So many people — clients, co-workers, family, friends —say they’re under too much stress. Are you?According to the APA’s 2013 Stress in America survey, 42% of adults say their stress has increased over the past 5 years. Managing stress is vital to well-being, and a critical part of any behavior change attempt. I’ve seen many people stumble in weight-loss, physical activity, or tobacco cessation attempts during times of high stress. I coach my clients to try a variety of techniques to reduce stress, and develop personal tool kits to keep stress at manageable levels.Last year, I added a new tool to my own kit.Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) has been around for ages, but in my opinion, it always sounded a little nebulous. Meditation, yoga, breathing, — all good; just a little too sandals-and-candles for me.But research about the health benefits of MBSR became very compelling — reduced blood pressure, inflammation, and chronic pain; decreased anxiety and depression; the list goes on.And then both my kids became teenagers. So, last spring I immersed myself in an 8-week MBSR class at a local hospital, hoping to reduce my own stress — and to share new insights with my clients.Each class opened and closed with a seated meditation, during which Dr. W. — a neurologist — guided us through breathing and body awareness, soothing thoughts, and brief poetry selections. He assured us that getting distracted is normal — and to simply return to the breath whenever that happened. We learned a body scan, basic yoga poses, and walking meditations, and were instructed to see what we liked best — and build a personal meditation practice of 45-60 minutes a day by the end of the course.
Dr. W. taught us that the mind is like a river full of thoughts and emotions. Mindfulness is like standing on the riverbank and observing the thoughts and emotions as they float by instead of getting carried away with them; choosing which ones to respond to instead of reacting to everything we think and feel. We learned about how the body, thoughts, and emotions all influence each other. Mindful awareness of these processes enabled us to intentionally respond to them in ways that reduced stress.Each week, we were assigned daily meditation homework. Halfway through the course, my family noticed I was in a better mood and more calm. They became oddly cooperative in granting me as much undisturbed meditation practice as I needed. My classmates reported big reductions in blood pressure, anger, family conflict, and need for pain medications.For me, self-compassion has been my biggest reward. Like many, I can be pretty hard on myself — expecting too much and being too quick to judge and criticize. Practicing MBSR has helped me to treat myself — and others — with more kindness and acceptance, and that works wonders for my stress level and sense of well-being.I wholeheartedly endorse MBSR as a way to cope with stress and enhance your quality of life. It’s not a cure-all, but it’s definitely worth exploring. I’m not meditating every day — but I’m working on it. And that’s OK.I learned more from my class than I can share in a blog post, but I encourage you to learn more on your own. If you’re already practicing MBSR, we’d love to hear what it’s doing for you.May you feel joy; may you be at peace; may you be well.Beth Shepard, MS, ACSM-RCEP, ACE-PT, has a master’s degree in Exercise Physiology from the University of Arizona. Beth is an expert in fitness and health promotion and a certified wellness coach, helping people thrive by adopting sustainable lifestyle changes. She and her family love to hike, bicycle, and try new sports.