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What is Mindfulness?

Measure and Respond to Stress when Living a Mindful Life

When beginning the process of getting back in control of your stress, the first step is to record your levels of stress for a few weeks. Use the following table to get you started this week and see what you discover. A sample entry is provided for you.

Recording My Stress Levels
Date and Time Cause of Stress Level of Stress on a Scale 1–10 Body Sensations Noticed Emotions Felt (and Where in Body) Thoughts Arising How You Managed the Stress
Tues. morning Having to do all the housework 8/10 Tense shoulders and jaw Irritation, frustration. Tense shoulders. Husband should have helped out yesterday evening. I’ve got too much to do. I’m late for work. Nothing much. I just carried on with the work but felt annoyed.

Having filled in the worksheet for one week, consider the following questions:

  • What patterns did you notice about your stress?

  • What were your most helpful ways of managing the stress?

In mindfulness, there is a clear distinction between reacting and responding to situations:

  • Reaction: An automatic thought and action to an event in your life (for example, a source of stress).

  • Response: Where you reflect for a moment and make a conscious choice about your behavior in a particular situation.

Victor Frankl puts it well:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

The stimulus can be a situation causing you stress or perhaps just a stress-inducing thought. If you’re not mindful of the space between the stimulus and your response, the result is an automatic reaction. If your automatic reactions to situations are unhealthy, you may well feel even more stressed.

To reduce your stress, notice the gap between the cause of your stress and your reaction. Imagine for a moment that a friend meets up with you and has forgotten your birthday. An unmindful reaction may be along the following:

  • Automatic thoughts: ‘He should have remembered! How rude!’

  • Feelings: Anger, frustration, disgust.

  • Body sensations: Rapid beating of heart; raised temperature.

  • Action may be: To ignore your friend for a few days, or to lash out with angry words.

A mindful response to the same situation, however, may result in a different situation:

  • Having the initial automatic thought: ‘That’s so rude!’ together with its associated feelings and bodily sensations.

  • Noticing the space: The moment before you react automatically by saying something.

  • Practicing mindfulness: Awareness of the thoughts popping into your head and telling yourself, ‘That’s just a thought.’ You may also recall, say, that your friend has been really stressed with his house move recently, and so may have forgotten for that reason. You apply your own inner wisdom.

  • Making a mindful choice about how to respond most effectively: You may stop and feel a few breaths, or do a mini breathing space meditation. You feel the sensation of anger in your body, together with your breathing.

    You see your thoughts as just thoughts – not necessarily facts. You then reflect, ‘Is it worth getting angry over this? I’ve forgotten friends’ birthdays before. And he’s so busy at work at the moment.’ You may still choose to be angry, but you can also make a choice to respond by simply reminding your friend, or dropping a few hints!

Your emotional reaction is based on your interpretation of events, not the event itself at all. Events need to be interpreted before the stress response is switched on.

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