The month of April is Stress Awareness Month which has been held since 1992. A quick quote from their own site;
“According to the Mental Health Foundation, 74% of UK adults have felt so stressed at some point over the last year they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope.
Millions of us around the UK are experiencing high levels of stress and it is damaging our health. Stress is one of the great public health challenges of our time, but it still isn’t being taken as seriously as physical health concerns. Stress is a significant factor in mental health problems including anxiety and depression. It is also linked to physical health problems like heart disease, problems with our immune system, insomnia and digestive problems. Individually we need to understand what is causing us personal stress and learn what steps we can take to reduce it for ourselves and those around us.”
Here at Patients Know Best, it is our mission to help people not only manage their health but to increase their health and wellbeing by taking ownership of the information and processes that help them.
As part of Stress Awareness Month, the Stress Management Society suggest that people share their stress coping mechanisms and so, I have been given this opportunity to share mine. So who am I? I’m Lloyd and I have worked at Patients Know Best for over 4 years now but many years before that I qualified as a Hypnotherapist, Life Coach and NLP Master Practitioner. That qualification came about through my interest in meditation and other mental processes that can help and improve your outlook and ability to deal with what life throws at you. Unsurprisingly, the coping mechanism I want to share for this month is utilising Meditation and in particular ‘Mindfulness Meditation’.
Distributed working can be stressful as it is, with the ease at which work and pressure can intrude throughout the day unless you put mechanisms and processes into place. Add to that a global pandemic with limited personal contact and other restrictions and life can become even more stressful. As a result of this, and my experience in helping to alleviate stress and other life circumstances, I put the suggestion out to my colleagues of a meditation group if anybody was interested. As a result we now have a dedicated time every week day morning where we can set aside 10 minutes of the day for meditation.
Our morning meditation group have provided their feedback which I have shared with you throughout.
What is meditation?
The concept of meditation is very often misunderstood. Quite often it is thought of as a way of trying to control your mind by stopping thoughts, or negative emotions. Instead it is the contrary and is more about accepting our thoughts and emotions as part of the everyday.
I’m super pleased to know that it doesn’t have to involve “emptying the mind”.
Meditation is about noticing them without judgement. It is about just being aware of our thoughts and feelings as and when they happen. It’s about allowing ourselves to see the present moment clearly and just noticing what’s happening in our head at that time. Our brain is designed to have thoughts and to think things through, so we are not trying to stop that from happening. We are just looking to make the most of that process and allowing ourselves time to understand what is actually going on. By being able to take note of what is happening, as it is happening, we can make a conscious decision to allow those thoughts to continue and reflect on how they affect us at that given moment. In this way we can notice if our thoughts are negative and, if they are negative, decide how we choose to respond to them. We can acknowledge those thoughts and just allow them to pass or we can take note of them and think about what they mean and how we can change the reason behind why we are having them.
If we allow it to, it can become easy to no longer see the world around us and lose touch with what’s happening with our thoughts, emotions and our body. The world just hurtles past at frightening speeds and we begin to feel out of control and unable to do anything about it. Mindfulness gives us a way to see exactly what is happening, both inside and out, moment by moment no matter what our current emotional or physical state is. Just by noticing this, we can already start to make a difference and regain that control.
The ‘sciency’ bit
Although meditation has been around for a long time, it is only recently started to be studied properly. I say ‘recently’ in the perspective of how long meditation has been with us. This scientific study actually started as far back as 1975 when Herbert Benson started scientific research into meditation. (Benson was the director of the Benson Henry Institute for mind-body medicine in Massachusetts General Hospital). Since then, various studies have been done over the years but it is only in the last decade or so that these studies have become more numerous.
It is also the last few decades that have allowed us to actually see what is happening in the brain and how meditation actually makes physical and recordable changes to the way our brains work. In 2012 Dr Desbordes not only demonstrated these changes using fMIR (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging), but also recognised that the changes continue in the brain after the meditation session.
There have been several studies specifically looking at the mental health benefits that Mindfulness Meditation provides. Most people agree that they have a renewed sense of calm as well as an increased awareness, clarity and sense of compassion. One study showed that with just one session of meditation participants found that their mind wanders 22% less than previously noted. These benefits are increased, according to another study, with prolonged practice meditation increasing focus by 14%.
It is generally a great way to start working. Slows you down and it is easier not to be overwhelmed by all the stuff you’ll have to face that day.
Even more than just increasing focus, several studies have looked at the easing of symptoms of anxiety and depression. Google and Roche published a study in which participants meditated every day for 8 weeks and found that they reported a reduction in anxiety by 31% and depression by 46%. It has also been found to improve mental resilience with an increase of 11% seen by participants of another study.
The reduction in stress and anxiety is hardly surprising when we start training ourselves to stop being lost in our thoughts and become more aware of what is happening in the moment. It allows us to recognise what is happening and remove the negative connotations our thoughts and emotions can have. This allows us to have more control over how we deal with those thoughts. This also provides an additional benefit to those around us as those of us who meditate have been shown to increase positive emotions by 16% and compassion for others by 21%.
What can be surprising is the real physical connection and change that Mindfulness Meditation brings about. It has been shown, through various imaging studies, that the brain physically changes during, and as a result of, a daily practice. The Amygdala can be seen to shrink and this controls traits such as fear, stress and anxiety, which also reduce as a result. Research also shows that grey matter and the cortical thickness within the brain increase with meditation. These parts of the brain are responsible for emotional regulation, learning and memory, among other things.
Additional physical benefits come as a result of the reduction of stress brought about by meditation. Stress is a major part of modern life, especially as we ride the Coronacoaster* of 2020/21, as it stimulates the sympathetic nervous system releasing stress hormones into the body. By being able to relax the body and reduce stress in the mind, the parasympathetic nervous system becomes stimulated, stopping the release of stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine as seen in a study by the University of California. By reducing these hormones the body in turn lowers oxygen consumption, heart rate and blood pressure. All these things reduce the risk of various health conditions including heart attacks and strokes.
I have noticed I can now bring my attention to my breathing when I’m in situations where my head is struggling to focus. I use the methods we have learnt to help me get back to sleep when I wake up in the night.
Even though this is all very promising, it should be noted that meditation alone is no panacea and should always be practiced in conjunction with, rather than instead of, any other medical practices for your health.
How to do it
So with all that in mind, how exactly do you practice Mindfulness Meditation?
The process of meditation is really straightforward and can be broken down as follows;
- Getting ready – Find a time and place that allows you to be as comfortable as possible. It is ok if there are going to be small distractions as these can be incorporated into your practice. Make sure you are seated and sitting up and allow your head and shoulders to rest comfortably. Let your hands rest on top of your legs and relax your arms by your side.
- Breathing – Let yourself become aware of your surroundings but without concentrating on anything specific. Let your focus be soft and general while you allow any sounds in the area to happen. While you are doing this you can let your attention move to your breathing, acknowledging the gentle rise and fall of your chest and just let it happen naturally.
- Keeping focus – You will naturally have thoughts intruding while you are meditating and that is absolutely fine. Just acknowledge them as they come and let them float by like clouds in the sky. When you find that your attention has been taken by a thought then just allow your focus to come back to your breathing. Use your breath as an anchor to the current moment and if you need any additional help, count each in and out breath. Breathing in, 1, and Exhaling, 2. Count to ten and then start again.
- Take your time – Set aside a specific amount of time and use a timer or audio track to let you know when that time is finished.
- That’s it.
Now that sounds really easy, however the practice can actually be challenging sometimes so here are a few things to help you out.
Remembering what it is we are trying to do.
It is easy to forget the purpose of Mindfulness Meditation which is to develop an awareness of the now. To recognise when we are getting caught up in our thoughts and being distracted and instead to focus on the moment.
It is completely normal for the mind to jump from one thing to another when we start our meditation practice. As we progress we quickly learn to recognise this happening and become more aware of the thoughts and what they are doing. We are definitely not trying to stop our thoughts from happening but by anchoring ourselves, using our breath, we can learn to let them come and go, the same for our emotions.
Meditating does take some time getting used to but if you can acknowledge that thoughts are really just thoughts passing by and just to be mindful of them. The experience is interesting as you focus on the mind.
Finding the time
It is always easy to let things slip but if we don’t do, we don’t get, well that is what I tell the kids. Seriously though, as with anything in life, you need to set some time aside and be dedicated to using that time for your mediation practice. It has been shown through research that it only takes 21 days to intentionally form a new habit. Just don’t overthink it. Easily finding a place and time of the day to start your Meditation practice means you have something to prioritise. It has also been found that more frequent meditation is more important than the length of time each session lasts for. Sticking to 10 minutes a day is so much better than doing one extra long session in the week. By practicing daily you will also quickly become much more comfortable with the process, letting you become more present in the moment. It will also let you realise that, as with anything, some days will require much less effort than others, and that is alright.
One of the ways to overcome the initial hurdle of finding time to practice, is to get together with others and commit to a time together. Of course under current circumstances meeting in person isn’t possible, and as a distributed company anyway, the sessions are all run through video calls. There doesn’t have to be strong pressure to turn up every day but just knowing others will be there does make it so much easier. That is one of the reasons why we started the meditation group at Patients Know Best. In creating the group, I created short 10 minute guided meditations that attendees can follow along with. But as with attendance there is no pressure to follow the latest audio. In fact some attendees have found their own favourite audio and that is the one they use. Others within the company can’t attend the morning sessions and so take the audios and practice at a time they can make. The point being that your mediation practice should be as flexible as possible for you, just make sure it is consistent.
As mentioned above, I created audio recordings to guide others through the process of meditation and, to help with stress awareness month, we are making them available for you to get started. Bear in mind they are not professional recordings but everyone taking part has found them helpful. Feel free to use them in your own meditation practice or to get started with it. If you would prefer something a little more professional, there are several apps and programs you can sign up to for your phone and online.
I hope by sharing one of the ways we deal with stress here at Patients Know Best it helps you with your own journey managing it.
*Coronacoaster. n. The feeling of uncertainty, anxiety, and helplessness surveying news and information concerning humankind’s possible demise from covid-19.