Friday, December 8, 2023

#MindfulnessmonthNZ: Can Mindfulness Help Our Stress Levels (Because Something Would Need To)

Is the practice of mindfulness – including mindfulness meditation – worth the effort? With the first #mindfulnessmonthNZ coming up in August, it’s a great time to try it.

Meditation? Hell no. Not my thing at all. Mindfulness meditation, where you just try to focus on your breath? Also a hard no from me. My brain likes to race.

That was my take 10 years ago. I was struggling to cope with a (since-resolved) health problem – and my therapist suggested I try mindfulness meditation. I said it was fruity-sounding and I didn’t think it would work. She said: ‘Well what you’re doing now isn’t working for you, right?’. She had a point. Getting upset and angry about this health problem wasn’t serving me well; in fact, it was counter-productive. So I looked into mindfulness.

Mindfulness is, at its core, a way of being in the world. As described by the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand, “mindfulness means paying attention to what is presently occurring, with kindness and curiosity. What you pay attention to may be a thought, a feeling, a physical sensation, another person, or things that are happening around you. By practising this over time, you will more fully appreciate the relationships between these things.” Of course, that’s all easier said than done.

That’s where mindfulness meditation comes in. Imagine sitting somewhere comfortable, closing your eyes, breathing in deeply, and as thoughts pop up, bringing your attention back to your breath. You quietly observe rather than feed the distracting thoughts and feelings. Thoughts will keep creeping in, of course, but that doesn’t mean you’re ‘doing it wrong’, so to speak. You’re learning, and even at the start, that comes with benefits.

East and West

In recent years, mindfulness has become a more popular practice – even, you could argue, a movement. But mindfulness meditation is no modern, nor Western, invention. In fact, it’s a modernised version of a 3000-year-old Buddhist practice known as ‘Sati’: a spiritual or psychological awareness that is the first of theSeven Factors of Enlightenment’.

After studying with Buddhist teachers, scientist Jon Kabat-Zinn integrated their practices with scientific principles and founded the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MSBR) program – and later the Center for Mindfulness for Medicine, Health Care and Society – at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. The eight-week MSBR psycho-educational health program is delivered in hospitals, health organisations, prisons and other organisations in 30-plus countries, and you can access it online.

Yes, mindfulness is backed up by science. A meta-analysis of systematic reviews of randomised controlled trials (basically, the gold standard of scientific research) show that mindfulness-meditation programs alleviate symptoms in mental and physical conditions including reducing stress, anxiety, pain, depression and insomnia.

Paradoxically, given all our technological distractions, apps are helping us be more mindful. Headspace is a great starting point. The app bills itself as a gym membership for the mind – and, like many gyms, it offers a free trial: ‘Take 10’. Each day for 10 days, you’ll listen to a 10-minute audio file of a guided mindfulness meditation. You can later move onto different levels and themes, such as sleep, anxiety or stress.

I liked Headspace (no, this isn’t a paid ad) and also used other guided audio tracks. For several years, through a daily (or nearly daily) practice of mindfulness meditation, I managed to significantly reduce the degree of angst and anger that accompanied my health condition. Later, I let the practice lapse, pushing it to the bottom of my to-do list (or should I call it my ‘may-never-get-done’ list?).

Now I have a good reason to get into it again. Because the Mental Health Foundation and The Kindness Institute have teamed up to bring us Mindfulness Month (#mindfulnessmonthNZ) in August. During the 31 days, you’ll do, via an app, daily guided mindfulness practices and activities. As the event page says, “None of us are 100% mindful all the time, but with practise we can strengthen our ‘mindfulness muscles’ and grow our wellbeing.”

Register by July 31; if you register by July 24, you’ll get a free mindfulness notebook, based off the month done journal concept by Stephen McCarthy. Oh, and who wants to miss the chance to win a sauna?!

Create your page, use the standard message or write a message of your own, then click to share that page over Facebook, Twitter, or email. That’s how to ask your whānau, friends and colleagues to sponsor your mindful moments to raise money for the Mental Health Foundation.

It’s a bit like the 40 Hour Famine you probably did as a kid (yes, that’s still a thing) except you don’t have to restrict your diet to barley sugars and juice – and don’t have to go knocking on doors. Tag #mindfulnessmonthNZ on social media, with a pic of a mindful moment (selfies are great or, yes, you can fake it for a moment while someone else takes the photo).

Asked by the Mental Health Foundation to put together the #mindfulnessmonthNZ programme, The Kindness Institute is a charitable trust/social enterprise focused on equipping rangatahi with tools to improve their wellbeing and resilience.

Its founder-director Kristina Cavit is a coach and educator who specialises in mindfulness, yoga and stress reduction. She will deliver #mindfulnessmonthNZ’s guided practices. You’ll get an audio file each day. Each week focuses on one of four cornerstones of health – physical, emotional, spiritual and social – using the Māori model of health and hauora (wellbeing) ‘Te whare tapa whā’. It’s represented metaphorically by four pillars of a wharenui.

Kristina wants Mindfulness Month to bring people together: the different participants accessing the same resources; each participant and their sponsors; and people doing #mindfulnessmonthNZ in groups within their workplace or whanau. One registered team has 40 people. “With the pandemic,” Kristina says, “people have been struggling with illness and isolation – and this is a great time to take care of ourselves and each other. Anyone can participate, including people who are sick or stuck at home.” If you feel unable to fundraise, you can access all resources for a koha. “If you can’t afford a koha, get in touch and we’ll make it work,” Kristina says.

Funds raised will support the Mental Health Foundation’s policy-and-advocacy team to push to transform New Zealand’s (terribly under-resourced – and that’s my words, not theirs) mental-health system to one which helps prevent problems developing, and responds earlier and more effectively, among other aims.

So, this August, I have no excuse not to practice mindfulness. To donate to my page, visit here. Otherwise, I’ll see you there, in the thought-osphere.

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