Understanding Stress & Mental Fitness: Techniques for Building Resilience (Guest Post)
Posted on Friday, October 8th, 2010
Fr. Stephen, MSC/Flickr
Corporate and other wellness programs primarily focus on aspects of physical health, but mental fitness is an area worth exploring. While it may be hard to imagine we can directly affect this aspect of our being, current studies reveal that we have much more control than previously thought when it comes to brain health.
The four main pillars of brain health are physical fitness, proper nutrition, stress management and mental stimulation. This article is concerned with the third pillar, stress management, which is not overlooked but is often misunderstood. We know that long-term stress contributes to heart disease, depressed immune function, digestive problems and back and neck pain, but we now know that stress also kills neurons and is one of the most damaging factors to brain health, affecting crucial functions of memory and mental performance. This makes an even more compelling case for alleviating it.
One of the key aspects of stress management is helping people understand that not all stress is bad. This may seem obvious, but the truth is, stress has such a bad rap that people often don’t understand that it serves an important role in helping us to achieve our goals, as well as save our lives in the rare instances when we may be truly threatened.
But understanding “good” and “bad” stress is not enough. Because we are all wired differently and have unique ways of coping (or not coping), helping people understand their unique stressors is crucial to any successful stress management program. People know that uninterrupted stress over a long period of time has damaging implications for health, but most are unaware of the myriad and subtle ways stress presents itself in their lives until they think about it objectively. Emotional, behavioral and physical responses to stress: these are just a few of the areas that can be examined and provide valuable clues to a person’s unique stress response.
Once stressors are better understood, people can choose from a variety of techniques that can literally stop stress in its tracks. These include breathing practices, movement and other forms of exercise, and progressive relaxation.
One of the most effective ways to combat stress and build lifelong resilience is meditation. But meditation is often misunderstood. A big misconception is that it’s for people who are not fully engaged in the world. Many people roll their eyes at the mention of the word and think that they need to be secreted away in a cave or otherwise withdrawn from society to practice. Or they think that meditation is a fad or “New Age.” These practices come to us from Asian traditions (India, Japan and China), and they are far from new: they have existed for centuries.
For those of us who don’t aspire to lead an ascetic life (most of us), meditation prepares us to be in the world and to approach life with energy, balance and creativity. Modern science has been putting meditation to the test for years. Studies show dramatic and effective results in its countering stress and improving cognitive functions such as attention. In a 2007 study by Posner, participants practicing IBMT – a form of body-mind meditation – showed not only improved attention but reduced cortisol levels. This is significant because it’s the continuous elevation of cortisol that contributes to impaired cognitive performance, blood sugar imbalances, higher blood pressure and lowered immunity. An April 2003 study cited in Psychology Today reports that meditators experienced significant improvements in mental health, productivity, being less bothered by external stressors and feeling more successful.
So how do you find a method of meditation that’s appropriate? What may be beneficial for one person can truly be harmful to another. If one kind of meditation doesn’t seem accessible, a qualified teacher can guide you towards an appropriate technique.
Unfortunately, many people begin a meditation practice and give up after a short period of time. This can often be attributed to a teacher who insists that students meditate in a certain way. A private client I work with was so irritated after attending a workshop in which the teacher shamed her so much for not “doing it correctly,” she experienced more stress from the class that she did from the original stressor! It took her time to be willing to try again and find a technique that worked for her.
There are many different types of meditation: concentration, mindfulness, visualization, open-eye, laughter and breathing, to name a few. Surprising to some, meditation is not necessarily a sedentary practice. In fact, for people who find a seated meditation difficult, moving practices like walking a labyrinth or tai chi can be very effective.
Using visualization or imagery techniques are closely related to meditative practices and are also effective in reducing stress. As in meditation, imagery exercises are best if they are geared to the individual. For instance, if you don’t swim, a guided imagery practice that places you in the sea or a body of water (however idyllic) would potentially be stressful.
While practicing visualization, taking time to experience all the senses (sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch) can be extremely powerful and restorative. People practicing imagery techniques, even for the first time, are often surprised at the ability of their minds to transport them far away.
One of the most effective ways to learn meditation or visualization is in a group setting, over a period of time, meeting at least once a week for 4 to 6 weeks. People undergo different challenges (internal and external) when they are beginning a daily practice, and coming together one a week to discuss their experiences allows them to feel less isolated while building good habits.
In the corporate world, many forward-thinking companies have dedicated “quiet rooms” in places of work, where employees can go during a break to spend a few minutes meditating or practicing visualization techniques. This kind of brief but empowering respite from our busy lives becomes even more valuable as we find it increasingly challenging to unplug from technology. Taking a few moments to refresh gives people more vigor and new insights when they reenter their workspace.
As with any new practice, starting small is advised. Just a few minutes a day can start one on a path towards life long practice. The practice of meditation requires consistency over a period of time, but the rewards in increased resilience and wellbeing are significant.
– Jaymie Meyer, CWP, ERYT-500
An earlier version of this article was published in the March 2010 issue of Corporate Wellness Magazine.
Jaymie Meyer, CWP, ERYT-500, is a wellness educator with certifications in stress management, bereavement counseling, yoga therapy and Ayurveda. She is also a Reiki Master. Her company, Resilience for Life®, has been delivering wellness programs for over 9 years at work sites and educational institutions including the National Institutes for Health (NIH), Coby Electronics Corporation, Columbia University, IBM, Jewish Guild for the Blind and Martha Stewart Living. She is an on-going faculty member at Yogaville’s Integral Yoga Academy, teaching the Stress Management TT each summer. In February, she will be participating in the YogaHub’s 2nd Virtual World Yoga Conference. To coincide with the conference, Jaymie will be releasing a full length CD on breathing practices that help individuals increase energize and reduce stress. She is a member of NWI, NSA, IYTA and IAYT. Website: www.resilienceforlife.com