How mindfulness made me legless

Today is National Stress Awareness Day and this year the focus is on employee well-being as a worthwhile investment in your business. The effects of stress on the workforce are becoming more and more well-known. Statistics from the Labour Force Survey indicate that stress was responsible for 35% of all work-related ill health cases in 2014-15 and 43% of all working days lost. The difference in these figures is interesting and suggests that it takes longer for employees to return to work when they are stressed. The same Labour Force Survey found that there was an average of 23 working days lost per case.

So what can we do to keep ourselves healthy? Mindfulness has become increasingly popular as a method of enhancing personal well-being, and also has advantages in developing self-control and quietening a busy mind. I first learnt this at a Buddhist Centre in London around ten years ago, where we were asked to sit in Lotus position and meditate on our breathing for 10 minutes periods. I remember my reverence as I entered the room with a golden image of the Buddha on the far wall, and my awe in meeting Lama Zangmo, the Buddhist nun who was to be my first teacher in meditation.

While I was unable to sit in Lotus position, I was able to sit cross-legged. This wasn’t something I had done since I was in primary school and, rather embarrassingly, after the ten minutes were up, I found I had lost all feeling in the lower half of my body and I was unable to stand. I remember wondering whether I should pretend I was so moved by the meditation that I just wanted to sit there a while longer; or whether I should cry out for help. In the end I was able to recover unnoticed, before quietly slipping out and returning to complete the next week’s session on a chair.

In fact, learning my practice in a chair, and through my classes with Lama Zangmo, I learned to incorporate my practice into wherever I happen to be. It was rather useful when I became stuck in a lift before I was due to run some focus groups. I was able to start as soon as I was released from my tiny prison, and without any of my delegates noticing the effects of the hour or so I had been trapped. I also find it immensely useful when the doctor is running late and I have somewhere else to be. If I have been having difficulty concentrating on my reading, a short session will help me back on track.

While less easy to measure, prevention of stress is far more effective than curing it – and some have noted that stress can have a long tail; a reduced immune system can mean extra coughs and colds can more easily take hold, and people can find they are less emotionally resilient after a period of stress. That’s why it’s important to work out what works for you, and make a commitment to invest in your own well-being.

Julie is an Occupational Psychologist with experience of working with organisations and individuals around the globe to effectively meet their unique challenges.