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Mindfulness and Stress Relief

Some stress in life is good, says Sr. Pat Parachini, SNJM, a spiritual director and formator at Saint Luke Institute, because it stimulates personal growth. The challenge is when stress becomes distress, when it is completely overwhelming and affects our ability to function effectively in daily life.

Dr. Phil Gloninger and therapist Martha Keys Barker, who have served on the clinical staff of Saint Luke Institute, both recommend mindfulness to reduce and prevent distress.

Ms. Keys Barker notes, “Stress is not only what happens to you, but also what you tell yourself is happening to you. There are things a person can’t change that are distressing. Sometimes, however, the story we tell ourselves about a situation intensifies our stress, despair, self-criticism and blame.”

Mindfulness is about paying attention on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally, says Dr. Gloninger. “Hold whatever is happening without judgment or criticism,” he says. “Say ‘this is how I’m feeling,’ not ‘I shouldn’t be feeling this way.’ That creates resistance and stress.

“Put yourself in a place to respond. Recognition and awareness help you be able to respond and not be swept away by toxic thoughts.”

“Accepting reality doesn’t mean we approve of something as it is,” adds Ms. Keys Barker. “It means we aren’t fighting against it. Not accepting will not make it go away. Accepting a situation gives
a person the space to focus on how to respond.”

Ms. Keys Barker recommends an approach developed by researcher Marsha Linehan: distract yourself, do things that are self-soothing to your senses and help improve your feelings at the moment.

Many people find it difficult to do things they find enjoyable while in a painful situation or experiencing grief, but “throwing yourself into something proactively and interrupting stressful thoughts” can be helpful, she says.

Engage in a sport, help another person, or watch a pleasant play or movie. Other ways to relax: bake, light a scented candle, listen to music, take a slow walk or pet an animal.

Seek a larger context and purpose for things that happen to you. How might your experience help you relate to another person or provide new insights to connect with someone else who has the same experience?

Pray. Take a short vacation or even an hour break to do something pleasurable. Ms. Keys Barker also recommends consciously practicing the idea of acceptance through an “accepting posture”: sit with your hands open, breathe deeply and gently smile. Your physical posture helps send a message to your brain that things will be all right.

“Accepting things means you often have more energy to deal with a situation. Focus on what you have control over, on your choices and what will make you more resilient,” she says.