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Traffic jams. Job woes. Visits from the in-laws. Life is full of stress and, more often than not, people feel it physically as well as mentally. Although the stress response begins in the brain, it is a full-body phenomenon. When someone encounters a threat — real or imagined — the brain triggers a cascade of stress hormones. The heart pounds, muscles tense, and breathing quickens.
One of the best ways to counter stress is to pay attention to what is going on. That may sound counterintuitive, but paying attention is the first step toward cultivating mindfulness--a therapeutic technique for a range of mental health problems (and physical ones).
Multitasking has become a way of life. People talk on a cell phone while commuting to work, or scan the news while returning e-mails. But in the rush to accomplish necessary tasks, people often lose connection with the present moment. They stop being truly attentive to what they are doing or feeling.
Mindfulness is the opposite of multitasking. The practice of mindfulness, which has its roots in Buddhism, teaches people to live each moment as it unfolds. The idea is to focus attention on what is happening in the present and accept it without judgment.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, MD, professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, developed a mindfulness-based stress reduction program for people with major depression (since adapted for other disorders). Another adaptation of mindfulness to clinical practice is mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, which combines mindfulness techniques with cognitive behavioral therapy.