Feeling Stressed? Take five and go outside
By Cheryl Capaldo Traylor
Photos by Davies Photography
Melody Hunter-Pillion is no stranger to intense situations. The former television news reporter/producer describes herself as “still very much living a deadline-driven lifestyle, all completely self-imposed.”
A motivated individual, Hunter-Pillion actually enjoys a good challenge. But recently, something felt different. She began a new communications job in State Human Resources for the North Carolina Governor’s Office and was accepted into NC State’s public history doctoral program. It was an exciting time, but added to the everyday responsibilities of family, pets and home. Something had to give, and as so often happens, the self-care and leisure activities she enjoyed went on the backburner – until she received an important message from her body.
She woke up during the night with a racing mind and rapidly beating heart; she couldn’t slow either down. The next day at work, several big projects were due. She managed to not only accomplish them, but also assisted with unexpected media requests. She was finishing up paperwork when the printer jammed. Her stomach tightened and heart rate accelerated. Remembering the uncomfortable feeling from the night before, she realized stress was affecting her physically. “I felt exasperated over a jammed printer,” she said. “I laughed it off with my boss and kept moving, but I realized I had to somehow gain control over this. It wasn’t the job or the people stressing me out; it was how I was reacting to situations in my life that was creating the extra stress.”
Hunter-Pillion is not alone.
A January stress survey conducted by the American Psychological Association showed a significant increase in stress in US adults for the first time since 2007. Many Triangle residents are familiar with the stress and anxiety that come with leading busy professional lives and juggling the demands of active families. But, regardless of lifestyle, no one is immune to the negative effects of stress. Retired seniors and teenagers are also experiencing higher stress levels. There are many conventional medications available to treat anxiety and stress in all ages. However, Americans are increasingly turning to complementary health therapies including yoga and acupuncture. According to the National Institutes of Health, in 2012, 18 million US adults and 927,000 children were incorporating meditation into their healthcare routines. This route appealed to Hunter-Pillion, and she decided to give it a try. “I heard about the benefits of mindfulness, but I didn’t know exactly where to start,” she says.
With all of the talk of mindfulness these days, it’s important to understand what it is and isn’t. Mindfulness and meditation are often used interchangeably, but there is a distinction. Mindfulness is a way of living; it is turning off autopilot and choosing to engage in life with awareness and intention. Meditation is a tool that helps to achieve a mindful life. Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, developer of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program used in hospitals around the world, describes mindfulness as paying attention on purpose in the present moment, non-judgmentally.
People are reluctant to try meditation for various reasons. They may believe it is too difficult and time consuming. There is also the erroneous belief that there is only one correct way to meditate, which is to clear the mind of all thought while sitting cross-legged on the floor. In reality, the only requirement is that time is scheduled to maintain a consistent practice. The best part is that practicing for even a few minutes a day can be tremendously beneficial.
Hunter-Pillion started out practicing less than five minutes a day. That’s what worked for her busy schedule. Within a week, she could see a difference in her ability to be more patient. Her disrupted sleep pattern also improved.
Other well-known benefits of a regular practice include increased concentration, decreased stress and anxiety, and improved overall well-being. Athletes meditate to enhance sports performance and many employers offer on-site mindfulness training to increase productivity and creativity at work. Mindfulness is also used in medical settings to treat a variety of health conditions including high blood pressure, chronic pain and insomnia.
New research continues to add to the list of benefits; however, it does take effort to see results. That’s why it’s called a practice. Like any practice, the more mindfulness is cultivated, the easier it will become. Soon it becomes habit and mindfulness becomes a way of life.
It is important to find the technique that works for you. One way to begin is to find a quiet place to sit and pay attention. Focus on the breath; notice each inhale and exhale. The mind will cycle through its loops of suffering, fear and pain. Thoughts will come. Simply observe them and let them pass without judgment. Thoughts are neutral until they are charged with a personal narrative.
When Hunter-Pillion catches frustration creeping in, she goes into her office, sits down and gets quiet. “I just stop and notice,” she says. “I slow down and come back to my breath. I check in with myself for several minutes, and then I am ready to move on.”
But sitting is not the only way to find calm. Some people find moving meditation more suited to their bodies. Walking a labyrinth is a classic example of this style. Mindfulness can be practiced anywhere, and the added benefit of practicing outdoors is noted in the recent book The Nature Fix by Florence Williams. Studies find time spent in nature yields significant improvements in the areas of creativity, attention span, short-term memory and cognitive functioning.
Raleigh residents are fortunate to have many beautiful outdoor spaces in which to cultivate mindfulness, including state and county parks. Some neighborhoods have their own quiet places and greenways. There are also several labyrinths nearby. Now that the weather is getting nicer, it is the perfect time to find a spot outdoors and enjoy being mindful in nature.
Hunter-Pillion plans not only to stick with her mindfulness routine, but also to add to it. “I’m going to do more things I enjoy outside, like walking and sitting on my porch listening to the birds,” she says with a smile. “Mindfully, of course.”