Preparing for Times of Stress: The Mindfulness Practice

mindfulnessJoseph, the beloved son of Jacob was famous for his ability to interpret dreams. The biblical story tells us that when he was in Egypt the Pharaoh had two dreams. In the first he saw a field with seven healthy and ripe sheafs (bundles) of grains and seven thin sheafs of grain consumed them. In the second dream there were seven healthy, fat cows coming up from the Nile and after them, seven lean, bad looking cows came up and ate the healthy ones. No one knew the meaning of the dreams until Joseph was called to the palace. His interpretation of the dreams was that there were going to be seven good years for Egypt but after that, seven years of drought would hit and bring famine. Joseph suggested taking advantage of the good years to store wheat in the barns so that when the seven bad years arrived there would be food to feed the people. When the years of famine arrived, people from all over the region, not just Egypt, came to find food—including Joseph’s family.

When I introduce the practice of mindfulness to my clients, I encourage them to practice regularly, not just when they feel desperate and overwhelmed. I recommend maintaining a regular practice in order to prepare for difficult times. Of course, usually clients seek therapy when threats like “thin cows” are already present in their lives. At that point, when a client is introduced to the mindfulness approach, the concept of bringing awareness to thoughts and emotions and learning not to be carried away by their content is appealing and rewarding. Some people feel encouraged as they experience rapid relief from symptoms. They feel that they start gaining control over their lives. The gentle and accepting attitude inherent in the mindfulness approach helps people to apply kindness and compassion to themselves.

Challenges arise in learning how to keep what has been achieved, how to continue to heal and improve, and how to avoid backsliding.

Bringing mindfulness to every moment in our lives is the main goal of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy. For example, when a cycle of depressing thoughts emerges, something disturbing happens, or pain arises, the client will have the inner resources to apply awareness and attention. In other words, people can be mindful of their reactions in ways that will help address the challenges in a skillful way.

The practice demands investment—self-discipline, intention, dedication, and persistence. It asks us to let go of lifelong habits and human tendencies. The luring effect of thoughts is strong—we all want to feed our thoughts, believe in them, and be carried away by them, even when they set a trap for rumination, worries, and defeat. Of course we also like to be carried away by pleasant thoughts, wishes, and emotions. Recognizing this tendency to cling to thoughts, emotions, events, and life’s challenges and learning to gain control over our reactions depends on persistent practice.

I encourage clients to practice at home in between sessions. Even a daily short practice can support the building of a new positive habit. The formal practice, with structured meditation, supports strengthening the muscles of mindfulness in a methodical way. One learns to shift awareness away from thoughts and toward the breath, or to bring curiosity, interest, and a nonjudgmental approach to the process of thoughts or to the expression of emotions. Slowly these experiences loosen the grip of the controlling mind. The informal practice includes bringing awareness to mundane activities or to inner reactivity in specific situations and helps to establish an understanding that mindfulness can be applied in a time of need.

In order to be able to adopt the mindfulness approach and implement it when another wave of depression, anxiety, or stress hits, one needs to be prepared. Like Joseph, we are called to recognize the changing nature of things and know that feeling healthy and strong provides an opportunity to prepare for the thin times.

We know that thin years, weeks, and days will come. Being human makes us vulnerable to loss, hurt, failure, worries, disappointment, and more. To find the means of coping with “thin times” in a skillful way, we had better start practicing now. This way, we can learn to be fully present in our lives at every moment.

© Copyright 2010 by Yael Schweitzer, LCSW, BC-DMT. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Gabriel

    August 10th, 2010 at 11:09 PM

    Although I do agree that people agree that people go to a counselor or seek mental health-care only after the ‘drought’ has arrived, I do not think there is too much a person can do to actually prevent or even be prepared for this ‘drought’, is there?!

  • geoff daniel

    August 11th, 2010 at 6:01 AM

    @Gabriel:I do believe there are things that can act as a prevention against mental health problems,just as there are for physical ones.You can choose to stay away from stress by doing things on time and planning ahead and not taking up too much at once.
    And I’m pretty sure there are a lot of other things that can be done to prevent mental health problems.

  • Gabbie

    August 11th, 2010 at 8:03 AM

    What a wonderful lesson. The healthier we are able to keep ourselves mind body and spirit during the good times the better prepared we will be to weather the storm during the tougher times to come. Marvelous analogies.

  • Eric Benjamin

    August 11th, 2010 at 10:18 AM

    This is a good way to show and prove to everybody that just like physical health,even mental health also has certain precautions that can be followed to prevent possible problems in the future.Its like what exercise is to the physical health of a person.

  • Yael Schweitzer

    September 7th, 2010 at 7:00 PM

    Thanks to all who respond to the article. What I indeed meant is to illustrate the importance of preparing ourselves mentally so that we are ready to skillfully cope with the challenges that life present to each of us. Of course there is no way to prevent difficulties, sorrows or losses – living full life means that we live the “full catastrophe” – as Jon Kabat zinn refer to in his book “Full Catastrophe Living”. What being mindful allow us is to meet the challenges with greater calm and equanimity, and to own this ability one needs to practice.

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