The Dose21:45Can mindfulness help with stress?

It’s the holiday season and for many, visits from the inlaws or hosting holiday parties can be a stressful time. Dr. Melanie Badali, a clinical psychologist at North Shore Stress and Anxiety Clinic in North Vancouver, discusses how mindfulness can help people get through the holiday season.

The holiday season for many is a time to connect with family and celebrate. But the holidays can be stressful, with visiting family, travel, or the financial costs of hosting and giving gifts.

To tackle the holiday stress, psychologists and psychotherapists recommend using mindfulness. 

Mindfulness describes a variety of practices that bring one’s attention to the present, without judgment and accepting things as they are. Common tools include meditation and breathing exercises. 

“There’s no goal to achieve a particular state or feeling with mindfulness meditation. You’re not trying to feel any specific way, just trying to be in the here and now and noticing that,” explained Dr. Melanie Badali, a clinical psychologist at North Shore Stress and Anxiety Clinic in North Vancouver, to CBC’s The Dose host Dr. Brian Goldman. 

Badali says people often think mindfulness is someone sitting down, cross-legged with their eyes closed. But in reality, mindfulness takes many forms, like being present in a conversation, enjoying time outside or savouring a meal. 

“It’s really more just about awareness of what’s actually happening in the present moment,” says Dr. Angie Kingma, a registered psychotherapist and occupational therapist based in Milton, Ont. 

Mindfulness doesn’t change the external situations that we go through, but it can “help us cope better with the experiences that we have, respond with more intention and consciousness,” adds Kingma.

So if you’re looking for ways to deal with stressors, or to relax and unwind this holiday season, here are some suggestions on how to incorporate mindfulness.

What are the health benefits of mindfulness?

With roots in Buddhism, mindfulness is not a new concept. 

Badali says there can be several health benefits to mindfulness practices. For one, research has shown that mindfulness can increase a person’s focus after as little as 10 minutes of brief meditation.

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Author and meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn shares the value of staying in the here and now and making peace with paying attention.

Mindful meditation and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) may also help lower blood pressure, lower the stress hormone cortisol and help with sleep, to name a few of the health benefits.

Extensive research has been done on MBSR too, Badali adds. 

American professor Jon Kabat-Zinn is credited with creating MBSR, an eight-week group program that helps people deal with stress. It has been used by many since it was created in 1979.

How can I practise during the holidays? 

Kingma suggests people give themselves “permission to feel any challenging emotions that happen to come up.”

Whether that’s stress, anger or sadness, she says learning how to accept emotions without judgment, and learning to ground your attention to the sensations of your breath, can be very helpful.

For example, if someone is at a holiday party and feels overwhelmed, Kingma says the individual should give themselves permission to get some fresh air or go to another room. 

“They don’t have to feel obligated to participate in the traditions if they’re not feeling up to it this year,” she says. 

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For those who are new to mindfulness, Kingma recommends being present in everyday tasks like washing dishes and open up to their five senses. 

She says that can be a way “to build your mindfulness skills or to practise mindfulness in any moment, as long as it’s with the intention to have that present moment focus and the willingness to keep bringing their attention back” without judgment.

She also recommends the Centre for Mindfulness Studies’ free introductory online class.

Badali suggests her clients use the STOP technique — coined by Kabat-Zinn — as needed. 

WATCH | Try the STOP technique with the guidance of this 2-minute video:

The technique uses the word’s four letters as mindfulness prompts:

  • S is for stop and pause momentarily.
  • T is for take a breath and use your breath as an anchor.
  • O is to observe and be non-judgmental.
  • P is for proceed and reconnect with your surroundings.

“You might not be able to do this in holiday traffic … but we can usually find a moment or two to centre ourselves with this scale,” she says.

Kingma says it’s important to be kind to yourself when practising mindfulness. And if your mind wanders while trying it this holiday season, that’s normal. 

“Mindfulness practice is acknowledging the mind is going to be wandering away 50 per cent of the time. So it’s just a matter of learning how to train the attention to bring it back to the breath or the body or the sounds that are happening in the present moment.”

How to incorporate mindfulness with the family

Dipti Swain, a family and social-centric mindfulness coach and CEO of U&Me Ritual in Toronto, says she often hears from her clients that it’s hard to work on mindfulness, especially with young children. 

It can be hard, but it’s a skill and mindset that comes with time, Swain says. 

Dipti Swain, a family and social-centric mindfulness coach, recommends people be present with their friends and loved ones this holiday season. (Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

For families, she typically suggests putting a lamp in the middle of the room as a focal point and having everyone sit around it for 30 minutes.

“Just be with each other, be yourself and accept each other as they are. If the kids are not able to sit for that [time], that’s absolutely fine,” she says.

She also suggests putting devices away. 

“Let’s just be intentional to set up time just to be with each other,” Swain says.

Who shouldn’t practise mindfulness?

Badali says mindfulness practices may not be for everyone and for every stressful situation. 

“It’s helpful to have stress management techniques and have this repertoire of self-regulation skills we can draw upon … but also our environments matter and there are real stressors in people’s daily lives,” she says.

And there are situations where directing attention to yourself and your emotions may be inappropriate, she adds.

“If I’m in the moment of trying to really attend to a client and really listen to everything they had, I’m not going to direct my attention to myself,” Badali says.

“I’m going to direct my attention to the other person or a surgeon is going to direct their attention to their patient and in the car, we need all of our attention focused on the wheel and the road.”

How long should I practise mindfulness?

Swain typically recommends that individuals new to mindfulness start by sitting for 15 minutes. 

But that length of time is not a hard-and-fast rule. What’s really important is that moment of being present, she adds.

“It’s taking time for themselves away from everything else. That’s one of the most important requirements to start with the practice,” Swain says. 

Body scan exercises — which are guided or self-guided scans of the different body parts — are also good ways to check in with yourself as you build awareness, Swain says.

People can use any of several mindfulness apps on the market, which often have guided meditations and other resources, Badali says. She does recommend starting with free options, like the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center’s free resources.

Badali says it’s important that people take time to connect with themselves and others this holiday season. But to not be hard on themselves if their attention wanders. 

“Mindfulness is … not about striving. It’s not about achievement, it’s about curiosity. It’s about taking that moment to connect with ourselves and where we are right now.”

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