Lower Stress, Improve Your Life

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Feeling stressed or burned out at the office and at home? Is it affecting your job performance, your energy level and your relationships?

New research suggests that there are some simple steps you can take to make a world of difference.

A recent study found a 40 percent drop in the stress response among intensive care unit personnel at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center after an eight-week mindfulness-based training, which included meditation, breathing exercises, yoga and gentle stretching.

Study participants completed a questionnaire about the stress level before and after the eight-week training. Researchers also collected saliva samples to study the biomarkers of stress reactivity.

The findings are startling!
At the end of the study, the participants reported no change in how much stress they had in their job. After all, they were still dealing with life-and-death situations and decisions. However, the biomarkers that measured stress reactivity, decreased 40 percent; a comparison control group showed no change at all.

The 40 percent decrease in the biomarkers of stress reactivity reflects a change in the sympathetic nervous system, which controls excitement (the flight-or-flight survival response) in only eight weeks of mindfulness training. Another astonishing finding: The participants weren’t even aware of this change … but their bodies certainly were!

If you’re feeling stressed — or worse, burned out in your job — how might mindfulness training benefit you? If you’re an employer or you lead a team or family, how might reducing your stress response serve you and those around you? If the stress response can be reduced 40 percent in a life-and-death situation, how much might you be able to decrease yours?

Here’s a breath meditation exercise that anyone can apply:

Level I Breath Relaxation: Using all of your senses to enhance awareness

  • Choose a place to be alone. A quiet place with few distractions allows you to better focus.
  • Sit comfortably. Sit so you can pay full attention to only your breathing. If possible, sit in a chair or a position that you aren’t likely to fall asleep in. Sitting without back support will also keep you from dozing off.
  • Start with your hand on your abdomen. Breathe in, keeping your chest and abdomen as relaxed as possible, until you see and/or feel your hand on your abdomen gently rise as your breath fills the lower part of your lungs.
  • Use your mouth and nose. As you breathe, inhale through your nose and exhale out your mouth. Practice this until it becomes comfortable.
  •  Become aware of sound. Listen to your breath. What does it sound like as you breathe into your nose and the air goes deep into your lungs? Does it sound the same or different when you exhale out your mouth? Continue paying attention to the sound until you can hear the nuances distinctly.
  • Notice feelings. Observe how the air feels as it comes in your nose and how it feels as you exhale out your mouth. Note the temperature of the air and the sensation in your nose, throat and airways. Notice the feeling of your abdomen and chest expanding. Then notice what your breath feels like, all the nuances.
  • Focus. When your mind wanders from paying attention to only your breath, which it will, gently bring your awareness back to the above details.

Developing mindfulness by paying attention to your breath gives you much greater control of your stress reactivity, just like the ICU study participants. Everyone can gain much greater control over their stress reactivity and, therefore, their emotions. How will you do it?