I recently went to a talk on mindfulness and in particular, how to apply mindfulness in stressful situations, particularly at work. I understand that mindfulness as a practice has helped many people, but I think that there’s a much simpler way — a “do nothing/zero-step” approach to living a much less stressful (or even stress-free) life.

The speaker listed many of the stresses of life — deadlines, quotas, fire drills, layoffs, scope creep, angry bosses, unfair treatment, being misunderstood, annoying spouses, demanding kids, overly busy schedules, and so on.

And then, of course, offered mindfulness as a prescription to combat all of those stressors. He claimed that we could gradually learn to control our thinking by cultivating awareness through practice. He said that in order to better cope with stress, we have to first be aware of what the stress is (for example, our individual “triggers”) and then changing our relationship to that stress.

Mindfulness as a prescription for stress sounds great, but it highlights two prevalent misunderstandings about stress (and feeling states in general). While mindfulness seems like a more “holistic” option than overeating, drugs, or violent behavior, they are all still coping strategies designed to cope with something that’s illusory in the first place.

The first misunderstanding about stress is that stress is real and a fact of life, especially in a fast-paced, globalized business climate. Perhaps even worse, stress isn’t only viewed as real and inevitable, it’s often worn as a badge of honor — as if the one who has the craziest quota or most emails to churn through before lunch wins an award. But, stress is not a blast from “out there” that we have to find a way to cope with. Stress is simply a feeling, and like all feelings, a reflection of our thinking “in here” in the moment. There are no inherently stressful circumstances! When you’re in a “light” state of mind, an “I want it yesterday” deadline can fill you with energy and inspiration; when you’re in a “heavy” state of mind, the same deadline can cripple you. Similarly, what’s stressful to you in this moment may be inspiring to someone else.

There are no inherently stressful circumstances!

The second misunderstanding is that when we are feeling stressed, anxious, depressed, self-conscious, self-critical, or frustrated, that we need to do something to bring the mind back to a place that feels better. It’s just not true — the mind is perfectly equipped with an “immune system” that will reset itself back to a neutral state.

Using mindfulness as a strategy for dealing with stress is like handcuffing yourself to the radiator to prevent yourself from poking your own eye out.  Just as you’re already wired to not poke your own eye out, the mind is already perfectly wired to take care of getting back to a state of no stress on its own, given half a chance.

Using mindfulness as a strategy for dealing with stress is like handcuffing yourself to the radiator to prevent yourself from poking your own eye out. 

As our thinking changes, as it constantly does on its own, so does our feeling state. You can’t “change your relationship” to stress because stress — as real as it seems — isn’t real.

What’s I’m describing here is simply the mechanics of the human mind. That is, how every human’s mind works – me, you, your schmuck of a boss, your cute kid, and every other human being on the planet. When you see that, not in your intellect, but in your belly, in the same way that you “get” a joke, what you may notice happens — as it has for the countless people that I and my colleagues have worked with — is that the stress (and other problems) seems to melt away on its own.

Mindfulness, on the other hand, is an intervention, where one isn’t needed.