Mindfulness: Office Monk?

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“Live in the moment” is probably a piece of advice you’ve received

at one point or another in your lifetime, in response to feeling stressed or overwhelmed. It’s been the focus of a plethora of self-help books, motivational speeches, and greeting card messages meant to ease your dread of an uncertain future. Recently, one method has emerged as one of the more effective means of achieving this state of present awareness: mindfulness. But where did the term originate? How are you supposed to do it? And perhaps most importantly, does it really work?

The term mindfulness is derived from the Pali (the sacred language of Theravada Buddhism) word “Sati”, which refers to the Buddhist notion of all things internal: self-awareness, remembering, and attention (Didonna, 2009). Buddhists, during their quiet moments of ritualized introspection, would shift attention to their sense of self in order to facilitate focusing on the present moment. Thus, the exercise was referred to as “Mindfulness Meditation”.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic, has said that mindfulness “…is the awareness that arises from paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally” (Paulson, Davidson, Jha, & Kabat-Zinn, 2013). He believes that attention is like a muscle that must be exercised continuously in order to reap the benefits, not unlike the daily meditations of the ancient Buddhists. His technique (aptly named Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) attempts to change the ways in which participants focus on their internal narrations: instead of letting the mind wander, it remains fixated on things like their breathing, their heart beating, and the position of their body.

But how can YOU benefit from the tried-and-true stress reducing techniques of mindfulness from the comfort of your cubicle? What are some of the proven techniques?

Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction

James Carmody and Ruth Baer, researchers in the Journal of Behavioural Medicine, set out to determine whether Kabat-Zinn’s method would help individuals suffering from common stress related issues (like anxiety, illness, and even chronic pain; Carmody & Baer, 2008). They had participants engage in formal meditation practices both in the lab and at home for a total of 8 weeks. This included body scanning, mindful yoga, and sitting meditation. Body scanning was described as honing in on one particular part of your body (your baby toe, for example), then working your way up, shifting focus to the foot, then the ankle, then the shin, etc. - like the Dry Bones song without the whimsical tune. Mindful yoga referred to regular yoga, with the added element of attending specifically to bodily sensations as opposed to your emotional state. Sitting meditation is exactly that; meditating in a sitting position, ensuring your breathing is the only thing you’re thinking about.

After 8 weeks of daily engagement, they found that participants had a significant decrease in their reported levels of stress, anxiety, and depression!

At the office: Body scanning and sitting meditation are both techniques that can be adapted to the office environment! If you brought your headphones to work, there are a myriad of guided meditation videos on YouTube that can be done from the comfort of your work desk. Even if you’ve only got 5 minutes to spare in between meetings, a quick break can make all the difference.

Managing a Noisy Mind

Certain thoughts have the unpleasant tendency to snowball once they’re spotlighted; a grocery list turns into anxiety about your budget, which then turns into major concerns about your future financial well-being. Researchers and mindfulness gurus noted that this was, in fact, a major contributing factor to their clients’ reported levels of anxiety, and sought to remedy it!

Boettcher and colleagues (Boettcher et al. 2014) wanted to know whether a particular mindfulness technique, aptly referred to as “Managing Your Thought Noise” would work in reducing the anxiety and distress of clinically anxious patients. Participants were asked to complete 12 videos (each 10 minutes long) guiding them through mind-emptying methods, and then report on their well-being. After completing the course, it was found that the majority of the group had significantly improved!

But how does one empty a mind? Aren’t you always thinking about something? Dr.Ramesh Manocha, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Sydney University, describes it as the step beyond mindfulness: in order to achieve mental silence, you must force yourself to think of nothing at all, for as long as you can. This state of cognitive emptiness, according to Manocha, allows for maximized clarity and lessened anxiety (Manocha, n.d).

At the office: While this technique is also accessible from your desk chair, no video guidance is necessary. Instead, don your headphones (in order to temporarily block out external noises) and focus exclusively on your own thoughts. Specifically, imagine that your thoughts are like water draining out of a sink; once the sink is dry, try to hold the emptiness as long as you can (between 3-5 minutes). This one is tough when you’re used to being mentally busy, but definitely important!

Breathing Exercises

The age-old advice of using deep breaths to calm down tends to conjure up images of cartoon characters panting heavily into paper bags. Dr. Andrew Weil, however, has come up with a slightly more effective means of reducing anxiety.

He refers to his technique as the 4-7-8 exercise. Over a ten minute time span, do the following with your breathing: inhale quietly and slowly through your nose to the count of 4, hold your breath until the count of 7, and then exhale slowly for the count of 8. Easy peasy, and doable from almost anywhere.

Curious as to whether or not breathing exercises like this would have any measurable effect on highly distressed patients, Sang Hwan Kim and colleagues decided to test it out on participants with PTSD symptoms (Kim et al., 2013). Participants engaged in similar breathing exercises for an hour bi-weekly for 8 weeks, while Kim periodically measured their levels of cortisol (the stress hormone). After the trial, it was found that participants who’d practiced consistently had significantly lower levels of cortisol in their systems - an incredible result for PTSD sufferers!

At the office: Weil’s breathing exercises are definitely work-desk worthy. During particularly stressful days, block out a few minutes to engage in deep breathing (while keeping your mind quiet!) in order to rid yourself of some of the cortisol you’re creating.

The Upshot

We tend to get caught up in the stresses of our own lives and we know it – the problem is that we don’t really do anything about it! Often, we will take time to ‘decompress’ by plopping ourselves in front of Netflix, waiting for some sort of relaxation to happen.

This is usually not the best (or most effective) thing to do – especially if you tend to have little time to spare.

The best thing is to actively create your own relaxation through control of your own body. Body scanning, attentional control, and breathing exercises are proven techniques to manage your own physiology and create your own relaxation. With correct practice, it’s likely you’ll achieve the result you want in less time than it takes to passively wait for yourself to de-stress.


[/vc_column_text][social_buttons facebook="true" twitter="true" linkedin="true" pinterest="true"][toggles][toggle title="References" color="Default"][vc_column_text]References:

Boettcher, J., Åström, V., Påhlsson, D., Schenström, O., Andersson, G., Carlbring, P., (2014). Internet-Based Mindfulness Treatment for Anxiety Disorders: A Randomized Controlled Trial, Behavior Therapy, 45 (2), 241-253. Doi: 10.1016/j.beth.2013.11.003

Carmody, J., & Baer, R. A. (2008). Relationships between mindfulness practice and levels of mindfulness, medical and psychological symptoms and well-being in a mindfulness-based stress reduction program. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 31(1), 23-33. Doi: 10.1007/s10865-007-9130-7

Didonna, F., Siegel, R., Germer, C., & Olendzki, A. (2009). Mindfulness: What Is It? Where Did It Come From? In Clinical Handbook of Mindfulness (pp. 17-35). New York, NY: Springer.

Kim, S., Schneider, S., Bevans, M., Kravitz, L., Mermier, C., Qualls, C., & Burge, M. (2013). PTSD Symptom Reduction With Mindfulness-Based Stretching and Deep Breathing Exercise: Randomized Controlled Clinical Trial of Efficacy. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 98(7), 2984-2992. doi:10.1210/jc.2012-3742

Manocha, R. (n.d.). Meditation, Mindfulness and Mind - Emptiness. Retrieved August 5, 2015, from http://www.steveclarkprincipal.com/uploads/1/6/5/2/16527520/meditation_mindfulness_and_mind-emptiness.pdf

Paulson, S., Davidson, R., Jha, A. and Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013), Becoming conscious: the science of mindfulness. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1303: 87–104. Doi: 10.1111/nyas.12203
Weil, A. (n.d.). Breathing: Three Exercises. Retrieved August 5, 2015, from http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/ART00521/three-breathing-exercises.html[/vc_column_text][/toggle][/toggles][vc_column_text]Post By: Victoria Parker

Victoria HeadshotVictoria Parker is an Honours Psychology Graduate from Wilfrid Laurier University. Though venturing out into the world of marketing for a time, the allure of the human mind dragged her right back to research! Her research is primarily focused on gratitude, happiness, and mindfulness in and out of the workplace. Working as a research assistant has provided her with exposure to many fascinating and forward-thinking projects and ideas. Additionally, her previous experience in the corporate jungle left her with not only a refined work ethic, but a keen interest in the experience and satisfaction of her fellow employees. A minor in Philosophy, delving largely into Theories of Mind and Reality, further fuelled her interest in social psychological concepts such as the self, identity, and motivation.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Jennifer Moss