Becoming mindful of the stressors around us

How many times have you sat in meetings watching people check their emails and text messages, or had everything stop for a phone call? Have you ever been at your desk, on the shop floor, at a team function or driving a vehicle while thinking about life, other work, a relationship, a sick parent, or how you’re going to get your kid to soccer practice at the end of the day? Have you ever blown past an exit on the highway, made a mistake on an assignment, gotten hurt or missed a deadline because you were distracted or not paying attention to details?

We’ve all been there. Truth is, we have a lot on our minds — and pressure to get too much done at once. In today’s world, multi-tasking is seen as an essential skill, not the liability it actually is. Oftentimes, it becomes more important to get things done than to get them done well — or we struggle finding that “well-enough” zone.

When we allow our minds to drift — when we are not present in the moment — we can’t achieve our potential. The need to remain focused is critical, but we also need tools to help us concentrate effectively, as well as to relieve stress, frustration, anger, anxiety and negativity. These side effects of our work and lives interfere with our relationships, and have an impact on teamwork, morale, productivity and our physical, mental and spiritual health.

April is Stress Reduction Awareness Month. If we clarify our thoughts, use relaxing techniques and calm our approach to life and work, it will make us more productive, happier and healthier.

The pursuit of “mindfulness” is one valuable approach to gaining control of attention span, focus and concentration. It is now gaining significant traction in large and small organizations across America, especially for its value in reducing the unhealthy results of stress.

Mindfulness essentially means moment-to-moment awareness. Although it originated in the Buddhist tradition, you don’t have to be Buddhist to practice or find value in its benefits. In fact, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is being taught in colleges, yoga studios, meditation centers and workplaces across America. The benefits can be dramatic — in addition to supporting overall health and well-being, mindfulness has been linked to improved cognitive functioning and lower stress levels. That’s even more important when we are being constantly bombarded by email, texts, Facebook, Twitter and other electronic and social media.

When we are mindful we become keenly aware of ourselves and our surroundings by simply observing these things as they are. We are aware of our own thoughts and feelings, but do not react to them in negative or distracted ways. There’s no “autopilot” when we’re focused. By not labeling or judging the events and circumstances taking place around us, we are freed from our normal tendency to react to them, and shift from a subjective to an objective mindset.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, is founding executive director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts. He established MBSR in the 1970s to help patients suffering from chronic pain. Mindfulness experts teach us to not resist our mind’s natural urge to wander, but to train it to return to the present, and to center ourselves in the moment. Mindfulness enhances emotional intelligence, notably self-awareness, and the capacity to manage distressing emotions. It also reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, improves memory and lessens depression and anxiety.

Mindfulness is being practiced at a number of large companies including Proctor & Gamble, Apple, Google, Deutsche Bank, Astra Zeneca, General Mills and Aetna. It includes a broad spectrum of informal activities, in addition to meditation, movement and structured MBSR techniques.

Here are simple tips that we can incorporate every day, even at work:

  • Spend at least three to five minutes a few times each day doing nothing but breathing and relaxing in the moment, whether at work or at home.
  • Manage distractions like noisy co-workers by tuning into them, instead of letting them drive us crazy. . . by noticing the sounds and their effects on our bodies, we rob the distraction of their power over us.
  • Pay attention to our walking by slowing our pace and feeling the ground against our feet.
  • Anchor our day with a contemplative morning practice, such as breathing, Zen, yoga, meditation or even a walk.
  • Before entering the workplace, remind yourself of our organization’s purpose, and mentally recommit in that moment to our vocation and to being a leader.
  • Throughout the day, pause to make sure we’re fully present before undertaking the next critical task, call or meeting.
  • Practice “strategic acceptance,” which is not seeing every setback in catastrophic terms. When we feel our stress levels rising, we shouldn’t try to force ourselves to cheer up or calm down — rather, simply accept how we feel. That doesn’t mean to ignore the problem, but instead, to observe and accept reality in that moment before making a plan to tackle the problem.
  • Find time to unplug from electronic gadgets, phones, computers and video games — studies have shown that excessive reliance on technology can make us more distracted, impatient and forgetful.
  • Get in touch with our senses by noticing the temperature of our skin and background sounds around us.
  • Review the day’s events at the close of the day to prevent work stresses from spilling into our home lives.
  • Before going to bed, engage in some spiritual reading.

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If you’re not enjoying the benefits of a wellness program at your company, join CBIA Healthy Connections at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!