Understanding Stress and Mental Fitness: Techniques for Building Resilience

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Corporate wellness programs primarily focus on aspects of physical health, but mental fitness is an area worth exploring. While it may be hard to imagine we can directly affect this aspect of our being, current studies reveal that we have much more control than previously thought when it comes to brain health.


The four main pillars of brain health include: physical fitness, proper nutrition, stress management and mental stimulation. Many corporate programs devote a good portion of their energy and budget to physical fitness and nutrition, which is entirely appropriate, given the large numbers of Americans with high blood pressure, high cholesterol and obesity.


Incentives - financial and otherwise - are effective ways to motivate workers to make the changes that benefit their wellbeing and reduce the high costs of health care. This article is concerned with the third pillar, stress management, which is not overlooked, but is often misunderstood. We know that long-term stress contributes to heart disease, depressed immune function, digestive problems, and back and neck pain, but we now know that stress also kills neurons and is one of the most damaging factors to brain health, effecting crucial functions of memory and mental performance.  


This makes it even more compelling for corporations and individuals to find ways to alleviate it. Where stress is high and workers do not have appropriate outlets there is strong evidence that job performance can be detrimentally affected. This is the case even if the employee is physically well. One of the key aspects of stress management is helping people understand that not all stress is bad.  

This may seem obvious, but the truth is, stress has such a 'bad rap' that people often don't understand that it serves an important role in helping us to achieve our goals as well as save our lives in the rare instances when we may be truly threatened. But understanding 'good' and 'bad' stress is not enough.  


Because we are all wired differently and have unique ways of coping (or not coping), helping people understand their unique stressors is crucial to any successful stress management program. People know that uninterrupted stress over a long period of time has damaging implications for health, but most people are unaware of the myriad and subtle ways stress presents itself in their own lives, until they think about it objectively.  


Emotional, behavioral, and physical responses to stress: these are just a few of the areas that can be examined and provide valuable clues to a person's unique stress response. Once stressors are better understood, people can choose from a variety of techniques, which can literally stop stress in its tracks.  


These include breathing practices, movement which can be done at a desk (and other forms of exercise), and progressive relaxation. One of the most effective ways to combat stress and build lifelong resilience is meditation, but meditation is often misunderstood. A big misconception is that it is for people who are not fully engaged in the world.


Many people roll their eyes at the mention of the word, and think that they need to be secreted away in a cave, or withdrawn from society to practice. Or they think that meditation is a fad or 'new age'. These practices come to us from Asian traditions (India, Japan and China) but they are far from new; they have existed for centuries.


For those of us who do not aspire to lead an ascetic life (most of us), meditation prepares us to be in the world and to approach life with energy, balance and creativity. Modern science has been putting meditation to the test for many years. Studies show dramatic and effective results in countering stress and improving cognitive functions such as attention.


In a study by Posner  in 2007, participants practicing IBMT - a form of body-mind form of meditation - showed not only an improvement in levels of attention, they also had reduced cortisol levels. This is significant because it's the continuous elevation of cortisol that contributes to impaired cognitive performance, blood sugar imbalances, higher blood pressure and lowered immunity.


Equally important for employee wellbeing and performance, an April 2003 study cited in Psychology Today  reports meditators' experienced significant improvements in mental health, productivity, being less bothered by external stressors and feeling more successful. So how does one find a method of meditation that is appropriate?


What may be beneficial for one person can truly be harmful to another. If one kind of meditation does not seem accessible, a qualified teacher can guide you towards an appropriate technique. Unfortunately, many people begin a meditation practice and give up after a short period of time. This can often be attributed to a teacher who insists students meditate in a certain way.  


A private client I work with was so irritated after attending a meditation workshop where the teacher shamed her for not 'doing it correctly' that she experienced more stress from the class that she did from the original stressor. It took her time to be willing to try again and find an appropriate technique that worked for her.

There are many different types of meditation: concentration, mindfulness, visualization, open-eye, laughter and breathing, to name a few. Surprising to some, meditation is not necessarily a sedentary practice. In fact, for people who find a seated meditation difficult, moving practices like walking a labyrinth or tai chi can be very effective.


Using visualization or imagery techniques are closely related to meditative practices and are also effective in reducing stress. As in meditation, imagery exercises are best if they are geared to the individual. For instance, if you do not swim, a guided imagery practice that places you in the sea or a body of water (however idyllic) would potentially be stressful.


While practicing visualization, taking time to experience all the senses (sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch) can be extremely powerful and restorative. People practicing imagery techniques, even for the first time, are often surprised at the ability of their minds to transport them far away.


One of the most effective ways to learn meditation or visualization is in a group setting, over a period of time, meeting at least once a week for 4-6 weeks. People undergo different challenges (internal and external) when they are beginning a daily practice and coming together one a week to discuss their experiences allows them to feel less isolated while building good habits.


Many forward-thinking companies have a dedicated 'quiet room' where employees can go during a break to spend a few minutes meditating or practicing visualization techniques.  This kind of brief but empowering respite from our busy lives becomes even more valuable as we find it increasingly challenging to unplug from technology.


Taking a few moments to refresh gives people more vigor and new insights when they reenter their workspace. As with any new practice, starting small is advised. Just a few minutes a day can start one on a path towards life long practice. The practice of meditation requires consistency over a period of time, but the rewards in increased resilience and wellbeing are significant.


About the Author

Jaymie Meyer, RYT500, AHE, is a lifestyle coach with certifications in stress management, bereavement counseling, yoga therapy and Ayurveda. She is also a Reiki Master. She has been delivering Resilience for Life workshops for over 9 years at work sites and educational institutions.


A partial list of current and past clients include: Bloomberg, Coby Electronics Corporation, Columbia University, Harris Rothenberg International, IBM, Jewish Guild for the Blind, Martha Stewart Living, Omnimedia, Panasonic Corporation of North America, and The New York Public Library.


She is a professional member of the National Speakers Association, the Int'l Federation of Public Speaking and an award-winning member of Graybar Toastmasters in NYC. She is on faculty at the Integral Yoga Academy in Virginia, where she teaches Stress Management teacher training every summer.


As a corporate spokesperson, she has toured nationally, presenting live for Fortune500 clients such as AT&T, and Canon. Ms. Meyer makes regular TV and radio appearances and relies upon the stress reducing practices she teaches to maintain balance and recharge her own batteries. For more information on corporate programs and other services or to sign up for the Resilience for Life newsletter, visit www.resilienceforlife.com.