Q&A with Wellness Expert Allie Stark: How Mindfulness Can Reduce Stress, Anxiety and Depression

Q. Many of us work at computers and more or less live in our heads. What is a simple way to be more aware of our bodies?

A. There are lots of different ways I could answer this question, but I immediately go toward paying attention to the breath. If there’s a heightened amount of stress, if there’s anxiety and if there’s overwhelm, you have to close your eyes. Just close your eyes and take five deep breaths. The power that has in connecting the mind to the body is really amazing, and it takes a minimal amount of effort. Set an alarm on the phone as a reminder to close your eyes and breathe. The other thing sounds simple, but it can be a little bit more complicated: just pay attention. Our bodies are amazing tools for focus and awareness. You can walk into a room and feel that something is out of alignment when you have awareness.

Q. Workplaces stress and anxiety are so rampant it seems almost normal these days. What do you think the new normal should be?

A. Normal can be workplaces full of people who are in alignment with their own intentions. In that space, they are able to make choices for themselves that allow them to be in balance. I think a lot of the feelings of overwhelm and high stress occur when people don’t feel like they have the choice to choose what is right for them. It’s not about being stress free — it’s about choosing to be in your own energy. When you do that, not only are you anchored and operating in your genuine and authentic space, but also your feelings of overwhelm, stress, anxiety and depression are not as rampant. When you’re using your gut and you’re finding what’s right for you, those things dissolve without you having to do that much work on them.

Q. You mentioned depression. How can mindfulness help people who are living with chronic depression?

A. I work with a lot of people who are currently experiencing chronic depression or who have in the past. It runs in my family and in different times in my life I have dealt with it, so I have a lot of sensitivity and compassion for people suffering with depression in this country and around the world. What mindfulness practices do — and not just meditation because meditation is just one form of mindfulness practice — is reprogram your brain. It’s called neuroplasticity, and it changes the neural pathways in your brain. For example, you may have negative self-talk and when you turn that into genuine, positive self-affirmations, it will change the course of depression. It may not completely eliminate it, but it’s going to change the way you think about yourself, which is going to change the course of the illness.

Q. For those new to the idea of mindfulness, can you offer one tip that has helped you or your clients to be more present?

A. It has been scientifically researched and proven that we can’t multitask. When we stop doing multiple things at the same time, we can be incredibly present with where we are, who we are with and what we are doing. For example, if you’re used to driving your car from your house to work and talking on the phone, listening to the radio and doing all these distracting things, try to get quiet in the car on the drive to work in the morning. What that does is allow yourself to be incredibly present to all your senses. To return to the topic of depression, to me the root of depression is not having the capacity to allow your emotions to come up. When you allow yourself to become present with whatever activity or interaction you’re having, it actually gives you the space to feel. You can become aware of your feelings and then you can shift those feelings through very simple mindfulness practices.

Q. Why is silence important?

A. I went on a silent retreat and it was one of the loudest experiences that I have ever had in my life because the mind and the chatter were so intense. Silence is about facing yourself and asking, ‘OK what’s coming up right now?’ If that chatter is coming from thoughts and unprocessed emotions, allow yourself to become present to it. To bring Buddhist philosophy into the equation, it’s our thoughts that create the suffering, sadness, anxiety and depression. We don’t want to feel those emotions, so we go numb, but we need to give ourselves the space to feel. And that can have a radical impact on our health and well being.

Allie Stark, MA, RYT, is a Health and Nutrition Coach and Wellness Consultant with more than a decade of experience in the field.

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