This story originally appeared in UCLA Today, a discontinued publication.

Mindfulness reduces stress, promotes resilience

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mindfulness-istockYou're worrying, hurrying, scurrying about. You have a dozen things on your mind -- but stop for a moment: Are you being mindful?

Mindfulness -- paying attention on purpose and without judgment -- will help you deal with life's challenges more calmly and effectively, psychologist Elisha Goldstein told UCLA employees attending a Learn-at-Lunch presentation sponsored by the UCLA Staff and Faculty Counseling Center on July 17. Goldstein discussed the benefits of mindfulness tools for reducing stress and anxiety and led participants through two brief exercises to illustrate his point.

"These are difficult times right now for a lot of people," said Goldstein, who is in private practice and has authored books and CDs on mindfulness. Learning to become more "present," he said, frees us to be more flexible and creative - and ultimately, more resilient, enjoying better health and well-being.

Participants in a study who practiced mindfulness techniques for five minutes a day over a period of three weeks reported significant reductions in stress along with increases in life satisfaction, positive relations with others and mastery of one's environment. These are "all key players in creating a life worth living," Golstein added.

Psychologist Elisha Goldstein.
Psychologist Elisha Goldstein.
Mindfulness works by helping us break out of habitual, often ineffective patterns of thinking and acting. The human mind, Goldstein explained, is constantly thinking about ways to automate things in order to make life easier -- such as being able to drive a car without having to constantly think about the skills you're using. But this tendency has a downside: responding to problems in rigid, unthinking ways.

"When, for example, we hear that budget cuts are coming," Goldstein said, "we may become anxious and afraid. Our mind is going on automatic pilot, thinking, 'How do I fix this? What do I need to do?' Our body may tense up, our heart pounds and our breathing becomes rapid." 
 
Caught in this uncomfortable bind, some people speed up and work even harder to try to solve the problem. Others flee, seeking escape through substances like alcohol. But either approach, Goldstein said, "is like pouring kerosene on the fire, and we start to become more and more anxious." Fast-moving multitaskers often end up even more stressed, while those seeking escape succeed in doing so only temporarily.

A day of mindfulnessThe way out, Goldstein said, is through mindfulness: becoming aware of how and where we are in the present moment.

In an exercise called STOP, Goldstein led his audience through four short steps to mindfulness:

Stop what you're doing and close your eyes.

Take a few breaths, bringing your awareness to each inhalation and exhalation.

­Observe how your body is feeling in the moment -- for instance, warmth or coolness. Become aware of your emotions and your thoughts.

Perceive sounds in the room, just listening to them come and go, before ending the exercise.

Try to move through each step "without judgment," Goldstein said. Avoid the tendency to label your thoughts, feelings or perceptions as good or bad, right or wrong. Instead, just make note of what you discover and simply "Let it be."

Goldstein also demonstrated an exercise called ACE, comprised of three one-minute steps:

Awareness: Become aware of what's happening right now in your thoughts and emotions.

Collecting: Collect your attention into your breath.

Expanding: Expand your awareness into your physical body, noticing the sensations you're feeling.

Following the ACE exercise, one participant said that she noticed that her mind kept darting off to a long list of things to do. This is an all-too-common occurrence, said Goldstein, to the nodding agreement of many others in the audience.

"We believe, 'If I don't become very busy in my mind thinking about things, then things aren't going to get done. I'm going to lose something or forget something, or I'm not going to be as effective,'" he said. Ironically, this kind of thinking makes us even more anxious and ineffective. A better approach, he said, is to notice that 'This mind is a busy mind right now,' which can actually allow the mind the space to slow down.
 
Listen to podcasts of the two mindfulness practices Goldstein presented:
STOP practice: #PLACE PLAYER:SOURCE="electronic/Podcast_mindfulness_STOP.mp3" COLOR="536895"#
ACE practice: #PLACE PLAYER:SOURCE="electronic/ACE_mindfulness_podcast.mp3" COLOR="536895"#
 
To learn more about mindfulness and find Goldstein's e-books and guided exercises on CD, see this website. You can also find exercises at UCLA's Mindful Awareness Research Center website, along with information on classes.
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