Ever have the experience of sitting down to talk, and having no idea where to start? There is more than one plot line to our lives. A client might sit down in my office with updates in unfolding concurrent dramas: the partner who wants to know everything she does while telling nothing, the rumors at work, the family misunderstanding, the unexplained anger, the MRI results lost in cyberspace. Stress churns, constantly replenished.
We walk around with the intent to stress less, and sometimes it’s just not that simple. Not just that we juggle so many responsibilities, walking a high wire without a safety net, though we do. There’s also the culture of overload: we are accustomed to a steady flow of multiple streams of information on our portable electronic devices, and cling to them like life depended on it. Despite our good intent to let go of stress, we sabotage ourselves to prevent it at all costs.
While we acknowledge it’s quite possible to stop brooding about our unsolved challenges, somehow it doesn’t seem quite right. We are half convinced we will miss something critical, if we turn the thinking function off for a while. For some people, relaxing their grip on a vexing problem to consider the night sky seems a tiny bit shameful, akin to admitting defeat. I’ve heard others state, rather pridefully, that they could not possibly learn to meditate. They think that their overwhelming stress is unbudgeable; their minds are too active. Some of us seem to have a secret fear that our problem solving capacity would suffer, or our energy for the struggle dissipate, if we were to radically disengage, let it all go, reboot.
Actually, the opposite seems to be true. Research on the emerging practice of mindfulness meditation suggests that we emerge from it more resilient and clear in our thinking, and potentially reducing our risk of depression. What began as an ancient eastern spiritual practice is now a featured topic in Psychology Today; today’s issue has a piece explaining the psychological benefits of meditation practice, called Freeing Yourself from Depression. Scientific minds have validated it, and pronounced it safe and effective.
The authors properly give credit to the psychologist John Kabat-Zinn, who has explored the contribution of mindfulness to stress management. Kabat-Zinn has found a variety of fascinating health benefits, including resolving anxiety and depression. The practice of mindfulness meditation, now increasingly familiar in the world of therapy, relies on a few basic truths, easy to learn and infinitely more challenging to take to heart. Mindfulness involves noticing our thoughts without judging them, or judging ourselves for having them. If we find ourselves preoccupied with a disturbing conversation, brooding and miserable, we can observe ourselves doing this, with gentleness and patience, as if the thought, no matter how reasonable, is not essential to who we are. We are more than our cognitions. Somehow, this seems surprising.
The Psychology Today author, Dr. Danny Pennman, is careful to make clear that letting go of stress-inducing thoughts does not imply naïve trust that stressful situations magically go away, just because we are momentarily at peace. He does, however, offer the thought that our intent to think our way out of a troubled state of mind can backfire. Anxiety-producing experiences can call to mind earlier times that evoked similar emotions, and as a result the scope of the problem can feel more entwined with our whole life journey. Sometimes, he suggests, we might do better to stop analyzing our stress, and take care of ourselves in this moment. Just stop.
The stress level we live with can become extraordinarily high, dangerous to health, and silently eroding our confidence. Fascinating, that an ancient spiritual practice is becoming our next cutting edge therapy, restoring us from our stress-depleted state. We know what works. Ironic that the challenge, in this well-informed age, is to allow it.