Forget everything you’ve heard about mindfulness and “living in the moment.” These common phrases are overused, and at this point are laden with misunderstandings. Forget the pop-psychology one-liners about mindfulness, the cute little sayings, the iPhone apps, one week challenges and everything else you’ve heard. For the moment, forget everything you’ve ever heard about burnout and wellness. Forget about all the multitudes of theories and explanations, the complexities surrounding our needs and wants, and all the little tricks people tell you about how to keep well.

Instead, imaging a simple way of understanding stress that just makes sense, and is easy to use in daily life. I mean REALLY makes sense; no magical hippy-dippy chants or potions, no neurotransmitter imbalances, no blaming other people or “the system” for how we feel. Imagine an approach that is rooted in science, how the brain works and how our thoughts are a manifestation of that functioning – one that makes evolutionary sense.

We’re going to consider an “unified field theory of stress”, one that will help you deal with all the hard things and life and not cost you a thing. It will work, I mean really work – and not just dealing with your career or in your relationships, but also with that guy who just took your parking spot, or the lady who budded in front of you at the chip van. You don’t have to take any pills, change the system or even rely on others, it is all inside of you. That is mindfulness, but it could be called anything (higgledy-piggledy if you’d like). As a special bonus, it will also really help you with your anxious emergency room patients (but maybe I will save that for another post).

Keeping an open mind

While it may sound ridiculous, to really understand mindfulness, you need to keep an open mind. Some people call this a “beginner’s mind”; akin to looking at something for the first time. Try to let go of all your assumptions about how the mind works, and the result will surprise you. Most of us, for instance, think of our minds as a conscious processor that receives a stream of data and makes decisions based on our values. This is a huge misconception, the reality is that there is a gargantuan volume of information and processing that goes on below the surface. In fact, we receive information in vast quantities every second of our lives, and we process and react to it without ever consciously noticing.

Interestingly, this processing can influence our conscious mind (although we don’t notice it), even when assuming that we are being perfectly conscious and logical. Some would refer to this as  the subconscious, ego, emotion generator or the seat of “habits; good and bad”. The processing is not very loud, but if you’re really quiet, you can actually hear your subconscious ticking away; manifested by feeling butterflies in your abdomen, flushing of your face or pounding in your ear – and this is when you know something is going on.

Mindfulness and the key to minimizing stress

Stress then, is really a function of the whole brain, both conscious and subconscious. Maybe stress is a bad word; it conjures up an image of threats from the outside, whereas in reality, the whole thing occurs inside us. What we feel is an activation of our fear centers, and this happens often without knowing where it is coming from. Ultimately, this stress is a result of thinking too much, and that is ok, we are champion thinkers – that is how we got to be so dominant on this planet.

Perhaps what we are best at is thinking about the past (to learn from mistakes) and anticipating the future (to plan future actions), but herein lies the problem. We are constantly thinking; our conscious brain is so busy ruminating on the past or anticipating different situations that the whole thing overheats and overloads the circuits. Furthermore, thinking isn’t really that fun. The fun lays in the moment we are in, enjoying the things around us, the sensations in our body and the people we are with now.

The more we ruminate on the past and anticipate the future, the more stressed we are and the less fun we have, it is as simple as that. You certainly don’t have to take my word for it – fancy scientific scans of the brain support this theory as well. Of course we have to plan for the future, but in this day and age we do it too much.

Mindfulness is paying attention in the present moment, primarily to cut down on this process for at least a part of your day. Cool eh’? This is exactly what I tell my patients, that anxiety and ruminating is merely a side effect of being super intelligent beings with a huge capacity for thinking.

There is a little more to it than that, but not much. If you want to go searching for more – a simple but well written book is available free online (Mindfulness in Plain English). Another fabulous writer (and the first to do a large amount of research on this) is Jon Kabat-Zinn, any of his books are great reads. There you go, you are on your way!

Curtis Lavoie

Curtis Lavoie

Dr. Lavoie is an adult and Pediatric Emergency Physician at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario and the Montfort Hospital. His clinical interests are around the use of street drugs in youth and anxiety related disorders. His reflections on mindfulness, along with his passion for the environment help to drive his thoughts on wellness.
Shahbaz Syed
Dr. Syed is an staff Emergency physician at the Ottawa Hospital, with an fellowship in Digital Scholarship and special interests in rational resource utilization.