Guided Meditation for Releasing Stress and Reducing Overthinking

In times of stress, we tend to overthink – to engage in self-stories about who we are, what we are capable of and what negative impacts will eventuate from our situation.  These negative self-stories can lead to a debilitating downward spiral and undermine our capacity to cope with our daily challenges.  It is important to break the cycle of negative thoughts before they become entrenched in our psyche.

Great Meditation on its YouTube© Channel offers a specific guided meditation to help release stress and reduce overthinking.  The meditation focuses on three key areas impacted by stress – our breathing, our thoughts and our body.

Guided meditation to release stress and reduce overthinking

The 10-minute guided meditation offers a simple but effective way to unwind and take control of your thinking and bodily sensations.  The meditation process has three key steps:

  1. Focus on your breathing – the starting point is to become grounded through your breath.  Just observing your breath can be relaxing.  The key here is not to try to control your breathing but notice it occurring in a part of your body – through your nose, in the rise and fall of your abdomen or in your chest.  Adopting a comfortable posture helps you to maintain focus on your breathing.
  2. Observing your thoughts – this entails noticing what thoughts are occurring in your mind without judgment and without entertaining them.  It is important if your mind is blank not to go searching for thoughts because this can lead to overthinking.  The key is to maintain your relaxed breathing while you notice what is going on in your head.  Just let your thoughts pass by and remind yourself that “you are not your thoughts” – they are merely mental constructions.
  3. Notice your bodily sensations – we experience stress in our bodies in the form of tight shoulders, a stiff neck, localised pain or sore arms, legs or ankles.  Your body mirrors the fact that you are uptight in response to stress.  As you scan your body, you can progressively release points of bodily tension by focusing on these areas and letting go.  Deep breathing can assist this process and enable you to end the meditation process smoothly.

There are numerous sources of meditations that will enable you to release stress and free yourself from overthinking.  For example, Great Meditation provides a wide range of meditations for specific purposes on their YouTube© Channel.  Additionally, psycom.net lists links to meditation resources including music meditations, guided meditations, podcasts and meditation apps.

Reflection

The resources available for meditation practice are numerous and are very often free.  The challenge is to maintain regular meditation practice to enable us to destress and stop living in our thoughts. As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and mindfulness practices, we will be more able to calm our minds, notice and release tension in our bodies and progressively build the resilience necessary to handle the challenges of work and family life. 

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Image by cocoparisienne from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Healing the Impacts of Adverse Childhood Experiences and Childhood Trauma

The classic study on Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) conducted by CDC-Kaiser Permanente with more than 17,000 members of a health organisation found that two thirds had suffered at least one ACE and more than 20% reported suffering three or more adverse experiences in childhood.  Adverse childhood experiences cover the whole gamut of experiences resulting in immediate and long-term effects on a child – the experiences cover aspects such as physical, psychological or sexual abuse, violence in the home, mental illness of carers, separation from parents at an early age, divorce or suicide within the family.  ACEs occur irrespective of gender, culture, context or economic status – although, children in poverty situations are more likely to experience ACEs.  The range of adverse childhood experiences is extensive, their incidence is extremely high, and their impacts are long-lasting.

The impacts of adverse childhood experiences

This is an area that has been extensively researched and documented.  CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) summarises the long-terms effects of ACEs in terms of their physiological, mental, relationship and behavioural impacts.  The impacts are far-reaching and long-lasting.  Nadine Burke Harris found in her research that toxic stress arising from adverse childhood experiences changes a person’s biological and neurological make-up and can result in an over-active stress response.  

Nadine was inspired by the ACE study mentioned above and undertook extensive reading of research results and conducted her own research.  In a TED talk, she shared her conclusions that early childhood experiences and related trauma impacted every area of a developing mind and body:

High doses of adversity [in childhood] not only affect our brain structure and function, they affect the developing immune system, developing hormonal systems and even the way our DNA is read and transcribed.

Preventing and healing the impacts of adverse childhood experiences

Nadine has dedicated her life and work to redressing the impacts of adverse childhood experiences and related childhood trauma. In 2007, she founded, as medical director, the Bayview Child Health Center (BCHC) which is not only focused on individual child health and wellness but also activism, education and community development.

Also, as a founding member and CEO of the Center for Youth Wellness, Nadine has contributed substantially on a global basis to the development and implementation of strategies to prevent and heal the impacts of adverse childhood experiences in individuals, communities and society generally.  Some of the strategies developed by the Center and other activists in the area include:

  • Parental education in childhood development, sources of stress, the impacts of adverse childhood experiences and positive parenting
  • Multidisciplinary health care teams for children and youth
  • Screening for adverse childhood experiences by primary medical health practitioners and paediatricians
  • Community development to create social support systems and collaborative caring environments
  • Interventions in schools and political systems to raise awareness, support policies and action plans
  • Dissemination of the latest research into the nature and impacts of adverse childhood experiences.
  • Carer support centres
  • Early detection, intervention and home visitations for identified at-risk situations for children
  • Enabling reconnection with others through social prescribing and encouraging reconnection with nature
  • Adopting the guidelines and principles of trauma-informed mindfulness.

Nadine has documented her research and work in the area through her recent book, The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity.  Together with other concerned professionals, parents and community members from the Center for Youth Wellness, Nadine has contributed to the development of the Stress Health website designed to help carers and parents to develop the basic components of a child’s life that will protect them, or help to heal them, from toxic stress.  The website provides an ACE quiz based on the original ACE study to help you identify for yourself or your child the level of toxic stress experienced in childhood.  On completing the quiz, you are given access to several suggested strategies for stress reduction, including mindfulness.

Reflection

Many of us have experienced one or more adverse childhood events.  The care and concern of a loving friend or relative may have been instrumental in helping us to overcome or, at least, reduce the impacts of these experiences in our life, work and relationships.  Other formative experiences such as personal study, community engagement or personal development may have helped also.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop a deepened self-awareness and understanding of the impacts of adverse childhood experiences in our own lives, and increase our capacity for self-regulation to reduce those impacts.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Understanding Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress

In the previous post, I addressed the need for trauma-sensitive mindfulness.  One of the observations of David Treleaven mentioned in the post, was the need for meditation teachers to develop an awareness of, and sensitivity to, the presence of people who are experiencing, or have experienced, trauma.  Failure to do this could lead to mindfulness activity that generates trauma stimuli leading to re-traumitisation.  Being trauma-sensitive means understanding the signs of post-traumatic stress as well as having the presence of mind to modify mindfulness practices to take account of people’s needs in this condition.

Recognising the signs of post-traumatic stress

Trauma results where a person experiences an overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds their ability to cope and deal with the emotional fallout from that experience.  The effects vary with each individual and the nature of the traumatic event. Traumatic events can include the loss of a sibling or parent through death, separation from a parent at a young age, a life-threatening car accident or terrorist event, separation and divorce, a house fire, physical or sexual abuse or a natural disaster.

This variability in the nature and impact of traumatic events, and the individual’s reluctance to disclose through shame or the need to comply with an authority figure, means that it is often very difficult to ascertain whether a person has suffered from trauma and is experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  According to several reports, up to 20% of people who experience a traumatic event together will experience post-traumatic stress disorder.

Trauma can impact a person’s thoughts, emotions, perceptions, level of arousal/reactivity and mood.  It can be reflected in behavioural change such as avoidance of a person or location, inability to sleep or sleeping too much, reliving the trauma through nightmares or flashbacks or withdrawal from social contacts or work colleagues.  The attendant emotions could be depression, anxiety and feeling unsafe.  Thoughts of suicide can also be one of the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The role of memory and embodiment

Peter Levine, in an interview with Serge Prengel, discussed the role of memory in trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.  Peter is the author of the book, Trauma and Memory: Brain and Body in Search of the Past – A Practical Guide for Working With Traumatic Memory.  His book is ground-breaking in that he highlighted the role of “implicit memory” and showed how to treat trauma sufferers by accessing the “complex interplay of past and present, mind and body”.  He termed his methodology, “somatic experiencing”.

In the interview, Peter stressed that we have several different forms of memory and the ones that are particularly relevant to trauma are episodic or autobiographical memories, emotional memories and procedural or body memories.  Episodic memory, also termed “defining moments” by Serge the interviewer, though low in emotive content are nonetheless impactful. For example, Peter describes a teacher who acted as a mentor to him and instead of blaming him for poor judgement encouraged him to learn and explore his curiosity.  Other mentors in his life as he progressed through his studies modelled similar behaviour.  This, in turn, led him to a career choice as a professional mentor – so the episodic memory acted as a “trajectory” for his progress in life. 

Emotional memories, on the other hand, “though further out of the realm of awareness” are “very powerful and compelling” and shape how we behave in our life.  Some interaction from the past is encoded with a very strong emotion such as sadness, anger or fear.   The emotional memory can interfere with a current relationship when something or somebody acts as a reminder of the past interaction so that we can be overwhelmed with either a very strong negative or positive emotion. 

While emotional memories operate at a deep level, body memories are deeper still.  At one level, they have to do with the acquisition of motor learning and skills, e.g. riding a bike.  At another level, they are determinants of our approach or avoidance behaviour.  Peter gives the illustration of coming across a former classmate more than 30 years after their schooling and finding that he had a strong desire to approach and reconnect with him.  The classmate had been his protector at school when other children tried to bully him – hence his approach behaviour.  An example of avoidance behaviour conditioned by body memory is when someone who has previously experienced sexual abuse actually freezes when touched by a loving partner.

David Treleaven reinforced the relationship between trauma and body memory when he stated in his video presentation that “the respiratory system is intimately connected to our sympathetic nervous system which is totally tied to traumatic stress”.  He pointed to two books by Babette Rothschild that highlighted the close connection between trauma and body memory, The Body Remembers and Revolutionizing Trauma Treatment.   David also explained further why meditation exercises such as mindful breathing can activate trauma stimuli.  He drew on the differentiation between exteroception (body’s perception of external stimuli received through the senses) and interoception (sensing conditions within the body such as deep breathing or tightness of the chest).  Normally exteroceptors and interoceptors integrate (e.g. the external sensation of viewing a sunrise is matched with the internal sensation of a warm feeling in your chest and a sense of looseness in your hands and legs); with trauma sufferers, “the relationship between interoceptors and exteroceptors can go awry”.

Peter Levine emphasised the need to recognise that we have a “fluid identity” – while our identity is shaped by the past, and the interplay of multiple events and interactions, it is possible to gently, but surely, release the embodied memories and progressively unearth the richness, power and sense of connection of an identity not locked into painful memories.  He has dedicated his lifework to training individuals and professionals in understanding the role of the different memories and in learning to use his trauma treatment methodology, somatic experiencing.  Other professionals, through an understanding of the mind-body connection, employ somatic meditation to assist trauma sufferers.

Reflection

We can grow in mindfulness as we develop an awareness of the role that memory plays in our own thoughts, emotions, moods and behaviour and learn to recognise the signs of post-traumatic stress in others.  As we develop this heightened awareness, we can make appropriate modifications to our meditation teaching and deepen our own meditation practice and reflection.

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Image – Sunrise over the water, Wynnum, Brisbane

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Yoga Nigra Meditation: A Pathway to Mindfulness

In her video on Yoga Nigra Meditation, Karen Brody explains that this form of “yogic sleep” Is designed to enable us to rest.  She maintains that each of us continually pushes ourselves to do more, often to the point of exhaustion.  Chiropractor, Alan Jansson, has observed that chronic fatigue, which used to be the province of elite athletes, is now experienced by more and more people with diverse lifestyles, including senior executives.   Karen, in her book Daring to Rest, focuses on exhaustion experienced by women and recounts her own experience of chronic fatigue and panic attacks – resulting, in part, from raising two young children while her husband was constantly travelling overseas for his work.  The book provides links to nigra meditations recorded by Karen.  The free online video also provides a brief nigra meditation (at the 39 minute mark), while a fuller version of her nigra meditation is available on her paid DVD or CD.

What is Yoga Nigra Meditation?

Karen Brody describes yoga nigra meditation as an “ancient yogic sleep-based guided meditation technique” that is very powerful in helping people to rest and overcome fatigue, anxiety, sleeplessness, chronic fatigue and other manifestations of emotional exhaustion and/or lack of energy. She explains that rest is the foundation of health and vitality while exhaustion can be experienced at different levels or layers – physical, mental/emotional and life purpose (also called “spiritual” or life meaning). 

Nigra yoga meditation is a form of “sleep with a trace of awareness” that addresses energy blockages in each of the five “bodies” or layers of our human existence – focusing on each in turn during the guided meditation.  Karen explains these five bodies briefly in the free video:

  1. Physical body – all our bones, muscles, tissues, skin and ligaments.  The physical body is typically accessed via a guided body scan as the first step of the nigra meditation.
  2. Energy body – sensing and releasing energy and enabling us to be in the flow when blockages are removed.  The energy body is accessed via mindful breathing as a second step of the nigra meditation.
  3. Thought/habit body – the mental body that encapsulates who we think we are and our habituated thinking patterns, reflected in our self-stories.  Nigra meditation helps us to dissolve these ingrained, mental “imprints” by assisting us to challenge our self-stories
  4. Wisdom body – understanding that bears witness to the fact that we experience fear and trust, hot and cold; the concept of “both/and” with the ability to integrate this dichotomy into an integrated perception of ourselves. This body or layer represents a visceral understanding (a deep-down understanding) accessed via guided visualisation.
  5. Bliss body – a deep sense that “everything is okay”, a deep sense of connection to the universe.

Yoga International provides a more technical explanation of the five bodies or “koshas” of yoga nigra meditation.  A Daring to Rest Podcast provides even deeper insight through sharing key takeaways from the First International Yoga Nigra Conference.

The benefits of yoga nigra meditation

Yoga nigra provides rest and regeneration without exertion.  Karen points out that yoga nigra does not involve stretching or adopting unusual positions.  It is often undertaken lying down, where the emphasis is on rest, not exertion.  In fact, nigra yoga is so restful that people can fall asleep during the meditation. 

Yoga International identifies five benefits of yoga nigra – (1) ease of use providing accessibility to anyone, (2) simple to integrate into daily life, (3) easy way to reduce stress, (4) does not encourage self-judgment because you cannot do it wrongly, and (5) leads to an intimate knowledge of self.

As we grow in mindfulness through different forms of meditation, such as the layered approach of yoga nigra meditation, we can gain a deep self-awareness, improve our self-regulation, develop a heightened capacity to access flow/ being-in-the-zone, reduce our stress and re-energise our minds and bodies.

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Image by Khusen Rustamov from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

The Lifelong Journey into Inner and Outer Awareness

Diana Winston in her book , The Little Book of Being, suggests that if we let our meditation and mindfulness practices slip, our achievement of natural awareness will diminish and the change in this direction will become “dormant”.  She argues for “lifelong practice” to keep “our meditation vibrant and interesting” (p.206).

The lifelong journey into inner awareness

There are times when we gain insight into who we really are and how we respond to various stimuli.  We may surprise ourselves when we discover the level of resentment we still carry towards someone for an action that occurred many years ago; or we might gain insight into the ways we express anger covertly; or unconsciously seek the approval of others.  These insights gained throughout our journey into inner awareness through meditation and mindfulness practices can be translated progressively into behavioural change.

We might gain clarity about the factors influencing our responses – we come to an understanding of the influence of early parental criticism on our current behaviour; or time spent away from our parents when very young (e.g. under five); or loss of a sibling; or being a child of an alcoholic parent.  While our understanding grows of the impact of these influences, it takes a lifelong journey to break free of the hold of these influences and to translate these insights into new behaviours.

We might experience what Tara describes as a “waking up” and the associated deep shift inside ourselves which is difficult to explain but finds expression in increased tolerance of others, heightened sensitivity or a readily accessible stillness and calm in times of crisis. Despite these shifts, we might still be prone to anger when caught in traffic while rushing to get somewhere; still interrupt people’s conversation to divert the conversation to ourselves; still fail to express our real feelings; or still indulge in any other form of inadequate or inappropriate behaviour.  Despite the experience of a deep personal shift in inner awareness, we have not arrived at the end of the journey because meditation is not a “quick fix” – it’s a pathway to guide us on the journey into the unknown.

The lifelong journey into outer awareness

Through our meditation and mindfulness practices, we can increase our natural awareness – attain increasing awareness in the present moment of what and who is around us.  We can begin to appreciate the beauty of a sunrise as it occurs and bask in its unique configuration and colour; we can be increasingly cognisant of, and sensitive to, the pain of others; we can become aware of how grateful we are for the things that we have and/or can do in life – and yet, at other times, we may be oblivious of what is around us (the beauty of nature or the sounds of birds) and fail to notice, or act to relieve, someone’s suffering or pain because of self-preservation.

Outer awareness grows over time with regular practice but can become blurred by the intensity of our thoughts or feelings – the inner fog.  We need to continually pull back the screen of our self-preoccupation and self-projection to allow the light of natural awareness to shine on the world and people around us.  Outer awareness requires a lifelong journey into wonder through growing curiosity and openness (repressing the need to judge).

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and mindfulness practices, our natural awareness grows so that we can be more in-the -moment.  We can gain progressive insight into ourselves; the influences shaping our behaviour and responses; and attain ever increasing inner awareness to the point of experiencing a major shift or “waking up”.  We can broaden our outer awareness and our attunement to, and connection with, other people. All the time, though, we will develop a deepening insight into how long the journey is to attain inner and outer awareness – the realisation of the need for a lifelong journey.

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Image: Sunrise at Wynnum, Queensland 10 July 2019

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Ways To Discover the Benefits of Nature

In earlier posts I discussed the healing benefits of nature and the ways that trees can reduce stress. Jill Suttie in her article Why is Nature So Good for Your Mental Health, points to recent research that demonstrates that awe experienced in nature is a source of well-being and decreased symptoms of stress. How then can we discover these benefits of nature in our everyday life?

Ways to discover the benefits of nature

Heather Hurlock, Mindful Digital Editor, discusses three ways that we can access these benefits:

  1. Savour your neighbourhood nature – so much of our observation is superficial as we race from one task to another. You can look out the window and admire the tree on the footpath or notice the species of trees in your tree-lined street. You can closely observe the clouds that provide fascinating shapes, patterns and colours. If you live near water, a river or the bay, you can take a mindful walk along its shores taking in the sunrise/sunset, the ebb and flow of the water and the patterns that are formed through the movement of the water. Alternatively, you can absorb the stillness of the water on a calm, cool day. You might be privileged to share the awe of a visitor to your area who sees your natural surrounds with a fresh set of eyes – not through sight dulled by routine.
  2. Soak up the healing power of a forest – trees reduce agitation and stress and are good for the health of your heart. Forest Bathing – a mindful, slow walk through the trees in a forest – is a great source of mental health and wellness. The stillness and resilience of a forest can be a source of awe and well-being. A forest can intensify your awareness of your senses – through the sounds of birds, the sights of colour/shape/patterns, the smell of the flora, the roughness and contour of the bark as you touch it and the taste of native fruit. Individual trees can be a source of meditation.
  3. Finding a moment to experience awe in nature – it can be humbling and also increase your sense of connectedness that can lead to increased cooperativeness and compassion. You can learn to breathe with the earth and experience gratitude for all that nature offers as well as for what you have in your life. The sense of awe can be experienced within you own backyard or in a mindful garden walk through a botanical garden. Heather recommends the guided awe walk as another way to access the benefits of nature.

As we grow in mindfulness through being in, and closely observing nature, we can enhance our outer awareness and achieve calm, well-being and awe. The healing powers of nature generally, and trees in particular, are well-researched and documented. We can discover these benefits by exploring different ways to access nature, whether in our neighbourhood or in a forest or a botanical garden.

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Image: Manly Foreshore, Moreton Bay, Queensland, taken on 2 July 2019

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

How To View Stress to Improve Health and Happiness

Kelly McGonigal presented a talk on How to Make Stress Your Friend that challenged the way we think about stress and the bodily response to stress. Her talk could have been subtitled, How to think about stress to improve your longevity. Kelly draws on research that demonstrates how we think about stress can impact negatively or positively on our physical and mental health during the experience of stress and beyond.

How we can view our bodily responses to stress

When we experience stress our bodies respond in predictable ways. Our heart may be racing or pounding, we tend to breathe faster, and we can break out into a sweat. How we view these bodily responses to stress determines the short-term and long-term effects of stress on our wellness, heart condition and longevity.

If we view these bodily responses as a positive response to stress, we are better able to cope with the current stress and future stressors. Kelly argues that our perception of these responses makes all the difference. We can view them as an indication that our body is preparing us and energising us for the perceived challenge that precipitated our stress. World-famous aerialist Nik Wallenda maintains that this positive perception of the bodily stress response enabled him to walk on a tightrope across a 400 metre gap in the Grand Canyon.

Kelly argues that we should view the pounding heart as readying us for constructive action; the heightened breathing rate is providing more oxygen to the brain to enable it to function better. The net result of viewing these bodily responses as positive is that we can experience less anxiety in the face of stress and feel more confident in meeting the inherent challenges.

Kelly points out that what is particularly amazing is that instead of the blood vessels in your heart constricting (as they do when you view stress negatively), the blood vessels actually remain relaxed when the bodily stress response is viewed positively. She notes that the relaxation of the blood vessels in the heart is similar to what happens when we experience positive emotions of joy and courage.

Stress makes you more social

One of the key effects of stress is that the pituitary gland in your body increases your level of oxytocin (known as the “cuddle hormone“) which tends to move you to strengthen close social relationships. This facet of the stress response prompts you to seek and give social support. Kelly maintains that your stress response “wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you”. It also stimulates you to reach out and help others in need – which, in turn, can increase your oxytocin levels. Thus stress can help us to accept compassion make us more compassionate.

As we grow in mindfulness, through meditation, research and reflection, we can learn to view our bodily response to stress in a positive light, reduce the negative physical and mental impacts of stress on ourselves and strengthen our commitment to compassionate action.

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Image: Sunrise in Manly, Queensland, taken on 1 July 2019

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

How to Be With Stress Rather Than Avoid It

Dr. Nate Klemp and Eric Langshur provide an interesting perspective on stress management in their article, Being With Stressful Moments Rather Than Avoiding Them. They contend that if we use mindfulness to do away with or avoid stress, we are not being mindful – we are not being with what is. They contend that our beliefs about stress frequently impede our capacity to deal with stress in our lives – our beliefs serve as a disabler rather than an enabler. Nate and Eric suggest a process that enables us to be with the stress rather than avoid it.

Stressors take many forms

There are many stressors that can occur in life through adverse situations, damaging relationships or one-off conversations. What is a stressor for one person may not be for another, partly because of the self-stories that we perpetuate. Our experience of stress varies over time – in one period of our lives, we can be relatively stress-free, while in another we can experience a range of stressors that build up and make us lose our patience and equilibrium.

Stress can arise at home through the suffering of a daughter or son, through conflict in intimate relationships or financial problems impacting our quality of life. Stress can arise at work through job overload, role conflict or ambiguity, conflict with colleagues or dealing with an unskilled manager. Stress is cumulative over time with each form of stress adding to another.

Our limiting beliefs about stress

Nate and Eric identify two primary beliefs that impede our capacity to deal with stress and lead us to try to avoid stress – which is an ever-present reality in our daily lives:

  1. The belief that we should get rid of stress from our lives – that we should always be in a state of ease and wellness. This belief can lead us to use mindfulness meditation to avoid stress rather than engage it as it is happening. The authors suggest that denying or trying to remove stress is not being mindful because mindfulness involves being “with whatever is arising, pleasurable, painful, comfortable, or uncomfortable” – not denying what is happening in our thoughts, feelings and bodily experience.
  2. The belief that stress is bad – that is should be avoided at all costs. Research shows that our “stress mindset” can change our experience of stress and that stress, provided it is not chronic, can be good for us because it promotes personal growth, both mentally and physically. Kelly McGonigal suggests ways to make stress our friend.

The combination of these beliefs can aggravate our experience of stress because it can lead us to feel resentful or angry that our sense of ease has been disturbed or destroyed.

Being with stress

Nate and Eric, who are the authors of the book Start Here: Master the Lifelong Habit of Well-Being, offer a process to enable us to be with stress rather than avoid it. They describe this process as Notice-Shift-Rewire:

  • Notice – in common with other meditation practices, their process involves noticing what is. This requires us to be with our full experience – our feelings, our bodily sensations and our thoughts. They particularly focus on the thoughts/mindset relating to “stress aversion” – the desire to be free of all stress.
  • Shift – this requires shifting from judging the experience of stress as “bad” and acknowledging, non-judgmentally, the way we are experiencing the stress.
  • Rewire – staying with what we are experiencing in all its manifestations while letting go of attempts to avoid the stress.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation practices that help us to be with what is, we can develop our capacity to deal with stress, rather than avoid or deny it. The Notice-Shift-Rewire process can help us to be really present to what we are experiencing, more effectively “navigate stress” and build our resilience.

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Image by DanaTentis from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

How to Build Mindfulness into Leadership Development

Wendy Saunders, Senior Member of Leadership Development at YMCA of USA, presented at the recent Mindfulness@Work Summit on the topic, Embedding Mindfulness and Compassion in Leadership Development.  She discussed the principles her organisation employed to build mindfulness into leadership development.  In the process, Wendy identified the challenges the leadership development group encountered along the way and the strategies they employed to overcome them.

YMCA of USA is a diverse, massive organisation comprising women, men and children amongst its 20,000 staff and hundreds of thousands of volunteers.  Besides the central resource centre responsible for activities such as leadership development, there are 2,700 YMCAs spread across the country.  The areas of focus of “the Y” are “youth development, healthy living and social responsibility”.

Wendy explained that YMCA of USA offers layered leadership development programs comprising the following:

  • Executive Development Institute
  • CEO Preparation Institute
  • Leadership Certification courses covering three levels – (1) team leader, (2) multi-team managers and (3) organisational leaders.

The fundamental challenge was how to build mindfulness into ongoing leadership development activities that were built on a “cause-driven leadership” model incorporating experiential learning.

Principles and strategies for building mindfulness into leadership development

During her presentation, Wendy identified some key principles and strategies that helped YMCA of USA integrate mindfulness into the existing suite of leadership development offerings:

  • have patience – a fundamental requirement for success. Wendy explained that the leadership development team had been working for 5 years to get to where they are now with mindfulness integration and they still had a long way to go to achieving the goal of embedding mindfulness into all leadership development programs of YMCA of USA
  • make small insertions – in line with the patience principle, a starting strategy is to make “small insertions” into existing leadership programs, adopting a gradual approach to building mindfulness integration
  • offer short meditations – while experienced meditators practise meditation for 30 minutes or an hour a day, meditations incorporated into leadership development programs should be brief so that they can be experienced as realistic and achievable
  • build on what already exists – e.g. mindfulness was built onto the emotional intelligence focus of the Executive Leadership Institute. This is in line with the approach of the two-day Mindful Leadership training provided by the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute which incorporates the three pillars of mindfulness, emotional intelligence and neuroscience
  • make it experiential so that participants can experience the benefits of mindfulness through different meditations and mindfulness practices
  • offer an introduction to mindfulness workshop on an optional basis and when mindfulness integration is bedded down, make some elements compulsory (e.g. the online Introduction to Mindfulness Workshop is now mandatory for participants in the Executive Development Institute)
  • assist people to discover the “faith inclusive” nature of mindfulness – YMCA of USA set up a task force of people who practise different religions to help them explore the compatibility of mindfulness with their religions
  • offer ongoing related workshops – to enrich the conversations about mindfulness, assist mindfulness practice and encourage reflection
  • match the mindfulness content to the focus and level of the leadership program – e.g. for CEO development the YMCA of USA has focused on mindfulness for creativity to assist CEOs to build a culture of innovation; for the team leader development course they are planning to introduce basic level mindfulness approaches and concepts such as mindful breathing, how to reduce stress and increase productivity, how to build intention
  • complement development courses with extensive resources such as books, articles, podcasts, links to guided meditations, mindfulness blogs.

As leaders in organisation grow in mindfulness through the progressive and carefully planned integration of mindfulness into leadership development programs, the organisation can experience the benefits of improved productivity, increased levels of staff engagement, better organisational integration and improved outcomes for clients and customers.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Can Your Experience Compassion Fatigue?

Kelly McGonigal in her presentation for the Mindful Healthcare Summit challenged the widely held belief that you cannot experience compassion fatigue. Many people contend that compassion fatigue does not occur because the heart is capable of endless kindness and love for others. Kelly maintains that motivation and goodness of heart are not sufficient to prevent the depression and burnout that can result from compassion fatigue. She asserts that compassion has to be supported by adequate self-care if it is to be sustained.

Compassion and the stress response

Kelly argues that compassion is like the stress response when viewed physiologically. Compassion floods the body with hormones such as dopamine and marshals the body’s energy to relieve the suffering of others. However, while this can be very energising and exciting in the short term, compassion takes its toll in the longer term both bodily and mentally, as we do not have endless physical and mental reserves.

The possibility of compassion fatigue can be increased where a helping professional or carer experiences vicarious trauma or moral distress – the latter being defined as being required to do things that clash with a person’s values or moral perspective, a frequently occurring ethical dilemma within the medical profession.

Compassion fatigue

Kelly suggests that compassion fatigue occurs when a person lacks the energy and resources to pursue their motivation to care in such way that it achieves personal satisfaction (activates the reward system). Outcomes achieved fall short of personal expectations and/or the expectations of others, despite the strength of the caring intention. The compassionate person feels exhausted and feels that the more they give the less they experience satisfaction – the gap between input of energy/time and the expected satisfaction increases, leading to burnout. The depletion of energy and satisfaction could be the result of factors outside the helper’s/carer’s control – such as structural blockages, breakdown in information exchange, overwork or under-resourcing.

Compassion needs nourishment

One of the issues that exacerbates the problem of compassion fatigue is the belief in the endless capacity of an individual to be compassionate through the goodness of their heart or the purity of their intentions. As a result of this false belief, helpers/carers fail to take the necessary actions to nourish themselves (and their compassionate action) and/or are reluctant to accept compassion extended to them by others.

Personal nourishment can take many forms – getting adequate sleep, meditation (especially self-compassion meditation), listening to relaxing/inspiring music, prayer (whatever form it takes) or drawing strength and healing from nature. It also requires an openness to receiving compassion from others – challenging false beliefs such as “no one else can do this”, “I will be seen to be weak if I accept help from others”, “I really shouldn’t pander to my own needs by having that short break or having a reasonable period for lunch”, “I can’t afford to become dependent on others for assistance”. Additionally, positive social connection– to offset the tendency to withdraw under extreme stress– is a critical source of self-nourishment.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation our awareness of others’ suffering and our motivation to help are heightened. The capacity for compassionate action is not limitless and needs nourishment. Central to this nourishment is self-compassion.

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Image by DarkWorkX from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.