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Responding mindfully to stress


We recently posted a blog on what, really, is mindfulness? In this blog, we’ll outline how to use mindfulness to respond to stress.

Our mind’s natural tendency is to judge, compare and criticise (that’s just evolution!). When we are stressed this goes into overdrive – you’re likely to have even more negative and worrisome thoughts … you might find yourself spending more time caught in unproductive rumination, getting nowhere … And if you notice this happening, chances are you end up beating yourself up and judging yourself for having these thoughts in the first place! We move from judgment, to judgment, to judgment, becoming more and more stressed! And when we feel stressed, these thoughts can seem like the absolute truth. But they are actually just symptoms of stress … just like a snotty nose is a symptom of the common cold. As you get more stressed, you believe your thoughts more strongly, making it harder to see past them.

Chances are you have probably tried different strategies to control your thoughts … strategies like trying not to think about something that is bothering you … going to extreme lengths to stay busy and distract yourself … or perhaps you’ve tried challenging them, thinking of every reason why the thought isn’t true. What have you noticed by trying to control, challenge or change your thinking? Probably that it hasn’t been very successful. We invest all this time, energy, and effort into trying to control or change our thinking, which ironically only keeps us stuck in our head and out of touch with reality. This ultimately distracts us from what we can actually control: our actions! This seems hugely unfair, we have this incredible ability to control our external environment – to problem solve, to think critically, however when we apply these same strategies to our internal experiences such as thoughts or emotions, it has the opposite intended effect. It makes matters worse. Now don’t get me wrong, at times it can be incredibly helpful to take an alternative perspective, to problem solve, and to think critically – a lot of therapies use these skills. It only becomes problematic when it leads to suffering. When trying to control our thoughts ramps up the intensity of our emotions or drives us towards unhelpful behaviours.

By practicing mindfulness, and observing our thinking, we start to notice habitual patterns, the kinds of stories that our mind regularly generates. Hopefully, with time and practice, we can begin to realise that thoughts are just mental events … perhaps our thoughts aren’t true and don’t capture the whole situation? We learn that thoughts are not facts, they are appraisals, interpretations, judgements, and opinions all heavily influenced by past experiences and current mood. When we take this perspective, we can start to see that how we interpret the world makes a huge difference to how we react, and more often than not we are reacting to our interpretations of things, rather than things themselves. In periods of high stress, we can become aware that our thoughts are symptoms of stress and exhaustion – a signal to be listened to with compassion.

So how do we do this?

  1. Observe your thoughts. Notice what your mind is saying. We are not supressing thoughts, we are not analysing or judging them, we are simply acknowledging their presence. Observe but do not evaluate your thoughts. You might like to describe the type of thought such as “here’s planning” or “here’s worry”
  2. Adopt a curious mind. Ask “where do my thoughts come from?” Imagine yourself stepping back and observing thoughts as they enter and exit your mind, like passing clouds in the sky.
  3. Remind yourself you are not your thoughts; you are the watcher, the observer, you are the vast sky.
  4. Do your best not to block or suppress thoughts. Turn your mind to bodily sensations, then come back to the thought, repeat this several times, moving between your thoughts and bodily sensations. Observe your breath.

So rather than believing thoughts automatically, it can be helpful to notice the type of thoughts that add value to your life and are helpful, and those that undermine you, and pull you away from what’s important. This practice allows us to change our relationship to our thoughts by labelling them as mental events and being able to discern between those that are harmful and those that are helpful. Practicing mindfulness allows more flexibility in how we respond to thoughts, our experience, and to people and everyday life.


Dr. David H. Demmer
Director | Clinical Psychologist
Q Psychology