Wellness Wednesday: Surfing with Stress on the Mindfulness Surfboard

By Dr. Lavanya Devdas

Stress: This deceptively simple six-letter word can help us gear up in preparation for an optimal performance. In contrast, when stress becomes a prolonged guest in our lives, our once-optimal performance now becomes impaired.

Why does this happen? When we deal with any task at hand, we have a preconceived set of thoughts that inform our responses to that task. For instance, when we’re assigned a task, what’s the first thing we do? We assess the intensity, duration and difficulty level of the task. Next, depending on our current resources, including availability of time and energy, we go on “autopilot” and respond with our set of preconceived thoughts, including “I can never get this done” or “this is crazy, I don’t know what I’m doing here” or “I am not sure if I should even be in this class.”

Notice anything? Yes, a set of thoughts on autopilot that are likely to repeat themselves in a cyclical manner, enough to deplete our mental, emotional and psychological resources to the thinnest. Now imagine actually starting to plan for how we are going to accomplish the assigned task. Well, we just spent our resources on autopilot, where we automatically resort to a script that regularly gets activated during times of perceived stress. So we are already exhausted.

What now? This is where the concept of mindfulness comes into being. Mindfulness is an approach to being fully aware, present and paying attention to the present moment as it unfolds. It keeps us from skipping into the future or back peddling into the past. It’s about what’s happening for us in the moment.

Mindfulness is about stepping back from the future or stepping forward from the past to experience the present as it is. It means asking ourselves in the moment, “What am I noticing right now, what are my thoughts (e.g., I notice that I have thoughts of self-doubt right now), feelings (e.g, I notice that I am feeling anxious right now), and sensations? (I notice that my body feels tight, or tense right now).”

You might say, well, how is that helpful? Here is how it is:

1. It helps you acknowledge that you are one entity, with one attention span and one set of resources to expend.

2. It increases your level of awareness about your way of experiencing any given situation, how you interpret it, and how you choose to respond.

3. It helps you create more space by giving yourself permission to get in touch with your thoughts, feelings and sensations without switching to the default of “do something.”

4. It helps you experience the present, as is.

5. It helps you deal with feelings of anxiety and depression.

6. It helps you improve your attention and concentration.

What mindfulness is not: It is not a relaxation strategy, and it is not meant to provide relief from stress. It is more an approach of being present and genuine with yourself so that you can make a more informed choice of how to deal with the task at hand.

What does this look like? Once you are aware of your thoughts, feelings and sensations at any given moment, you may ask yourself this important question: “What do I need right now?” This could mean prioritizing each task based on deadlines and the time needed to finish that task. Again, fusing mindfulness into being fully present, the next question could be: “How can I break this task down into smaller steps right now?”

Notice how the theme of these questions center on the present and the steps that need to be taken in the present. The aforementioned theme also resonates with the next question: “Which one step can I focus on right now?” At other times, your mind might still feel like a whirlpool of thoughts.

In implementing the mindfulness approach to such times, just noticing that you are having a whirlwind of thoughts, a gamut of emotions and a multitude of bodily sensations in any given moment can signal to you that you have a lot going on right now. So stop. Step back. Breathe, by simply observing and experiencing the rise and fall of your chest and/or stomach with each in-breath and each out-breath, without trying to change anything. Engage in this breathing for a few minutes. Notice the here and now. Ask yourself: What do I need right now?

You may not find the immediate results that you are looking for: That is not what mindfulness does. What it does is cultivate a practice of just being in the moment and perhaps raise an awareness of alternative ways of being and relating to the stressors around you as they unfold, moment-by-moment. If you want to learn more about mindfulness, please ask about the upcoming anxiety workshop at the counseling center that focuses on mindfulness skills to deal with anxiety or check out more mindfulness resources at http://www.studentaffairs.pitt.edu/shs/stressfree/sfz-audio/.