Happy holidays: stress less with mindfulness this Christmas

Christmas and the holidays are mostly feelgood times. At least the ideas behind them are positive, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t stressful. Clinical Neuropsychologist Dr Michael Takagi, says there’s plenty of evidence to show stress comes from happy occasions too: “Planning a wedding is a joyful, positive occasion, but very stressful. For many people it is overwhelming.

“Christmas is on a smaller scale, but it can be a bit like that. So, can holidays.”

A big issue with positive life events is they usually come with expectations, that’s just human nature, right? It’s normal to expect Christmas to feel familiar, even similar to previous years. It’s also pretty normal to expect gifts from people we are close to. So, what if they forget, or buy something we don’t want? It’s usual too, to expect our holiday will feel relaxing in a way that we want. But what if the holiday cabins you usually book aren’t available, and the alternate choice doesn’t measure up? The family probably complains, that’s what.

It’s important to note that Christmas isn’t positive for everyone. Research done by the Salvation Army in 2018 found that 7.6 million think Christmas is the most stressful time of the year. One in four Aussies experience anxiety at this time, while the same proportion spend more than they can afford.

Could mindfulness help? It’s never been a magic cure for the kinds of issues noted above, but there’s plenty of evidence that shows mindfulness has a positive impact on our mindset and behaviour.

So as long as our expectations are modest, a few basic mindfulness techniques can take the edge off Christmas and holiday stress.

It’s a good idea to do a little unpacking to make your mindfulness techniques effective this Christmas and holiday season, Dr Takagi says anticipating potentially stressful events can improve our chances of reducing stress. So, let’s dig a little deeper. Christmas and the holidays have the capacity to stress us out in several ways:

  1. Financially
  2. At work
  3. The celebration/s
  4. Relationships
  5. Post-holiday blues

Below we’ll look briefly at how mindfulness works and then unpack each of those trigger points.to see how mindfulness can help.

HOW MINDFULNESS WORKS

In a nutshell, by reducing the stress hormones that course through our minds and deactivating the parasympathetic nervous system that sparks the flight, fight or freeze responses. Our muscles relax and loosen, our breathing slows down and becomes deeper. We feel less agitation and can think clearer and make better decisions.

But those effects are the end result not the instructions for getting there.

It’s a misconception that mindfulness is clearing the mind and calming down, though we might get those benefits when we approach mindfulness with a good understanding of what it is.

“A big part of mindfulness is learning to be present in the moment, Dr Takagi says. That is easier said than done, it is normal for your thoughts to wander and go off on a tangent or focus on stressful things in your life. With practice, you learn to bring your thoughts back and stay in the moment.

“What we are trying to do is be aware of how we are feeling, the emotions, the sensations, how the moment is impacting you and acknowledging your reactions are normal.

“Accept your thoughts and feelings without judgement, so for example, if you’re anxious, acknowledge it and reassure yourself that feeling anxious is neither good nor bad. We try not to expect that we should be feeling this way or another way.”

Just accepting your feelings and thoughts and concentrating on your breathing, or relaxing the muscles in your body one at a time, or a very simple visualisation, and letting thoughts go, this can reduce stress. “Feelings and thoughts tend to pass and move on if you let them,” Takagi says.

Why do we need to reduce stress at all? Because continually operating with feelings of stress can interfere with good decision-making. It’s a theme we’ll come back to several times.

FINANCIAL STRESS AND SHOPPING

Situations like rushing to buy presents at the last minute on Christmas Eve, or in a 30-minute lunch break, or having to weave through big crowds to find items in short supply, or trying to tick off a long list of gifts on a budget. These trigger a stress response, even though in evolutionary terms this was obviously not what our stress response was designed to handle.

We are similarly ill-equipped to cope with financial stress, which happens when we experience chronic worry about money.

There’s no doubt stress is a useful immediate reaction for humans in some situations, like, being faced with a life-threatening situation: we can decide under pressure to run, jump, hide, or even fight.  But operating for prolonged periods in a stressed state can lead humans to make bad decisions.

Perhaps nowhere is this more evident with spending money as an attempt to quell stress. Research done by Financial Mindfulness in 2017 found financial stress had damaging effects on relationships and our mental health. Things only got worse during COVID-19, with big increases in level of aggression, isolation and distress due to financial stress.

How often do we make spending decisions we regret later? Most people would probably identify with this when they reflect on purchases made without planning – especially with Christmas gifts and Christmas shopping. Overall, we spend far more at Christmas than any other time of the year and it’s growing every year. Roy Morgan Research predicts Christmas period spending in Australia for the six weeks leading up to Christmas Eve will be $54.3 billion, up 2.8 per cent from last Christmas.

‘Mindless’ shopping – where we are not fully aware of our financial position or what it is what really want to buy – can become a vicious cycle whether we are doing it online or at a real ‘bricks and mortar’ store. Spending too much quickly results in financial stress, which creates uncomfortable feelings that we paradoxically deal with by buying more for the quick feelgood hit of dopamine.

“Trying to relieve short term emotional discomfort around money by compulsively purchasing things will compound a difficult financial situation and produce even more stress. Doing a few minutes of mindfulness can stop that cycle and having a mindfulness practice can turn that behaviour around.” Dr Takagi says spending is a behaviour positively impacted by mindfulness and mindful practices.

WORKPLACE STRESS

Everyone knows it: that special kind of pre-Christmas madness in the office. We feel pressured to finish up all projects before going on leave.

If you consider the alternative – leaving projects and tasks half done – the Christmas work rush actually makes a lot of sense. Who really wants work hanging over them while they’re on holiday? It’s as reasonable expectation from our partners and families that we will not be doing work, or obsessed with work, while we are with them on Christmas Day and on holiday.

Dr Takagi says the rush to clear the decks is a big cause of tension and stress at Christmas but it can be difficult to avoid. “Sometimes wrapping everything up before Christmas isn’t reasonable but other times that’s just how it is. It depends on the company, the project and the commitments made.”

Dr Takagi admits being one of the many trying to find extra time to finish work before Christmas. “I’m trying to find an extra half a day each week to finish five different jobs. Yesterday I was writing an email which reminded me to make a phone call and that resulted in sending a different email, I was a bit all over the place and overwhelmed. Then if I’m not mindful a five-minute break turns into half hour and I’m really behind. It’s a really common behaviour to have a ‘quick-fix’ behaviour to deal with uncomfortable feelings that seems to work at the time but has negative consequences later.

“I take short breaks and concentrate on my breathing for a few minutes and that helps me to focus and stick to my priorities. Mindfulness is very good at helping me to make better decisions.”

Here are some questions to ask yourself that might help you get that Christmas rush into perspective:

  • Who wants the project wrapped up, you or your boss?
  • Will the project fail if it isn’t finished before the break?
  • Is this part of a bigger piece of work that will continue well into 2021?
  • Is completion prior to Christmas realistic?
  • Will you be likely to obsess over work, or even dip into it, on holiday if you don’t finish it?
  • Will you be more productive if you go for a week or two without doing any work? Why?

CHRISTMAS CELEBRATIONS

The traditional nature of Christmas plans – whether we gather to celebrate on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day or Boxing Day – are enough to stress out most hosts.

All indications are that Aussies are that planning to splurge on Christmas gifts and food too this year, to make up for the social distancing and belt-tightening that happened earlier this year due to COVID.

Roy Morgan Research has forecast a massive 10 per cent increase in spending on food, which means crowds, long waits and products selling out across Australia from fish markets and department stores down to local shopping centres.

Heavy spending and a desire to provide guests with ‘the perfect Christmas” without doubt creates pressure which can lead to minor or major conflicts and tension.

Mindfulness can help us in several ways around the actual Christmas celebrations:

  • Planning accurately so we don’t buy too much food and serve so much that we end up throwing food away;
  • Catering to the tastes of all invited guests, not just expecting everyone to eat the same as us;
  • Having clear, simple boundaries around how much we consume so we avoid over-eating and drinking too much;
  • Being clear about the food and drinks we want and need to avoid, i.e. allergens, emotional eating, alcohol if we need to drive home;
  • Taking mindful time-outs if family gatherings are triggering instead of numbing emotions with alcohol and/or drugs; and
  • Sticking to pre-considered time limits at a gathering if we are likely to be triggered by the people present.

RELATIONSHIPS DURING THE HOLIDAYS

Isn’t it sad that one of the best things about Christmas and the holidays – spending time with loved ones – can actually be the first casualty of festive stress?

We all value family harmony highly for good reason. But under high stress we can become difficult to be around, either because we feel angry or because of another behaviour we use to cope – such as drinking alcohol, gambling or taking drugs.

Even without damaging coping strategies, innocuous and unexpected pressures and expectations can arise that can cause tension. “It happens with my sister and I. I love her dearly, but we really know how to push each other’s buttons too, better than anyone else. It’s always great to see each other but we can also drive each other crazy!”

Once upon a time, in decades past, we would have poured an extra drink or taken multiple cigarette breaks to get away from family for a few minutes. But today we have more awareness and better options. Again, Dr Takagi, suggests taking a breather in sustained close proximity to family, perhaps to do a 5-minute progressive muscle relaxation exercise.

It may seem obvious, but given the stresses of any year – especially one with a global pandemic – and the fast-paced closure of the calendar year, we do actually need to relax and recharge before going back to work.

“Stress and relaxation are mutually exclusive,” Dr Takagi says. “You can’t really relax while you are stressed.”

POST-HOLIDAY BLUES

What goes up must come down and we all know that is true of the relaxed sense of wellbeing and calm we get from a great holiday. But we have to come back to earth and face the prospect of returning to work, school and our normal lives.

A good holiday often brings introspection too: we can reflect on how to the good, the bad and the unhelpful behaviours and habits that might have stressed us throughout 2020. For many of us those included:

  • Unhealthy eating, drinking or substance use
  • Compulsive spending, overspending, gambling or shopping
  • Avoidance of our true financial position
  • Overworking or avoidance of work
  • Unresolved relationship issues
  • Thankfully, January always brings the opportunity to start the New Year in a positive way, which means a clear-headed assessment of what might have been holding us back in 2020.

Beginning a mindfulness practice can help us to see and accept reality, perhaps helping us to make form some new plans and take a few small steps towards the kind of 2021 we really want to live.

After all, we could probably all do with a better year after 2020!

Mindfulness and the Sunk-Cost Bias

If you’ve ever persisted with a dead-end job or loveless relationship or a university degree you regret starting in the hope it will somehow improve, or ‘chased your losses’ by doubling down, you might want to pay attention.

Maybe you’ve endured reading a novel you hated from the first 3 chapters or stayed through a movie just because you bought tickets – despite the fact you would rather be anywhere else.

Have you ever done something similar with money? Plunged money into a stock, a small business or tried your hand at Foreign Currency trading, something you didn’t understand? Hung onto that car for too long when it’s cost you a fortune already?

All these actions, and anything else where we ‘throw good money after bad’, are examples of a famous economic principle called the ‘sunk-cost fallacy’ which can be applied to life in general. It’s the tendency to continue with an irrational and often risky course of action not based on the likely outcome, but because we don’t want to ‘waste’ what are unrecoverable costs and time – aka the ‘sunk-costs’.

It’s a very human response to the loss to try even harder to win, sometimes to avoid feelings of guilt or inadequacy, or even just fear of ‘looking bad’. But at worst ego, politics and emotional decision-making can cause people to double or triple their financial losses, causing huge financial and emotional stress for individuals and their families. In the cold light of day, it’s not rational, but who hasn’t done something like this? More importantly, how do we stop this apparent madness?

Researchers Andrew Hafenbrack, Zoe Kinias, and Sigal Barsade published their work, ‘Debiasing the Mind Through Meditation’, Mindfulness and the Sunk-Cost Bias in the Journal of Psychological Science in 2013.

In the research, the results suggest that increased mindfulness reduces the tendency to allow unrecoverable prior costs to influence current decisions.

“Meditation reduced how much people focused on the past and future, and this psychological shift led to less negative emotion,” Kinias wrote in the journal. “The reduced negative emotion [then] facilitated their ability to let go of sunk costs.” Mindfulness does have some power over bad financial decision making!

In another study, from Elsevier’s journal Personality and Individual Differences in 2007, found “mindfulness is associated with less severe gambling outcomes”. Chad Lakey, Keith Campbell, Adam Goodie (University of Georgia) and Kirk Warren Brown (Virginia Commonwealth University) concluded their findings. They wrote, “are hopeful in suggesting that the greater attention to and awareness of ongoing internal and external stimuli that characterizes mindfulness may represent an effective means of mitigating the impulsive and addictive responses and intemperate risk-attitudes of individuals with problem gambling.”

They concluded: “In this light, mindfulness may help to lessen the grip of automatic thoughts, affective reactions, and behaviour patterns.”

Research into the specific benefits of mindfulness is ongoing but it seems clear that a regular mindfulness practice can have powerful positive effects on dysfunctional decision-making around money.

Financial stress is widespread

Money worries are common. They existed before COVID-19 and now with changes in our employment and society, financial stress has become more widespread.

The Australian Psychological Society reports that financial stress is one of the major causes of stress in adults, and recently published research on the Financial Stress Index (FSI) from Financial Mindfulness, indicates an escalation of financial stress symptoms due to COVID-19 including negative impacts on relationships.

Financial stress is personal and impacts all areas of our lives. It is something we experience regarding our financial situation today or our financial future. It also involves our thoughts about money and finances and what we do in terms of spending and saving, and how we manage our finances.  Financial stress can arise during short term specific financial demands such as change in employment, or from a chronic and long-term financial concern, such as increasing debt with interest repayments or difficulty repaying a home mortgage.

The problem with financial stress is that it does not just impact our finances, it can have a significant effect on our wellbeing including our physical and mental health along with our relationships, work, behaviour and potentially our environment.

Some signs that financial stress is affecting your health, work and relationships include arguing with the people closest to you about money, becoming aggressive to others,  difficulty sleeping, feeling downhearted, overwhelmed, angry or fearful, mood swings, tiredness, loss of appetite, and withdrawing from others.

While these reactions affect your overall wellbeing, if they continue for a prolonged period of time, they could turn into serious health issues.  The important thing is to seek appropriate help.

People from all walks of life may experience problems with their finances at some stage in their lives. It is not something to feel embarrassed or ashamed about, especially as those feelings can stop people from getting the assistance they need.

Financial mindfulness means being aware and paying attention to your finances, and that may mean seeking help. The help required will vary from individuals. It may be practical financial support, or learning budgeting skills, or seeking assistance to manage the stress of money worries.

The first step to being financially aware is to determine how stressed you are by your finances. Our unique Financial Stress Index (FSI) designed by a team of Neuropsychologists and financial experts works out your financial stress levels and potential symptoms. You can start this process by downloading our app and completely your FSI.

 

  

Will mindfulness help humans stay relevant in the age of robots?

While we gaze in awe at the videos of amazing robots coming out of labs worldwide on increasingly smart smartphones, sceptics and academics are meanwhile busy wrestling with the real value of mindfulness.

But a leading British expert has made a huge claim linking the two.
“Mindfulness may come to be seen as the core 21st century capacity, because it concerns our only competitive advantage over the machines: awareness itself,” wrote Jamie Bristow, director of the Mindfulness Initiative in the United Kingdom. The Initiative is an institute that lobbies politicians to include matters “of the heart and mind” in their policy decisions worldwide.

That’s right. We may actually have an edge over machines.
We have known for decades that machines have the potential to outperform humans in almost all areas of life. The lead-up to that point includes the coming automation of jobs humans do now; according to Business Insider UK, one third of all jobs “will be replaced by software, robots and smart machines by 2025.”

“Artificial intelligence and robots are not just challenging blue-collar jobs; they are starting to take over white-collar professions as well. Financial and sports reporters, online marketers, surgeons, anesthesiologists, and financial analysts are already,” wrote Business Insider’s Kathleen Elkins.

The ‘technological singularity’ is the name given usually given to the point at which artificial superintelligence sees machines transcend human beings. Most experts in the area believe this will happen before 2045, although Google’s director of engineering, Ray Kurzweil thinks machines will match human intelligence by 2029.

Writing for Mindful.org, Jamie Bristow pointed out that some of the world’s thought leaders are looking past the inevitable explosion in AI and asking how our innate humanity can solve problems robotics cannot.

One of the key issues put forward at the 2017 World Government Summit in Dubai was that “We need to develop 21st century job skills that cannot be replaced by robots and AI, which means exploring and cultivating what makes us uniquely human.”

Bristow alluded to the fact that aspects of many jobs, such as being listened to by a GP, carry value beyond a machine’s capacity.

Another key idea proposed at that summit, by Professor Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, was “new, human-centered thinking—considering happiness, wellbeing, purpose and meaning” in policy-making. Human happiness was also consistently near the top of the agenda, especially with mass unemployment a big possibility due to automation.

“It goes without saying that anything that we can do on autopilot, robots and AI will soon do better,” Bristow wrote.

Because of what it allows our minds to do, mindfulness could well hold the key to our remaining relevant – as long as humans exist anyway.

“Mindfulness practice is about more than just attention training. It’s also largely about developing kind curiosity towards inner experience, and provides a framework for deep inquiry into the psychological mechanisms of distress and wellbeing,” Bristow wrote.

In other words, when we observe thoughts without judgement we can see past our own insecurities and find it easier to empathise with others.
“This heightened empathy arises in part through the development of body awareness—as it turns out, the more we are grounded in the body and know stillness, the more we can feel moved,” wrote Bristow.

Psychologists who utilize mindfulness in their work might well add guilt and healthy shame to a empathy on a list of things machines could mimic but would find it very difficult to do beat us at. Could a machine that malfunctioned and injured its owner slow its output and produce extra reporting until it had regained trust?

Could a machine ever really comfort a crying child, let alone bond with a newborn?

“Far from just another fad, perhaps the mindfulness craze is the start of a macro trend towards putting self-awareness and contemplative practice at the centre of human endeavour. Let’s hope so.”

It’s hard to argue with that – unless you are a very, very (very) smart phone capable of understanding this on your own.

Why isn’t mindfulness working for me?

Mindfulness, in theory, sounds great. The deal seems to be roughly this: if I sit still and listen to my breathing for 10 minutes each day I will be calmer, certainly cooler, possibly richer and definitely an all-round better person.

So how come it’s not working, you might ask, because you probably feel like none of those things after a few days doing mindfulness meditations.

However, that starting point of using mindfulness meditation to find self-improvement is, apparently, backwards.

“Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better, it’s about befriending who we are,” the world famous American meditation teacher and author Pema Chodron said.

Chodron was a stressed-out schoolteacher called Deirdre Blomfield-Brown until she was crippled by depression following the end of her second marriage in the 1970s. So how does she, one of the world’s foremost experts do it?

“You just sit down with yourself,” Chodron told Oprah in a 2008 interview.
“It’s a way of being completely open to whatever is happening in your mind, and you realize your mind is wild and crazy and all over the place. The instruction is so simple: Just keep coming back to your breath. Then you say,

“This is almost impossible!”

“It isn’t, but I know how hard it is.”

Initially it will be hard, so like anything, practice makes perfect.
In general terms, if we feel like quitting after a few days we are expecting too much too soon.

“You might call it beginner’s uncomfortability,” says Marc Richardson, psychologist with Financial Mindfulness.

“I tried to learn the guitar literally every time I picked it up I would sweat because I was so uncomfortable. Trying anything new is uncomfortable and to experience full benefits one would need to engage for quite a while.”

Are there strategies, though, for dealing with the specific problems if they persist? Some of the most common include: I’m thinking too much, I can’t do this, I can’t sit still, I don’t have time, it hurts.

Here’s what British mindfulness expert Shamash Alidina wrote about some of these problems in Meditation for Dummies.

I can’t do this:

“When people say this, they normally mean they can’t focus … mindfulness meditation is one of the best ways to develop that focus! It’s completely normal for your mind to wander off when you’re meditating. However, as soon as you’ve noticed, bring your focus back to the object of attention specified in the meditation (often your breath). Each time … you’re training your mind to be more focused in the future. Remember, you can’t fail at meditation. As long as you try, you’ve succeeded.”

I can’t sit still:

“Some meditations require you to be … still for half an hour, but many don’t require this. You [can do a] body scan meditation lying down. And mindful yoga, walking or tai chi is meditation in movement. [A] three-minute mindfulness exercise is a great practice to do daily.”

I don’t have the time:

“If some of the busiest people in the world can find time to stop and meditate, even if it’s only five minutes, you probably can too. You can do mindfulness meditation at any time. You can wash the dishes mindfully, you can walk your dog mindfully or you can even have a mindful shower. So that takes no time at all out of your busy day.”

What about ‘It hurts’?
Tara Healey and Jonathan Roberts, writing for mindful.org are clear on this: “Being in a lot of pain is not a mark of doing it right. It can take some work, though, to find a position (or a few positions) that don’t lead to intense pain … try out different postures and supports … a hugely important lesson of meditation is that even comfort is, well, bound to eventually become uncomfortable.

“For this reason, once you find a suitable posture and support, it’s a good idea to avoid making too many adjustments.”

Getting fully into the meditation itself can help: “People have found that as they relax that inner tension, it often results in less bodily tension.”

As for I’m thinking too much, well that one is addressed by realising practice makes perfect. You accept the thoughts you have without judgement, and gently set them aside. Thoughts are normal and they will come and go, hence the widely-used analogy of allowing thoughts to pass like clouds against a blue sky.

The more you meditate, Chodron told Oprah, “the more you have a lightness about what’s occurring in your life … it’s not about becoming indifferent to life’s experiences; it actually allows you to be much more present with whatever arises.

“You’re fully engaged, but you see it from a different perspective.”
In other words, you will be able to cope much better with what life throws at you.

How mindfulness helped a bunch of chronically anxious worriers – including me

Time magazine recently ran an article with the headline ‘how mindfulness helps you handle stress better’. So what you ask? Sounds like every second story spruiking mindfulness as a wonder cure these days, right?

Except that the article is about research done by someone who wanted to cut the crap and find out if mindfulness really does work. Or not.

At a personal level this article is it spoke to me – the writer of the story you are reading – deeply because it looked at the effects of mindfulness on a mental health problem I have suffered all my life, which at times overwhelmed me.
First, to Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical Center. “There’s been some real skepticism in the medical community about meditation and mindfulness meditation,” she said.
According to Time, Hoges he and her team wanted to deduce if people just felt better after meditating, or if doing meditating caused measurable changes in the body’s markers of stress. So they ran people through a stress test that would give anyone rubber legs: “eight minutes of public speaking, followed by a round of videotaped mental math in front of an audience of people in white lab coats with clipboards.”

Then they made them do the stress test again, just to be sure.
But first they split the group into two. Half underwent mindfulness training (including breath awareness, body scan meditations and gentle yoga) and the other half did a stress management education course (including lectures on diet, exercise, sleep and time management). Both groups did eight weeks training with the same amount of class time and homework.

The group that did the mindfulness training reported feeling less stressed, but blood tests showed they had lower levels of stress hormone ACTH. The meditation group also may have been strengthening their immune systems via lower “pro-inflammatory cytokines”, alien-sounding molecules linked to depression and other neurological conditions.

On the second run of the stress test the meditation group outperformed the stress-management group by even greater margins.

“We have objective measures in the blood that they did better in a provoked situation,” says Hoge. “It really is strong evidence that mindfulness meditation not only makes them feel better, but helps them be more resilient to stress.”
Now back to me – the writer of this article – if you don’t mind.

After the death of my mother and redundancy from a 20 year career as a journalist I spent time receiving treatment for depression. To my confusion I left with a diagnosis of generalised anxiety disorder.
I felt dismayed and worried. How I felt was: ‘what on earth am I supposed to do with this?’

Generalised anxiety disorder, according to Way Ahead – Mental Health Association NSW, is “intense anxiety and worry about a variety of events and issues (for example, work, health, family), and the worry is out of proportion to the situation… [sufferers get] restless, easily tired, difficulty concentrating, easily annoyed, muscle tension, and/or difficulty sleeping. While many people worry about things from time to time, people with Generalised Anxiety Disorder experience worry a large proportion of the time and it interrupts their lives. ”

Tick, tick, tick. It’s hard to admit, but this is me.

My beautiful late mother, Rosemary, may she rest in peace, worried incessantly. She worried so much it annoyed everyone around her – and mortified her teenage sons.

She worried every day until she knew she was going to die (from brain cancer) and then, quietly, she stopped worrying.

She also had trouble with anger, supressing it until she would rage. It’s even harder to admit, but this is also me. Taxi drivers who take me ‘the long way home’ have copped some fearful sprays from me over the years.

So I guess I ended up a bit like my mother, but I’d rather avoid the sad cure she found.

In the treatment centre I attended, South Pacific Private, I did a simple mindfulness meditation exercise most days – 10 minutes sitting still and concentrating on my breathing. I have done it around 70 times since leaving the centre in January, increasing the duration to 15 minutes a day. I also try to do micro sessions several times a day.

I haven’t had a blood test to show, so I don’t know how my stress hormones are or what my cytokines are up to, but I feel better. How? I worry less.
I still worry, but you have no idea how good the feeling behind that simple statement feels: I worry less.

There’s a lot more too. I am growing the ability to see my thoughts and feelings as separate from me – almost as passing storms across a blue sky – instead of experiencing them as a sort of nasty conjoined twin hissing at me.

I don’t see my thoughts as instructions, but just as thoughts.

I don’t have to let them define what I do next. If my thoughts tell me: ‘I feel down, I wonder if there’s any cheesecake left’, I can phone someone, listen to music or go for a bike ride instead. If my head sees someone smoking and wants one too, I can stop and say ‘no, that thought is not helpful’, and I do. I quit smoking in December and haven’t had a cigarette since.

I sleep better and have little muscle tension. Though am still restless, I have a level of awareness of this – and, interestingly, of how my behaviour affects others – way beyond anything I’ve ever experienced.

I still get easily annoyed – although much less so. I am more patient. If I need to stay on hold for 45 minutes to the phone company I am more inclined to express healthy anger when I get through, then detach without flogging the poor person who answers the phone. If I do get too angry, I can cool off much quicker and apologise expecting nothing in return.

I now get on with cab drivers, even if doing so costs me $5 more.
I’m sure if I was assessed again for generalised anxiety disorder I would still fit the bill. So I am not cured. But life for me, and those very close to me, is a lot easier.

Mindfulness meditation is not a cure and there have been questions about its real effectiveness. But I know it works, and I don’t need to ask my cytokines to prove it.

Good mental health a much bigger factor in happiness than money?

Earlier this week Norway was named the happiest nation on earth, by the United Nations researchers, just ahead of Denmark.

Northern European countries dominated, with Iceland, Finland, the Netherlands and Sweden also in the top 10; perhaps there really is something to the saying ‘cold hands, warm heart’.

Australia rated 9th happiest, the United States was 14th and the United Kingdom 19th.

The bottom five places were filled by Rwanda, Syria, Tanzania, Burundi and the Central African Republic.

Why should we care about something that might be considered frivolous compared to harder-headed indicators like economic growth, interest rates and GDP? Because the world is changing and economics no longer rules unchallenged.

As the report points out: “In June 2016 the OECD committed itself ‘to redefine the growth narrative to put people’s well-being at the center of governments’ efforts’. Norway came first, it is pointed out, despite weak oil prices. The nation depends heavily on oil and gas resources, but in recent years has sunk profits from those industries into a transparent, ethical, future fund.

The UN team behind ‘The World Happiness Report’ used data from telephone and face-to-face interviews conducted by Gallup with around 1000 people from 155 countries over three years (2014-2016). Respondents were asked to rate their life on a scale of 0-10.

A key chapter of a report, ‘The Key Determinants of Happiness and Misery’, included some fascinating insights for companies, policy-makers and individuals interested in what makes us happy and unhappy, and how we can go from one state to the other.

The chapter focused on deeper research done in four countries: the US, UK, Australia and Indonesia.

“In all three Western societies, diagnosed mental illness emerges as more important than income, employment or physical illness.” The reverse was true in Indonesia, although in all four countries mental illnesses were more significant to our happiness and misery than physical illnesses.

The research found our levels of income and education per se weren’t major factors in happiness. Our tendency to compare ourselves with others in these areas was a bigger problem.

“Household income per head explains under 2% of the variance of happiness in any country,” the authors wrote. “Moreover it is largely relative income that matters, so as countries have become richer, many have failed to experience any increase in their average happiness. A similar problem relates to education—people care largely about their education relative to that of others.
“In all countries the most powerful [improvements to misery] would come from the elimination of depression and anxiety disorders, which are the main form of mental illness. This would also be the least costly way of reducing misery.”

The report made no mention of financial stress as a factor in misery experienced by adults, but it is worth pointing out that research shows clear links between money worries and those major mental health issues, anxiety and depression. In 2013, researchers from the University of Southampton found people with unsecured debt (such as credit card debt, student and personal loans) were 3.24 times more likely to suffer “mental disorders” than those without unsecured debt and 2.77 times as likely to have depression. Tragically they were 7.9 times more likely to take their own lives.

It is no surprise then that the World Happiness Report’s researchers found addressing the emotional health of children was more important to set someone up for a happy life than academic qualifications. A child’s experiences at school were found to be more important than their test scores.

“What in turn affects the emotional health and behaviour of the child? Parental income is a good predictor of a child’s academic qualifications (as is well known), but it is a much weaker predictor of the child’s emotional health and behaviour. The best predictor of these is the mental health of the child’s mother.” Disappointingly for dads, researchers found a father’s mental health wasn’t as important in determining happiness and misery as a mother’s.

Again, the report made no mention of mindfulness – this wasn’t the work to go into the array of potential solutions.

But with mental health such a huge factor in determining the happiness or misery of people in the US, UK and Australia, and other research showing money worries are linked with anxiety and depression, mindfulness around money is without doubt one important and useful tool in the search for happiness.

The full World Happiness Report can be read here.

When mindfulness might not work

Unless you’ve been living under a rock you will know the word ‘mindfulness’ has quite a buzz about it.

CEOs are into it, so are talk show hosts, pop stars, famous actors, sports stars and lately it’s being rolled out in corporate wellness programs for thousands of stressed-out employees.

There are some compelling reasons why this is happening: a mountain of scientific research over the past two decades shows mindfulness practice has positive effects on a range of mental health issues and may even improve self-esteem and help people cope more effectively with stress.

But as a recent Australian Financial Review article pointed out, mindfulness is no magic pill. The newspaper ran a story based on a study of 189 men, aged on average 70-71 years with advanced prostate cancer, some of whom were exposed to mindfulness-based cognitive therapy over the phone for eight weeks. The Griffith University study was published in the American Journal of Clinical Oncology.

One of the study’s co-authors, Suzanne K. Chambers, found: “mindfulness-based cognitive therapy did not improve the men’s well-being in comparison to their usual medical management… [furthermore the men it did not affect any] reduction in psychological distress [or] lessening of anxiety about testing for prostate specific antigen – a measure of tumour progression and response to treatment – and [or] lowering of distress related to their cancer.

“Men receiving [mindfulness] therapy also reported no improvement in quality of life nor post-traumatic growth, a term that encompasses positive psychological change as a result of their cancer.”

Chambers and Queensland Cancer Council CEO Jeff Dunn, in a co-authored article for theconversation.com did however acknowledge the study participants found mindfulness “helpful in terms of not feeling alone, learning meditation and breathing exercises, understanding the meaning of well-being and perceived control of thoughts and health.”

Dunn and Chambers did also acknowledge other research had shown mindfulness had positive affects in relation to cancer – a study of 325 women found “some evidence for the effectiveness of [mindfulness-based stress reduction programs” in improving psychological health in breast cancer patients”. The results were published in the October 2012 issue of the journal Current Oncology. They also acknowledged “influential health organisations” in the United States and the United Kingdom saw fit to recommend mindfulness as a tool to manage chronic illness.

It could be argued a mindfulness study based on terminally ill men in their 70s says little about how a younger physically healthy audience could benefit from mindfulness. But regardless, the principle it highlights is worthwhile: if facing reality won’t help your life in the long run, then mindfulness might not be for you.

Marc Richardson, a Sydney-based psychologist with Financial Mindfulness, who also works in private practice, said the results of the Griffith University study were “not surprising”.

“Any kind of denial these men, in the advanced stages of prostate cancer, were holding on to might be stripped away by mindfulness. It seems almost unkind to try and get them out of denial.”

Richardson added that people with serious mental illnesses, such as dissociative or psychotic disorders or those facing gravely stressful life events, should seek advice from a trained psychologist before embarking on a course of mindfulness.

Mindfulness could help a great many other people though, Richardson said, especially people facing financial stress – which is a leading cause of stress in the western world.

“Mindfulness gives people stressed about money a chance to slow down their thinking, ground themselves and an opportunity for a new perspective,” he said.

“When we are in an anxious state trying to perceive things clearly or to manage situations effectively is very difficult – we can get stuck ruminating on negative thoughts.

“Something about mindfulness acts as a circuit breaker and allow us time to slow down and rethink our position, potentially allowing us to then take more effective actions.”

A terminal illness is probably not the only limitation on mindfulness either. If you expect mindfulness to remove problems in your life you may be disappointed.

So let’s make a few things clear: sadly mindfulness will not make cancer go away. It also won’t get you a speedboat and it won’t make people like you if they didn’t before. It won’t make you a mind-reader and it won’t give you the patience of a saint. But if you do 20 minutes of mindfulness meditation every day, your thinking will probably become measurably clearer.

What you do with better cognitive processing is up to you.

It’s entirely possible that with cleaner, healthier thinking you could write a piece of music or even a book, start a business, learn to really listen to others, or even just finish or resolve something that has been a ‘block’ in your life for years.

It could also contribute to you stopping behaviours that would otherwise lead to serious illnesses – and let’s be clear, this is not a comment on the causes of prostate cancer, which are thought to be partly genetic, partly lifestyle.

So mindfulness is not be for everyone. But neither is swimming, playing a musical instrument, yoga or gardening – and few would argue those activities are not beneficial, let alone that they should be avoided.

Proven: the power of mindfulness over bad financial decisions.

If you’ve ever persisted with a disastrous job or relationship or PhD in the hope it will somehow get better, or ‘chased your losses’ by placing risky bets in a game of cards, you might want to pay attention.

Maybe you’ve endured reading a novel you hated from the first 50 pages, or stayed through a concert just because you bought tickets – despite the fact you would rather be anywhere else.

Have you ever done something similar with money? Plunged money into a failing business or investment property? Hung onto a car for too long when it’s cost you a fortune already?

All these actions, and anything else where we ‘throw good money after bad’, are examples of a famous economic principle called the ‘sunk-cost fallacy’ which can be applied to life in general. It’s the tendency to continue with an irrational and often risky course of action not based on the likely outcome, but because we don’t want to ‘waste’ what are unrecoverable costs and time – aka the ‘sunk-costs’.

It’s a very human response to loss to try even harder to win, sometimes to avoid feelings of guilt or inadequacy, or even just fear of ‘looking bad’.

But at worst ego, politics and emotional decision-making can cause people to double or triple their financial losses, causing huge financial and emotional stress for individuals, families and bosses.

In the cold light of day it’s not rational, but who hasn’t done something like this? More importantly, how do we stop this apparent madness?

By becoming mindful. But that doesn’t mean by thinking through our decisions more carefully; our choices are often poor when affected by strong emotions.
Research has shown mindfulness meditation can improve poor financial decision-making, at least in terms of the sunk-cost fallacy. Researchers Andrew Hafenbrack, Zoe Kinias, and Sigal Barsade published the results of experiments into the effects of mindfulness on the ‘cognitive trap of sunk-cost bias’ in the Journal of Psychological Science in 2013.

The study participants were split in two groups, one of which went through a 15 minute “breathing meditation” while the other did “mind-wandering” exercises. The first group performed much better on a series of questions about how to react to sunk-costs.

“Meditation reduced how much people focused on the past and future, and this psychological shift led to less negative emotion,” Kinias wrote in the journal. “The reduced negative emotion [then] facilitated their ability to let go of sunk costs.”

In another study, from Elsevier’s journal Personality and Individual Differences in 2007, found “mindfulness is associated with less severe gambling outcomes”.

Chad Lakey, Keith Campbell, Adam Goodie (University of Georgia) and Kirk Warren Brown (Virginia Commonwealth University) concluded their findings “are hopeful in suggesting that the greater attention to and awareness of ongoing internal and external stimuli that characterizes mindfulness may represent an effective means of mitigating the impulsive and addictive responses and intemperate risk-attitudes of individuals with problem gambling.”

They concluded: “In this light, mindfulness may help to lessen the grip of automatic thoughts, affective reactions, and behavior patterns.”

Research into the specific benefits of mindfulness is ongoing but it seems clear that a regular mindfulness practice can have powerful positive effects on risky and emotional decision-making around money.

Using mindfulness practice helps reduce financial stress and strain

The word ‘mindfulness’ seems to be everywhere these days

Mindfulness stress-reduction programs are fast becoming a solid plank in corporate wellness strategies.

Mindfulness programs, run by external trainers and delivered in-house to stressed-out employees are in steady demand as employers seek to curtail the impacts of a big range of lifestyle and mental health issues that lead to costly absenteeism and its sneakier sibling, presenteeism.

And unlike some gimmicky offerings to staff, employees notice the benefits; mindfulness programs are the new gym-at-work, if you will.

There is little doubt mindfulness practices – which range from yoga to tai chi and the most popular recently, mindfulness meditation – work.

Researchers for the American Psychological Association, Daphne Davis and Jeffrey Hayes, found many clear benefits from a broad review of prior research into mindfulness. Davis’s and Hayes’ 2012 practice review What Are the Benefits of Mindfulness? A Practice Review of Psychotherapy-Related Research, reported a multitude of benefits.

Among them, that mindfulness “decreases rumination” (or ‘over-thinking’), improves memory, reduces anxiety and depression symptoms. People who did mindfulness meditations in studies became “less reactive” and more flexible in their thinking. They were found to be better at “self-observation” and could adapt better to “stressful and negative situations” and concentrate better after receiving “upsetting stimuli”.

But the issues that worry us enough to interrupt people work and sleep are so mind-bogglingly varied that general, one-size-fits-all mindfulness programs could easily frustrate us if the results aren’t apparent where we need them. Mindfulness practices tend to inch us towards become more mindful across every area of life. Might it make more sense to apply targeted mindfulness practice to one or two areas of life? Maybe the ones that stress you out the most?

Think about that: don’t we need distinct a mindset to resolve relationship issues, compared to say, problem-solving our career stagnation? Can you compare the kind of focus needed in finding the calm and patience to cope with a major health scare or crisis with to the action needed to reign in our ballooning credit card debts?

One of the biggest issues stressing out employees in the US and in Australia is something not often associated with mindfulness meditation: personal finances.

The American Psychological Association’s 2015 Stress in American Survey, of 3,068 adults, found 64 per cent considered money “a somewhat or very significant source of stress”. More than one in five people “experienced extreme stress about money” during the month they were polled.

“Regardless of the economic climate, money and finances have remained the top stressor since our survey began in 2007 … this year’s survey shows that stress related to financial issues could have a significant impact on Americans’ health and well-being,” said APA CEO Norman B. Anderson.

In Australia, the picture is similar. AMP’s 2016 Financial Wellness report found “one in four” workers were financially stressed and the company estimated that cost A$47 billion a year in lost revenue.

“It’s important we find ways to address levels of financial stress in the workplace,” said Vicky Doyle, AMP’s Director Corporate Superannuation.
While the solution Doyle posited was financial goal-setting, given the amount of distress and discomfort money causes us, could there be other answers too? What if mindfulness practice could change not only the way we view our money problems, but lead us to concrete actions that solve some of them?

Tomas Jajesnica, Chief Mindfulness Officer at Financial Mindfulness, says mindfulness practice can help with obvious (but hard-to-control) problems like overspending in two ways. The first is to help you stop re-living the kind of fantasy in which it’s somehow okay to continue living beyond your means.

“You become more aware of the situation not as you want it to be, but as it really is,” Jajesnica says. “The second thing it does is create equanimity, or a balanced mind, so you can deal with the ups and downs of life. Then you are better equipped to deal with whatever situations you face, with calm focus and clarity.”

So mindfulness may not directly improve your financial circumstances, at least not straight away, but it is capable of quickly reducing the pressure you feel about money – which is by definition your sense of financial stress.
Jajesnica, who is also a corporate-based mindfulness trainer and meditation teacher, says practising techniques like meditation can go further too, putting you in a frame of mind to find solutions to stubborn problems with their personal finances.

“Most people from when they wake up to when their head hits the pillow mind are constantly switched on, moving from task to task to task all day long. When the mind is constantly switched on, it’s inevitable stress will occur.

“Mindfulness this is a maintenance tool to help develop clarity of thought to create space in the mind for new ideas and innovations.”