Presence and Mindfulness: an antidote to stress

In our previous posts, we looked at the impact stress has on us and some strategies for deactivating stress triggers. This week we will focus on presence and mindfulness as additional tools to overcome the impact of stress on our bodies and in our lives. 

What is ‘Presence and Mindfulness’?

Presence is simply making a conscious effort to be present in the current moment. When we are present in the moment, we set aside planning (thinking about the future) and analysis (evaluating the past) and focus on the here and now. We bring our awareness to what is happening right now.

Mindfulness is the awareness. The conscious noticing of feelings and physical sensations. It is also the detached observation of our reaction to those feelings and sensations.

“Mindfulness is the art of bringing your awareness into the present moment and an effective tool for changing your level of stress in the right now,” says Emily Greenberg. “Counting your breaths, visualizing, imagining a waterfall, or listening to guided audio are all versions of mindfulness.” (Stress Less Accomplish More, pg4)

The Mayo Clinic calls mindfulness a type of meditation in which you focus on being intensely aware of what you’re sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment. “Practicing mindfulness involves breathing methods, guided imagery, and other practices to relax the body and mind and 

help reduce stress.”

They go on to say, “Spending too much time planning, problem-solving, daydreaming, or thinking negative or random thoughts can be draining. It can also make you more likely to experience stress, anxiety, and symptoms of depression. Practicing mindfulness exercises can help you direct your attention away from this kind of thinking. 

Dr. Melanie Greenberg, in The Stress-Proof Brain (p57), calls mindfulness a ‘brain skill’ that “can have far-reaching beneficial effects, not only transforming brain neurons but improving immunity, health, life, and relationship satisfaction.

Calm your emotions

Taking the time to be present and mindful has direct benefits on emotional health. When we make the effort to mentally push ‘pause’, we give our bodies time to process the effects of an emotion. Dr. Joan Rosenberg, in 90 Seconds to a Life You Love, says it takes about 90 seconds for the physical effects of an emotional reaction to move through our bodies. Consciously observing those effects and waiting for them to pass gives our mind the opportunity to think about what we are feeling. This conscious awareness often has a calming effect and allows us to respond from a balanced, thoughtful perspective.

Make wiser choices

When feeling stress, “riding the wave” of the emotions we are feeling with mindful awareness helps us make wiser choices about how we react. In a recent conversation, a friend said something that initially irritated me, triggering a feeling of anger and defensiveness. But instead of preparing a rebuttal, I took the time to notice how the comment made me feel. I noticed tension in my stomach and how shallow my breath had become. I noticed I was angry about what had been said. All the while they continued to talk and in the intervening seconds I noticed that the original comment was not headed in the direction I thought. In the moments that passed between noticing my irritation and waiting for that reaction to pass, the tension in my body also eased. I was able to respond with a simple and calm acknowledgment, rather than the defensive rebuttal that initially sprang into my brain.

Feel more in control

Presence and mindfulness also give you the tools to feel more in control of your responses. While we cannot control emotions, when we are practicing presence and being mindful we can more deliberately choose how we react to the emotions that we feel. We can’t stop our amygdala from responding to the things that our senses notice. Our senses constantly scan our environment, providing important information that keeps us safe and away from danger. The hormones released by the amygdala will trigger sensations that provide info

rmation to the conscious part of our brain. Practicing mindfulness allows us to engage this conscious part of the brain when choosing our reactions to what we are sensing and feeling.

Achieve personal and psychological growth

Dr. Leah Lagos subtitled her book Heart Breath Mind: Train your Heart to Conquer Stress and Achieve Success. T

he breath practices she teaches have an effect on heart rate variability. She says, “a body in rest-and-digest mode, with high heart rate variability, produces a more ordered and stable heart pattern, sending input to the brain that facilitates cognitive functioning and reinforces positive feelings as well as emotional regulation.” 

Other advocates of mindfulness and mediation also extol the virtues of meditation for not only reducing anxiety but improving our ability to reach our personal and professional goals.

Says Dr. Richard Davidson, “by sitting and mindfully breathing for ten minutes a day, in as little as eight weeks you strengthen the part of the prefrontal cortex involved in generating positive feelings and diminish the part that generates negative ones.”

As this new year begins and resolutions are made, resolve to incorporate a daily practice of presence and mindfulness as an antidote to the impact of stress on mind and body.