
Research has found that mindfulness helps us turn passing mental states into lasting neural structures. After as little as 8 weeks of consistent mindfulness practice, physical changes occur in 3 major regions of the brain, all of which help us excel in our fast-paced lives and high stakes work environments. In particular, mindfulness:
Improves focus and reduces anxiety: Practicing mindfulness increases the amount of gray matter in the anterior cingulate cortex or ACC. The ACC is responsible for self-regulation and cognitive flexibility, which lets us increase our focus when faced with competing demands.
Enhances problem-solving: The ACC isn’t the only part of the brain that benefits from mindfulness practice. Mindfulness elevates gray matter density in the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that helps with planning, problem-solving, and emotion regulation.
Boosts learning and memory storage: The hippocampus experiences changes as well, which are very helpful for “on the spot” thinking and quickly recalling facts with accuracy and poise.
In short, mindfulness has been clinically shown to improve focus, enhance empathy, and reduce the frequency of negative reactions to stress, like irritability or fatigue.
Mindfulness gives us the ability to be more attentive to how we are feeling at any given moment and helps make us more resilient. When we’re able to slow down and understand what we’re feeling or thinking with clarity, we can meet each of these challenging scenarios mindfully, and with grace.
Stressful scenarios crop up every day, but through the practice of mindfulness, we can start to surmount the insurmountable — and feel in control of our own lives.