Beat Stress with Mindful Awareness
What is mindful awareness? It is, at heart, a catch-all term for many activities that emphasize focus on your physical, mental and emotional being. Yoga, various forms of meditation, tai chi, positive visualization, and different kinds of therapy all have in common the goal of quieting the mind, paying attention to the body, and restoring the spirit. That may sound unscientific, or even antiscientific, when in fact the scientific evidence for the benefits of mindful awareness practices are growing by the day.
Group Therapy: One of the most stressed out populations in the modern world, military combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, were found to benefit from a group therapy structure that required them to share their experiences with other vets. Groups of 9 to 11 troops spent a total of 60 or more hours together over 18 weeks, discussing their wartime memories and other aspects of their lives. Each gave two 2 ½-hour talks about their experience, and listened to recordings of their presentations 10 times. An impressive 81 percent of participants showed “clinically significant improvement” in stress symptoms after the group experience, an effect that remained steady six months after the group adjourned. For some, just hearing that others had frozen under fire or felt helpless alleviated the guilt or shame they had felt about doing the same. The power of group counseling is often in discovering that others who have faced the same kind of stress you face have found ways to cope, and are working to improve, just as you are.
Meditation: In a study, 133 healthy adults volunteered to learn meditation techniques to reduce stress. They took a variety of mood and psychological assessments. Then they learned a simple meditation technique involving focusing on a single, meaningful word, called a mantra. The students met four times for one hour each meeting in small groups, and were instructed to practice the meditation for 15-20 minutes twice a day.
After the instruction period, student scores on the mood and psychological assessments improved. Their perceived stress, mood states, anxiety inventory and brief symptom inventory scores all improved. Those who had practiced most frequently had the greatest improvement.
Yoga: Emotionally distressed women volunteered to participate in a 3-month yoga program to relieve stress. The subjects took multiple assessment tools to measure their perceived stress, anxiety, mood, relative depression, well-being, physical status and more. Their levels of salivary cortisol, the stress hormone, were also measured. They met twice a week for a 90-minute Iyengar yoga class. Compared with volunteers who had been put on a waiting list for the class, the yoga students showed pronounced improvements in all of the assessment areas measured. Their cortisol levels dropped after participation in a class, and those who had suffered from headache or back pain reported significant pain relief.
Choosing a Practice: Mindful awareness is about your individual mind, stressors and lifestyle. Find an approach that appeals to you, and see if you can sit in on a class or group meeting before committing to an intervention. The medical establishment has not always accepted the notion that some of these practices could improve your health and longevity. But all of that is changing in the face of compelling research about the connections between the mind and body.