Mindfulness Meditation vs Stress

Although only recently embraced by Western psychology, mindfulness practices and techniques have been part of many Eastern philosophies, such as Buddhism, Taoism, Tai Chi, Hinduism, and most martial arts, for thousands of years. The various definitions of it revolve around bringing non-judgmental consciousness to the present experience, so it can be considered the art of conscious living. Mindfulness is said to be:

  • “Bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis” (Marlatt & Kristeller, 1999, p 68)
  • “Paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn, 1994, p4).
  • “Consciously bringing awareness to your here-and-now experience, with openness, interest, and receptiveness” (Harris, 2007).

While mindfulness practices require a certain degree of calm and equanimity and although they tend to engender greater relaxation, they are different from relaxation practices in some other schools of thought. Mindfulness is a form of mental training intended to enhance awareness and the ability to disengage from maladaptive patterns of mind that make one vulnerable to stress responses and psychopathology. Training in mindfulness attempts to increase awareness of thoughts, emotions, and maladaptive ways of responding to stress, thereby helping practitioners learn to cope with stress in healthier, more effective ways (Bishop et al, 2004, in Shapiro et al, 2005).

Chief skills of mindfulness

Mindfulness proponents describe four chief skills as necessary for full practice of mindfulness:

  1. Defusion. This is defined as distancing from and letting go of unhelpful thoughts, beliefs, memories and other cognitions.
  2. Acceptance. This principle means that thoughts are to be allowed to come and go without a struggle. The practitioner makes room for painful or unpleasant feelings, urges, and sensations: not engaging with them unless it is helpful, but not controlling them either.
  3. Contact with the present moment. This principle is enacted by engaging fully with our here-and-now experience, with an attitude of openness and curiosity. What might happen if we tune into current experience – the “now” – rather than thoughts (which are at least one step removed from experience)? The possibilities are manifold.
  4. Spacious awareness. By creating the Observer Self or Witness to counterbalance the Thinking Self which is normally in control, a practitioner accesses a more spacious sense of self: a transcendent aspect that is conscious of thoughts and feelings as passing experiences, but is not identified with them (Harris, 2009).

General instructions (techniques)

Harris (2009) notes that there are over 100 techniques merely for defusion! We explain several typical ones here, but once you get the hang of the skills, you can invent many more techniques to suit your particular clients.

Defusion exercises

Direct your client to write down three or four negative, self-judgmental thoughts, such as “I am fat”, “I’m incompetent at my job”, or “I’m a lousy conversationalist”. If you prefer to do this for yourself as a therapist, you may wish to try the exercise with sentences you might tell yourself after you have had a session with a client where everything went wrong. Pick, or direct the client to pick, the thought that bothers the most and use it to work through the following exercises. In each exercise, the point is to first fuse (identify) with the thought and then defuse (disidentify) from it. Follow, or direct your client to follow, these instructions.

I’m having the thought that…

  • Make sure that your negative self-judgment is in very short form: i.e.: “I am X”. Fuse with this thought for 10 seconds. During this time you are to give the thought your full attention, getting really caught up with it. Believe it as much as you possibly can.
  • Now replay the thought with this phrase added onto the front of it: “I’m having the thought that …” For instance in our example, you might say, “I’m having the thought that I’m incompetent”.
  • Have a third go, this time adding “I notice I’m having the thought that …” in front of the original, for example: “I notice I’m having the thought that I am incompetent”.
  • Now, tune into yourself. Did you notice a sense of separation or distance from the thought? If you didn’t, run through this exercise again with a different negative thought (Harris, 2009).

Acceptance (equals expansion)

In signing up for acceptance, mindfulness practitioners take a further step. They agree to equate “acceptance” with “expansion”. We can get why this is important when we consider for a moment the way that we talk about the experience of strong feelings in English. We say that we feel “tension”, which is a state of being stressed or strained. We say that we feel “stressed”; to stress something is to subject it to pressure. We acknowledge being “under pressure”. Thus, the impact of our emotional reaction to events in either our inner or outer life is for us to feel cramped, reduced, or squashed: a logical result when we are struggling with feelings writ large. We say that life is so demanding that we “cannot breathe” or that we need “room” or “breathing space”.

Thus, to counterbalance this experience, we can mindfully expand. That is, we can make room for our feelings: the opposite of the tensing up (i.e., straining or constricting ourselves, as if to force the emotions out) that we typically do. Expansion means opening up and making room for the feelings, much as you would sense the openness in a vast “expanse” of sky. Making room for feelings eases the pressure, lightens the tension, and frees the feelings to move. Energy then is freed to pursue a meaningful life rather than a struggle.

The practice of expansion

In practicing acceptance/expansion, the aim is to experience emotions: by observing them, not thinking about them. The Thinking Self will try to have the Observing Self believe that the feelings are all big, scary monsters, which should be fought and vanquished. The Observing Self will need to stay present with the feelings so it can experience them as the relatively small and harmless creations they are. In the following exercise, the client is urged to let thoughts come and go in the background and keep attention focused on the emotions. In this context, we define an emotion as a set of physical changes in the body; we notice the physical changes as physical sensations. Expansion has three steps: (1) to observe one’s feelings; (2) to breathe into them; (3) to let them come and go. In order to deal with an unpleasant emotion, have the client follow these instructions (adapted f rom Harris, 2007).

Step 1: Observe

“Observe” here means notice the sensations in your body. Scanning yourself from head to toe, observe what you are feeling, and where. There may be several uncomfortable sensations; notice the one that bothers you the most. It could be a knot in your stomach, tears in your eyes, or a lump in your throat. Your neck and back could feel tense or stiff. Pick the most uncomfortable sensation and focus on it, regarding it with curiosity, like a scientist would a new lab specimen. Observe it carefully: is it inside your body, outside, or both? Where, exactly, is it, and if you had to draw a line around it, what shape would that line be? Is the sensation intense throughout, or possibly more different in the centre than at the edges? Do you sense any pulsing or vibration in it? Does it feel light or heavy, warm or cool? What else do you notice about the sensation?

Step 2: Breathe

“Breathe” means that you breathe into and around the sensation, as if making extra room for it. Take several deep breaths, the slower the better, because they lower the tension level and calm you, creating an anchor. Anchors don’t make storms (including emotional storms) go away, but they steady the boat until the storm passes. Imagine that you are breathing directly into the sensation. Feel your breath flowing in and around it, as if you are creating extra space for it in your body. Loosen up around this sensation, giving it room to “move”.

Step 3: Allow

“Allow” in this exercise means that you allow the sensation to be there, even though you don’t like it or want it. You just let it be. If your mind begins to comment on what is happening, your job is to say, “Thanks, Mind”, and go back to observing. Upon feeling the urge to fight this feeling – or the process of allowing it – you can acknowledge the urge. It is like nodding to it, as if to say, “I see you there”, and then you go back to the task: observing the sensation. Your job is not to alter or get rid of the sensation in any way, only to accept it. The sensation may change after some time, or perhaps it will not change. Either way is ok. Your goal is to accept the sensation, not to control or change it. You may need to focus on this sensation from several seconds to several minutes in order to make peace with it. Once you have accepted this sensation, you can re-scan your body for others and repeat the exercise. Be patient; acceptance is a valuable skill to learn (adapted from Harris, 2007).

Contact with present moment

The following exercises give some practice with grounding mindfulness techniques in the crucible of everyday life.

Mindful eating

  1. Sit down at the table with your food and not much else: no television, radio, book, computer, music, or conversation.
  2. Eat your meal paying full attention to each piece of food as you select it to eat: how it looks, how it smells, and what is happening with your various muscles as you cut it and raise it to your mouth. Notice what the texture and taste of it is as you slowly and thoroughly chew it.
  3. Compare any differences you notice between how the food tastes (and how it goes down through your system) when eaten this way as opposed to “multi-task eating”. Meals eaten mindfully are more filling than others and also very good for digestion.

Mindful walking

The same principle applies to mindful walking as to mindful eating. While walking, you focus on everything in and around you: the feel of the ground under your feet, your breathing, the sky, the view, the flowers, trees, or other foliage along the route, the other walkers, the feel of the wind on your face and in your hair, the sun on your skin… If you lapse into thinking, just thank your mind for its contribution and go back to experiencing the walk. Enjoy the outing!

One minute of breath

In this exercise, your task is to devote a whole minute – measured by a clock or watch in front of you – to your breath: nothing more, nothing less. What do you observe about yourself at the end of the minute? (Exercises adapted from Elliston, 2001).

Focusing awareness of an aspect of a physical habit

Most people have many habits and life routines that they do on “automatic pilot”. To bring mindfulness more into daily life, perform one of these actions or routines while noticing everything you can about it. For example, you could try:

  1. Noticing your posture or how you hold the steering wheel while driving in rush-hour traffic
  2. Observing what happens to your voice and breath when you are arguing
  3. Tuning into what your bodily sensations are as you stand under the shower
  4. Feeling what it is like – the sounds, the kinaesthetic feel, the visual appeal of the glasses and crockery – as you place each clean dish or cup from the dishwasher back into the cupboard (Walsh, 2006).

This article was adapted from the upcoming Mental Health Academy course “Helping Stressed Clients Relax”.


  • Elliston, P. (2001). Mindfulness in medicine and everyday life. British Medical Journal, Career Focus: 17th November, 2001.
  • Harris, R. (2007). The happiness trap: stop struggling, start living. Wollombi, NSW, Australia: Exisle Publishing, Ltd.
  • Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York: Hyperion.
  • Marlatt, G. A., & Kristeller, J. L. (1999). Mindfulness and meditation. In W. R. Miller (Ed.), Integrating spirituality into treatment (pp. 67-84). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
  • Shapiro, S.L., Astin, J.A., Bishop, S.R., & Cordova, M. (2005). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for health care professionals: results from a randomised trial. International Journal of Stress Management, 12 (2), 164-176.
  • Walsh, C. (2006). Some of the benefits of mindfulness. Mindfulness.org.au. Retrieved on 8 May, 2013, from: hyperlink.