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Dossier: Stress and relaxation

Mindfulness training: Living in the now

Is it possible to live a happy and peaceful life? Mindfulness coach Angelika von der Assen believes that meditation and mindfulness are key to leading a fulfilled life.

Text: Julie Freudiger, photo: Kostas Maros

There are many sources of stress in everyday life: demanding bosses, endless appointments, conflict at home, to name but a few. More and more people are being pushed to their limits. According to the Job Stress Index of Gesundheitsförderung Schweiz, around one in five employees feel stressed and exhausted.

If you’ve spent time searching for ways to manage stress, you may have noticed that the keywords meditation and mindfulness keep popping up. Mindfulness is now even a buzz word in the corporate world. Organisational/corporate psychologist and mindfulness coach Angelika von der Assen was one of the first coaches in Switzerland to introduce mindfulness in the workplace. She can teach techniques to help people cope with everyday stress and strain.

Ms von der Assen, what are the biggest stress factors in everyday life?

We simply want too much: a fantastic job, attractiveness, an unforgettable holiday. It’s practically impossible to achieve all of this. I call this addiction to action the “doing mode”. But the primary cause of stress is located between our ears – in our heads. Externally, there is actually no stress: how you react to a situation depends on your mindset.I’m either ruled by my thoughts, feelings and beliefs, or I consciously decide how to react. For example, instead of worrying about the upcoming reorganisation, I can see it as an opportunity for new developments. What’s more, when we mentally tick something off our to-do list, our brains release the reward hormone dopamine which is addictive.

How can we escape this vicious cycle?
We need to find a better balance between doing and being. Take advantage of moments of peace and doing nothing in order to get in touch with ourselves. Many people don’t know how their brain works. They don’t know where the thoughts that put them under pressure and rob them of sleep come from. To find out, we need to pause and observe our thoughts and breathing. This is where mindfulness training comes in.

What is mindfulness? A definition

Mindfulness training is about being aware of your thoughts and feelings. Angelika von der Assen says that the shortest definition of mindfulness is being conscious. It’s about an awareness of what you’re sensing and feeling in the present moment, without passing judgement. In other words, mindfulness is a form of meditation. A good ten years ago, scientists were able to use magnetic resonance imaging to show that the brain can be changed permanently through regular meditation. Current research indicates that mindfulness must be practised for 21 consecutive days for at least 10 minutes at a time in order for it to be effective.

Mindfulness helps us to become more focused and efficient. Is this why more and more companies are investing in mindfulness training?

There are many reasons for undertaking mindfulness courses. One of the most important reasons is stress management. Mindfulness helps us better deal with stress, thus drastically reducing the number of absences due to illness and even preventing burnout. Many workers feel stretched to their limits nowadays. The world is moving too fast. We need new tools that help us to better cope with the constant stress and burden.

How does mindfulness help combat stress?

Mindfulness exercises help make me more resilient. I know that I am able to keep calm inside even if chaos reigns around me by reminding myself that it is merely a fleeting moment in time and the crisis will be over at some point. Meditation also helps me to deal with overpowering emotions, acknowledge them and accept them. The third step is to take a more positive outlook on life.

Stress caused by thoughts

Even when we’re eating breakfast, we’re already thinking about work, and when we’re at work, we’re thinking about what we need to buy for tea. When we’re shopping, we’re thinking we should be outside jogging. And once we manage to get out jogging, we’re already thinking about what we have planned for the next day. We’re constantly thinking. How can sitting still and focusing on breathing help?

How does meditation help against stress?

Meditation has helped me to become more consciously aware of my thoughts and learn how to manage them. Some 60,000 to 80,000 thoughts fly through our heads on a daily basis. Our brains are buzzing, and we simply surrender to our thoughts and let ourselves function on auto-pilot. If we’re better able to understand how our mind works, then we will no longer be at the mercy of our thoughts.

Can you give us an example?

One of my clients had a very long list of jobs on his mental to-do list. One of which was to wash his car. One evening in February he found himself outside in the freezing cold washing his car when he suddenly realised what he was doing. We often find ourselves on autopilot and stubbornly following our thoughts.

How can we be free of this blinkered auto-pilot? n?

I recommend a so-called “sacred break”. Anything is possible during the time between a stimulus and my reaction. When I realise what is happening, I can make a conscious decision. This is being mindful. Let’s go back to our example: My client could have consciously thought about the fact that he needed to wash his car and then decide to do something else that might do him good instead, like having a warm bath.

Learning mindfulness

It may sound simple, but it’s not always easy to put it into practice. The same response patterns often reoccur and we react without thinking. But the good news is that we can learn to be mindful. There are plenty of exercise that we can incorporate into our daily routine even when we’re at home.

Which mindfulness exercises do you recommend to help cope with everyday stress?

Take three deep breaths before switching from one activity to another. This will help you relax and think clearly again. Or if your kids are driving you crazy at the dinner table, pause for a moment, take three deep breaths and think: This is a difficult situation, how do I proceed? The principle is as follows: Acknowledge the stimulus – pause – make a conscious decision. This can, and indeed should, be practised. Just doing this goes a long way to helping.

So, meditation isn’t necessarily about sitting still for hours?

Sitting and meditating regularly supports your mental training. But there are also many forms of integrated meditation. For example, focus completely on doing the dishes – as if you were concentrating on your breathing. Or focus on brushing your teeth, listen attentively to others, write emails attentively. Do these things as if you were doing them for the first time. It’s about observing and getting to know your own mind.

Do we need to learn how to meditate?

Everyone is capable of meditating, we’ve just forgotten how. Children are able to do it, because they live in the moment. This is the definition of mindfulness: being in the here and now. Children can do this. And we can relearn it.

If we train regularly, is it possible to rid ourselves of these intrusive thoughts that define us and get us down?

We can’t switch them off entirely, but we can become more aware of their existence. Even when we meditate, we are never safe from a flood of thoughts. In fact, they are a vital part of the training. I focus on my breathing and perceive my thoughts, then I switch back consciously to my breathing. This can be applied in everyday working life, too. If I receive a text message when I’m writing an email, I’m aware of the distraction and make a conscious decision to continue writing the email.

What do we need in order to lead a fulfilled life?

A fulfilled life means you’re not simply guided by external forces, but also feel connected to yourself. If you create moments of stillness, you can tune into your inner voice. This helps you become aware of your calling, in your working life and beyond. There are no external factors that make you happy. Happiness is always something that comes from within.

Practising mindfulness meditation

Pause, take a break, breathe, observe the body and be present: exercises that help to reduce stress can be that simple. Angelika von der Assen describes five of her mindfulness meditation exercises.

To the mindfulness meditation exercises