Mindfulness for Stress & Anxiety

These are certainly strange and unsettling times. In the last three years alone, the way we live has changed dramatically. Many of us have suffered great losses, whether that be the loss of loved ones, the loss of livelihoods or security or just the familiarity of life as we knew it. As a result, many of us are thought to be living with psychological distress and extreme levels of stress and anxiety. The stress bucket model which was developed in 2002 by Professor Alison Brabban and Dr Douglas Turkington is a useful analogy to help us look at what happens when stress builds up.

The Stress Bucket Analogy

Whilst stress and anxiety are normal responses to the uncertainty we are experiencing, we now know that the damage caused by chronic (long-term) anxiety and stress includes a whole host of physical problems including an increased risk of a heart attack, cancer, stroke, weight gain, memory loss, chronic fatigue syndrome as well as digestive and sleep problems, and is also known to induce or exacerbate mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety-related disorders. 

In response, healthcare professionals are increasingly recommending mindfulness practice to help combat stress, depression, and anxiety.

Whilst not all stress is bad, in fact in small doses it can be a great motivator especially when the stress is short term and has a purpose, for example the stress leading up to a wedding or a job interview. In the appropriate situations, stress can be desirable If you are confronted by a very challenging situation you need stress, which is when your body releases neuropeptides and triggers what scientists call a fight or flight response and this can drive positive and powerful action. 

As we see in the Stress Bucket analogy stress only becomes a problem when we become overloaded. It’s at this point when are nervous systmes become flooded with fight-or-flight chemicals and as your body can’t tell the difference between what is a real stress (like being chased by an animal) and what is imagined (like worrying over something you said at work that day), as a result much of your stress isn’t caused by what is really happening here and now but is caused by what is going on in your mind; thinking about the awful things that might happen, running nightmare scenarios or dealing with mind-created problems which might never happen.

Here’s how it works – Something triggers the anxiety and your thinking mind starts to worry, the anxious thoughts cause your body to create stress chemicals, which in turn adds to the stress, which in turn makes the thoughts more anxious and causes more stress.

It’s a vicious circle that can totally ruin your quality of life, it doesn’t just make you miserable it damages your health too. The human body is not designed to be under constant stress, it builds up in the cellular memory, weakens the immune system and can cause illness and disease. Researchers are now estimating that up to 90% of physical illnesses are in some way stress-related. 

So how does mindfulness help anxiety and stress?  Mindfulness works in a number of ways. It encourages us to open up and accept our emotions. As a result, we are better able to identify, experience, and process our emotions. Mindfulness also encourages us to see things from different perspectives. For example, if your husband is short with you, you might worry that you’ve done something to upset him. If you are able to distance yourself from your immediate response of being hurt, you might remember that your spouse mentioned a hard day at work, and perhaps he was short with you because he’s tired and stressed out. This new interpretation could alleviate some of your anxious thoughts and negative feelings. 

Studies have shown that practising mindfulness, even for just a few short weeks, can reduce stress and bring about a variety of psychological, physical and social benefits. Below are some of these benefits and a list of key research papers for further reading. If you are struggling with stress and are looking for solutions, here is a link to my next Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course and how to work with me 1:1.

Benefits of Mindfulness

These benefits are backed by rigorous scientific research, see links below for further reading and links to relevant research.

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Reduces stress levels and increases our ability to respond to stressors instead of habitually reacting

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Relieves the symptoms of a range of anxiety disorders including social anxiety

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Helps reduce the likelihood of the re-occurrence of depression

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Relieves the symptoms of a range of anxiety disorders including social anxiety

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Boosts our immune system’s ability to fight off illness

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Helps us become aware of, and manage our emotions more effectively

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Lowers our heart rate and blood pressure which is thought to reduce the risk of heart attacks

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Helps us become aware of and manage our emotions more effectively

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Increases our sense of wellbeing

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Helps us become aware of our negative habits and helps us develop more positive ones

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Re-wires our brains (neuroplasticity) in areas linked to learning, memory, emotion regulation and empathy

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Improves our relationships and reduces feelings of loneliness

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Enhances our creativity and problem solving skills

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Re-wires our brains (neuroplasticity) in areas linked to learning, memory, emotion regulation and empathy

Key Research Papers
  • The Effect of Mindfulness-Based Therapy on Anxiety and Depression: A Meta-Analytic Review https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2848393/
  • Mindfulness-based stress reduction for stress management in healthy people: a review and meta-analysis https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19432513/
  • Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits. A meta-analysis https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15256293/
  • Meditation, mindfulness and executive control: the importance of emotional acceptance and brain-based performance monitoring https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22507824/
  • Effects of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) on Emotion Regulation in Social Anxiety Disorder https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4203918/
  • Now Does Mindfulness Meditation Work? Proposing Mechanisms of Action From a Conceptual and Neural Perspective https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1745691611419671
  • Neural correlates of attentional expertise in long-term meditation practitioners https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.0606552104
  • Stepping out of history: Mindfulness improves insight problem solving https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22483682/
  • Meditate to create: The Impact of  Focused attention and Open-monitoring meditation on Convergent and Divergent Thinking https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3328799/
  • Effectiveness of a meditation-based stress reduction program in the treatment of anxiety disorders. Kabat-Zinn J, Massion AO, Kristeller J, Peterson LG, Fletcher KE, Pbert L, Lenderking WR, Santorelli SF. Am J Psychiatry. 1992 Jul;149(7):936-43. doi: 10.1176/ajp.149.7.936. PMID: 1609875.
  • Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Hölzel BK, Carmody J, Vangel M, Congleton C, Yerramsetti SM, Gard T, Lazar SW. Psychiatry Res. 2011 Jan 30;191(1):36-43. doi: 10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006. Epub 2010 Nov 10. PMID: 21071182; PMCID: PMC3004979.
  • The efficacy of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy as a public mental health intervention for adults with mild to moderate depressive symptomatology: a randomized controlled trial. Pots WT, Meulenbeek PA, Veehof MM, Klungers J, Bohlmeijer ET.PLoS One. 2014 Oct 15;9(10):e109789. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0109789. PMID: 25333885; PMCID: PMC4198116.
  • Intensive meditation training improves perceptual discrimination and sustained attention. MacLean KA, Ferrer E, Aichele SR, Bridwell DA, Zanesco AP, Jacobs TL, King BG, Rosenberg EL, Sahdra BK, Shaver PR, Wallace BA, Mangun GR, Saron CD.Psychol Sci. 2010 Jun;21(6):829-39. doi: 10.1177/0956797610371339. Epub 2010 May 11. PMID: 20483826; PMCID: PMC3132583.

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