Mindfulness should be as much a physical exercise as it is a mental one. Judging by the title, mindfulness is something we are called upon to do with our minds. But in fact, numerous studies, including my own, show that paying attention to our bodies is often an easy way to get into a state of mindfulness and reduce our resulting stress levels.
In today’s society, people work very hard to survive and get paid for their work. Some are taught and trained from childhood. Some devote all their time and health to it. In most cases, people complain about their health when the problems are already obvious. Whether you’re an office worker, paper writer, teacher, journalist or many others. In one way or another, just about everyone faces it.
It may seem counterintuitive, because often when our minds are overwhelmed, the body is the last thing on our mind. If we notice changes in our physical condition during stress, it’s only when they bother us: carpal tunnel syndrome (a condition accompanied by numbness in the fingers), back and leg pain, heart palpitations, dental problems, or even the usual hunger that causes us to interrupt our activities several times a day to eat. But once we focus our attention on the body, it can become our anchor for what’s happening in the here and now, even if it doesn’t feel like it.
Here’s how this “grounding” works. We pay attention to the body by noticing (rather than refusing to notice) tension, circulation, pain, a pleasant or simply neutral physical sensation – for example, from the right shoulder or the lift of the left foot. This practice helps us get back to reality. In fact, our body is the quickest and most reliable way into the present when our head is busy endlessly replaying the past or rehearsing the future.
We condemn ourselves to a lot of wasted suffering when our mind is not paying attention to what is needed. The amygdala, located in the middle temporal lobes, is the part of the brain that picks up and processes fear signals. When the amygdala is activated by some situation that is interpreted as a potential threat, even if we are just reading an unpleasant email, it initiates physiological changes – such as increased muscle tension and increased breathing. This connection becomes so strong that we take the bodily response as evidence of danger, just as Pavlov’s dogs equated a bell with dinner. A vicious circle can develop as a result: increased muscular tension and rapid breathing caused by activation of the amygdala will entail even greater irritation of the amygdala. Fortunately, we can use “grounding” to break this connection.
One of my students, who worked in a startup, used to panic all the time before a meeting with venture capitalists. The worst scenarios were running through his head: his project would be rejected, his idea would be recognized as talentless. Once he learned to listen to his body and take a minute to drop the “anchor” by taking a few breaths and exhalations and feeling his feet firmly planted on the ground, he calmed down and was able to negotiate much better. Here are some simple and effective practices you can use.
Take one breath and exhale. A single conscious inhale and exhale is all it takes to change your perspective. One single breath allows you to take time out from the endless noise of consciousness and give your body a chance to come to equilibrium after the nervous excitement in response to a perceived threat. In most distress situations, it’s as if we’re telling ourselves a story and believing it completely. And breathing can pull you out of that story, making you less gullible. Along with the breath, you can go inside your body, look at the situation from the outside to see if your head is with you or against you (i.e., if it matches your current intentions and overall goal), and then consciously choose which path you want to take.
Pay attention to your feelings. Another reason to “go into your body” is that that’s where you feel your emotions, the presence of which is very important to acknowledge, even if they feel like a nuisance, especially at work. Having studied the negative impact of suppressing emotions (you can find works on this subject here, for example), I can say with certainty: suppressing is worse than not suppressing.
Paradoxically, there is a negative correlation between dealing with negative emotions without judgment and the very presence of those emotions or disorders. In other words, if you acknowledge and name unpleasant feelings, they are less likely to cause you stress. In one study, participants wrote down traumatic or neutral events for four consecutive days. Those who described their traumas were less likely to see a doctor over the next six months than those who recorded neutral events. When you pay attention to your body, you are able to catch emotional information as long as it moves “upstream,” before it “takes over” the whole system – and when it does, it is no longer possible to turn it to your advantage.
Remember that your coworkers have bodies, too. Does your boss annoy you? Think you can’t stand another day with an impossible colleague? If you let it, your body can connect you to other people (even those who are not easy to talk to) because it is a serious part of what we all have in common. This seems to make sense, but it entails profound conclusions. Our bodies-the pleasure and pain that comes from them (the ailments and illnesses that accompany them, their needs and humiliations, the inability to choose them, the fear of ever losing them, and the way we fight them or pretend they don’t exist)-create experiences that are one for us all. When you ignore your body (or try to ignore it), you take out of your life one of the fundamental parts of what we all have in common. The empathy that is gained through body acceptance helps you build productive professional relationships rather than agonizing over constant frustration and pain.
Give more importance to small pleasures. Don’t neglect the joy of that first sip of afternoon coffee. It’s human nature to notice pain more readily than pleasure, but if you constantly practice and remind yourself, you can experience joy throughout the day from simple body-related pleasures. For example, from sitting after standing too long or standing and stretching if you have been sitting; from holding a new pen with a particularly pleasant ergonomic surface; from laughing out loud at something very funny; from satisfying hunger; from the relative quiet of the office after a morning among screaming children; from taking off uncomfortable shoes under your desk.
Every day, no matter how hard it is, provides us with endless such opportunities to feel good about ourselves. I recently had an appointment at the Veterans Hospital in Palo Alto, and I passed two veterans. They were sitting at the entrance of the building, both in wheelchairs. One leaned over to the other and said: “Yeah, it’s good to have our arms moving.” The other replied, “Yeah, you’re right. That’s just great!” Their conversation reminds us that most of us can, if we want to, find a little joy worthy of celebration in the daily grind.
Stress is an inevitable part of our professional lives, but you don’t need complicated practices and avoidance mechanisms to overcome it. You just need a set of tools to “ground” yourself in the physical sensations that will allow you to drop the “anchor” and get back to reality. It doesn’t take much time to feel grounded and remind yourself that you always have a reliable tool to mitigate stress. And you have had that time since you were born.