When under stress we can usually say that three things are going on at once. First is the physical sensation of stress that I think we’re all quite familiar with. Second is the fear regarding whatever it is that we’re stressed about e.g. will I get this project finished in time for the presentation i have to make to my colleagues?
Third is rumination. Rumination means going over and over in our minds the situation that’s stressing us and re-running negative thoughts and over and over again, repeating the same negative scenarios and the same phrases to ourselves. In the example above you might conjure up a scene of your boss or colleagues complaining about your failure to finish the project, of getting a bad work appraisal and so on.
Quite often, the physical and emotional pressure you feel when stressed can’t be wished away – some of it is unavoidable in the circumstances. But what’s avoidable is the rumination that makes matters worse, re-running scenarios in your mind and thinking about what will happen if something goes wrong.
Note that rumination is not planning. When you plan you try to work out what to do; when you ruminate you upset yourself with negative thoughts.
When we practise mindfulness we are practising, among other things, the skill of stepping out of rumination. Whenever we notice that the mind has wandered off, we bring it back to the present moment. Developing that skill is especially helpful in relation to stress. That’s because rumination increases stress and stepping back into the moment reduces it by interrupting rumination.
How to step out
When you notice you are lost in re-running pointless or unhelpful thoughts, bring your awareness to something you sense, perhaps to the breath in your nose, to walking, to what you hear, to awareness of sensations in your hands and feet, essentially to something that takes you out of the stream of thoughts and into what we might call the moment or the ‘now’.
Making this a practice in your everyday life can make a big contribution to reducing your stress levels.
My 15-lesson online course Easy Mindfulness includes techniques you can use straight away and a wealth of information about what mindfulness is and how it can benefit you.
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