Learn the difference between pressure and stress
I always thought mindfulness sounded like hippie nonsense. I couldn’t see how it distinguished itself from all the other self-help stuff that people endlessly Gwyneth on about. If it really was any good, I argued, everyone would be doing it by now.
And then some sage acquaintance pointed out that I was being daft because that way, I would never learn anything new.
So, mindful of my mindfulness aversion, I sought the insight of clinical psychologist Dr. Cinzia Pezzolesi, a qualified therapist who advises businesses on how to get the best out of their employees – not by cracking the whip, but by creating a happier, healthier environment.
“Mindfulness is being aware of what is happening inside you and around you – it is a tool to become less bothered by mental chatter,” Dr. Pezzolesi told my Healthy Beast podcast.
“Mindfulness is knowing what we are doing when we are doing it. We spend a lot of time thinking about the future and going over the past. Mindfulness is about being in the here and now and knowing what your body and mind are up to.”
According to Dr Pezzolesi, mindfulness isn’t about making your decisions slower, just more deliberate: “People think of mindfulness as slowing down. It is not about pace, it’s more about being in touch, relating to what you’re doing and what you are feeling. A Formula 1 driver is acting very mindfully, 100 percent focused on what he is doing, and racing drivers are not slow.”
Dr. Pezzolesi corrects me: the difficult moments in daily life are “pressures”, not stress, apparently. “Pressure can be whatever your life throws at you. Stress is how you respond to that pressure. We usually feel stress when we think we don’t have sufficient resources to deal with the pressures that we have around us. We can also have internal pressure: I want to do well, I am a perfectionist. But whether I feel stressed is up to me. It is down to my ability to deal with that external pressure.”
Which all sounds great – until the inevitable pressures of daily life pile on top of each other and you succumb to the stress of multitasking. Again, Dr. Pezzolesi correct me. There is no such thing as multi-tasking, only doing individual things badly: “Separate cognitive tasks can’t be done simultaneously. We switch from one to the other. Multi-tasking is a big problem because it takes time to go back to what you were doing before.
Is that why we are so easily distracted? “If you are in the middle of something and a message pops up, the brain releases a little bit of dopamine,” she explains.
“That’s how we procrastinate, these little drops of dopamine here and there that take us away from the tasks that we’re doing. You need to step back and say, ‘Okay, I am having this reaction.’ But observing the reaction doesn’t mean you have to live it. You can decide how you react. You can decide not to open your emails, you can decide to put your phone away for a set period of time.”
“The majority of people don’t want to stop [procrastinating]. It’s the hardest thing. We are in ‘doing mode’ all day, we are just focused on tasks. I think it is because we are a bit scared to look inside, emotions are things that we try not to experience.”
That might be the reason mindfulness is not more widely practised. To do it properly you have to stop listening to all the background noise that life throws up and ask yourself how you really feel. And for most people, this might not be something they want to do. Why ask yourself difficult questions when you can just keep on scrolling through Instagram?
Since meeting Dr Pezzolesi I have been approaching life more mindfully, which is not a phrase I even imagined myself saying. Mostly this means observing my emotions without reacting to them. An emotional response lasts less than a minute in the brain, so if you can wait that long without letting yourself down, chances are you are in the clear.
Mindfulness doesn’t suddenly make everything perfect – of course, it doesn’t. But it has made a genuine, tangible improvement to my life. Not bad for a 45-minutes chat about hippie nonsense.