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How to deal with stress: mindfulness

Written by Toni Vanhala (14 Jun 2018)

I took a moment to focus on my breathing. I noticed how anxious I was, and I couldn't calm myself down.

Mindfulness is the new black. Glancing at the self-help section at the bookstore and the titles of all the marketing messages in my inbox, I get an impression that it's the silver bullet for work wellbeing. There are all kinds of coaches and methods buzzing around in the mindfulness business. Some methods show great results, for example, people have received significant relief for post-traumatic disorders. On the other hand, I have heard rumours of coaches, who make you sit in a circle and suck raisins – for an hour, no less.

We are so Zen.

Mindfulness is slightly misleading as a term. Mindfulness is not about filling your mind to the full, nor is it about emptying your head of thoughts, feelings, and sensations. It's not about reaching a certain state of "perfect mindfulness" either, but developing psychological skills to support your wellbeing. In Finnish, we translate mindfulness as tietoisuustaidot, pronounced like "tea toe sews tie dot." The literal English translation is "awareness skills", which emphasizes two things:

  1. these are skills that can be trained and learned, and
  2. mindfulness is tightly linked to perception and awareness.

Mindfulness is relaxing

The skills that you gain from mindfulness training help you to pause in the heat of the moment, and to take notice of the situation in every aspect. I recently started to take a 15-minute mindfulness break during my workday. I started with the usual mindful sitting exercise, which is included in our online programmes.

My Mind's Eye is on fire!

First time I tried to sit and observe, I noticed how over-excited I was, even though I had not been aware of it at all. I could notice all kinds of stressful thoughts crossing my mind. I couldn't relax, nor concentrate on the exercise itself. The second time I tried it, I could focus on the moment much better, and felt that the experience was very calming – relaxing even.

Calming down and feeling relaxed are often the first noticeable effects, when you start practicing mindfulness. A short breather may be valuable, when your everyday life feels overwhelming. Mindfulness is more than calming your self down and finding relaxation, however. You can go to a spa for relaxing, but you should be able to apply these skills when there is a stronger current, or a storm rising on the high seas of your daily living.

Mindfulness helps in decision making

Everyday life can feel chaotic. Every situation is loaded with thoughts, emotions, memories, and my nose is itching right now. Mindfulness skills can help you to notice them, become aware of them, and take them into account.

I am prone to snacking on chocolate when I feel stressed out. When I can take an objective view of the situation, I become aware of the stress that I'm experiencing, and that I have chocolate. This helps me to pause and reflect, whether I want to have chocolate, or whether I could relieve the stress in some other way. Sometimes I go for a jog, which is very relaxing for me. In fact, jogging also helps me to find a calm focus. I start by being mindful of my steps, and moving on to challenges that pop up in my head. Often the solution to a burdening issue comes to my mind without effort, even when I'm not actively trying to solve anything.

This link between stress and my chocolate binges was a very simple example. You should note, however, that our everyday life is made of many such small choices. You can make these choices either consciously or on autopilot. Skills that you learn from mindfulness can help you to recognize the decisions that are important to you, separating them from less meaningful situations, and focusing on what is important. I cannot stop and think about every tiny thing from all aspects, but observing my own thoughts and feelings has helped me to make smarter decisions. Sometimes I still eat chocolate, and doing so can be the smart choice right at that moment.

Mindfulness kicks you into action

Mindfulness is about concentrating on the present moment – as it is. Becoming aware of the external situation, feelings, and thoughts is a foundation for starting to take them into account. However, plain observation is not enough to change your everyday life into something more personally meaningful to you.

In the end, things change only through actions. I few weeks ago I noticed that I didn't get anything done. Everyday issues and unfinished work tasks were going through my mind every night. I couldn't decide what I should pick up on, and start doing. The most important things felt too heavy and burdening, while the easier tasks did not seem important enough. I wasted time worrying, watched some TV, and went to bed.

When I started to take the fifteen minute mindfulness breaks, I dealt with these thoughts and issues already during the day. I noticed that I could focus on only one thing at a time. Sometimes I couldn't find energy to deal with the most important and heavy tasks, but I was able to notice that the less important duties also had meaning. When I was able to finish at least something, I got a kick out of my success in completing the task, and got an energy boost to help me work on the harder issues.

Mindfulness creates a basis for psychological flexibility

Mindfulness offers tools that are vital for building a life that feels personally meaningful. In my own experience, these tools are a good start, but won't get you very far on your path. There are other methods that can help more effectively in finding your purpose, and tackling everyday issues as well.

I've felt that two things have been particularly important for me. First, identifying which things are important and meaningful for me personally has given me the motivation to change things, and persevere when I faced obstacles. Second, the willingness to face unpleasant and distressing thoughts, emotions, and situations has helped me to accomplish things that are meaningful to me. I no longer get stuck with my worries and anxiety.