Have you ever found yourself saying, ‘I’m so stressed!’
Yes? Me too! We are not alone. Stress and anxiety, particularly in the workplace, are fast becoming leading global health problems. The UK Mental Health Foundation said recently that 74 per cent of UK adults have felt so stressed at some point over the last year they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. And a 2017 report from the Centre for Economic and Business Research found that workplace absence was costing the UK economy £18 bn in lost productivity, with a predicted increase to £21 bn in 2020 and £26 bn in 2030. That doesn’t sound good for employers or the working population.
So what is stress? We often convince ourselves that feeling overly stressed is part of life and that we should just soldier on and pull ourselves together. But although some stress is normal, life doesn’t have to feel overwhelming. Your stress is completely within your control if you have the right tools to deal with it.
Modern life is frantic at times; there is always so much to do and to achieve, to plan and to worry about. Stress has many causes, but at its heart stress is simply the reaction we have to challenging situations, whatever those situations may be. If we experience high levels of stress frequently, it can lead to burnout, impacting not only how effective we are but also how happy we are.
I have struggled with workplace stress. It affected my ability to feel joy, caused sleep problems, lowered my cognitive performance and social energy, and negatively impacted those around me. Realising this wasn’t the life I wanted, I had to reassess how I was coping with the challenges of daily life. And wanting to change is the first step to a happier existence.
I realised I was racing about physically and mentally; jumping from one thing to the next like a box of mad frogs, never really being still or in a place of calm. With that in mind, I would like to ask you, ‘When was the last time you sat back, did nothing, and just breathed for ten minutes? Perhaps five minutes … two minutes … 30 seconds?’ When I ask my clients this, they often say they don’t have time to be still; they have too much to do, and their minds are too busy to slow down. And why would they want to think about breathing? Doesn’t that happen naturally? But I then ask, ‘Is the frantic nature of your life serving you, or are you just feeling exhausted?’ More often than not the answer is, ‘I’m exhausted, a lot.’
Here steps in the marvel of mindfulness …
I discovered mindfulness over 13 years ago, and it has changed my life. It really is that powerful. It has strengthened my resilience to life’s stresses, enabled me to become more self-compassionate (we all have that inner critic, right?), improved my sleep, enhanced my general well-being and developed my ability to make wiser choices. It has even brought a relaxed, focused mind to moment-to-moment activities like the washing up or making a cup of tea. Overall, I am calmer, happier, and more engaged – so much so that I now run my own business and am able to deliver talks to large groups of people about something I have a great passion for. I would never have thought in a million years that I could have spoken to an audience of 60 at a recent global corporate well-being event. Mindfulness has clearly improved my confidence and self-esteem.
Too good to be true? Well, I was very sceptical 13 years ago. Perhaps you have an image of a bunch of hippies sitting on a cushion being a bit woo-woo and other-worldly. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Although mindfulness has its roots in Eastern meditation, the way it is practised and taught in the West is evidence-based, secular, psycho-educational, and backed by scientific research. It is used by the NHS, in business globally, in schools, and by the public sector, to name a few.
I recently ran a course where the participants completed a pre- and post-course evaluation. Stress was down by 10 per cent, focus up by 20 per cent, creativity up by 31 per cent, and the quality of working relationships up by 10 per cent. Continued daily mindfulness practice would ensure stress levels decreased sustaining the behavioural change the organisation needed.
So what is mindfulness? Over 90 per cent of our reactions are subconscious, unconscious or just habit. Through the formal practice of mindfulness, you can identify unhelpful and automatic patterns you may be repeating which are increasing your levels of anxiety. You can learn new ways to respond rather than react, engaging with the present moment in the true sense of the word; no repeating patterns, no looking back and regretting perceived mistakes, no looking forward and worrying about the future. You can make wiser choices for a happier, healthier life that you control. Like any new skill, it takes practice and commitment.
So my next question is, ‘Do you want to feel calmer, more focused, happier, and have the ability to make wiser choices and enhance your general well-being?’ If your answer is yes, as mine was 13 years ago, then I highly recommend you give mindfulness a go.
Try this short exercise for starters:
Sit in an upright, comfortable position on a chair or lying on a bed if you prefer. Close your eyes and focus on the breath around the nostrils. Notice the warm air as it enters the nostrils and the cooler air as it leaves. There is no need to breathe differently; your body knows exactly how to breathe. Each time your mind wanders into thinking or planning or worrying, bring it back to the breath around the nostrils. Do this for a couple of minutes to centre your mind and bring calm to your body.
How was that? Difficult? Don’t worry, it always feels challenging the first time, perhaps even a bit strange. Maybe you are thinking, ‘I can’t do this. This isn’t for me.’ This is a common response. It’s not until you really get into the guided exercises and understand the psychological principles of stress, and the stress response, that you can adopt a regular practice. The benefits are multiple, and ultimately it is a commitment to your well-being and overall happiness.
It is worth bearing in mind that mindfulness isn’t a quick fix, but along with healthy eating and exercise, the practice of mindfulness and mindful communities in the workplace and beyond are what we need right now to enable our stressed population to cope better with the demands of daily life, and hopefully decrease some of those worrying statistics about our stressed population.