Stress and anxiety all in the mind?

Stress and anxiety are an unwelcome part of modern life for millions of people. Lesley Dobson considers whether we carry the worry cure within ourselves.

Many of us live our lives at a hectic pace, driven in part by increasing economic pressure and uncertainty about the future.

But, while we can’t slow the world down, there are ways of finding calm in the midst of our busy routines. “Mindfulness” has grown in popularity as a meditation technique over the years. It has been the subject of considerable research and gained scientific backing, to the point where the NHS will refer patients for mindfulness training.

How to be mindful

Mindfulness is being aware of the moment – not thinking about whether it’s good or bad; simply being aware of what’s going on around you. It’s a simple form of meditation, which can include stretching exercises and focusing your attention on each breath you take. This can help you to become aware of the thoughts that drift into your consciousness without being taken over by them. One expert describes it as watching thoughts appear in your mind, like soap bubbles, and then watching them disappear.

The aim of this type of meditation is to help us see that we have thoughts all the time, but we don’t always have to be driven by them. When we have thoughts that might make us more stressed, we can learn to acknowledge them, rather than getting caught up in them.

Practising mindfulness is intended to help us reconnect with our bodies and put us back in control of our lives. Research has found that people who have been on mindfulness courses have reduced their stress and improved their mood. Some studies have even shown clear changes in the brain after meditation training – changes that could improve practitioners’ emotional stability and mental clarity. Others have found that mindfulness meditation can reduce their sensations of pain or discomfort by almost 50 per cent.

None of this is a surprise to Mark Leonard, from the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, who teaches mindfulness in the workplace. “It has been shown to be helpful with depression, anxiety and stress,” he says. “And it’s as effective as antidepressants and cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) for preventing the recurrence of depression. It helps us with all sorts of aspects of our lives, such as maintaining a good life-work balance, taking care of the people around us and learning how to handle difficult situations.

“A lot of the time the problem we have is worrying about problems that never happen. When we’re caught up in these thoughts, it means we’re missing out on the small pleasures of life, such as the colour of autumn leaves. Mindfulness can help to improve our wellbeing and quality of life.”

Tried and tested

Danny Butler (not his real name), a chef from Cambridge, struggled with anxiety for years. He took antidepressants for a while and tried CBT. Then he read an article on mindfulness, and signed up for the Mental Health Foundation’s four-week “Be mindful” course online. “It had a massive impact,” says Butler, 53. “I became more calm and less anxious. It’s like taking charge of my own mind. Once you change your mindset, you can disengage when you find yourself worrying about something. You realise that you don’t have to worry about these things; you can do something about it. I found it profoundly life changing.”

Linda Moore is a mother of three from Beckenham, Kent, who was treated for breast cancer last year. When she took an eight-week mindfulness-based programme to manage stress, she started noticing the benefits halfway through the course. “The aim of this course is to make you more aware of the moment. We learn meditation, breathing techniques and stretching exercises,” Moore explains. “Even after the course ends, it’s still a work in progress. But you can do it anywhere.

For example, I took my boys to a hockey match, sat in the car and just focused on the moment, listening to the rain coming down. I think it does work, because it calms you. It helps me to worry less about the future.”


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How to boost your mental wellbeing

  • Talking therapies, such as CBT, are beneficial.

  • Yoga is good for flexibility and balance, and there is some evidence to show that it helps with stress and depression, too.

  • T’ai chi involves deep breathing and relaxation with gentle movement. Studies have found that it can help to reduce stress in people aged over 65.

  • Meditation comes in many variations, including mindfulness. All aim to help reduce stress and build inner peace. Aromatherapy massage, with music, can help to reduce anxiety.

  • Exercise is often recommended – particularly outdoor activities, which can bring both mental and physical benefits.

Further resources

If you're a member of Benenden Health, you can call our Mental Health Helpline for support 24/7, from day one of your membership.