How to fight stress? It's all in the mind

SINGAPORE - The secret to a happier and healthier life may just be in changing the way you think.

In an increasingly popular practice known as mindfulness, people in many affluent societies are putting their smartphones aside and going for classes to think clearly.

They are guided to close their eyes and focus on their breathing for 10 to 20 minutes. They learn to focus fully on what they are doing at any one moment.

While hospitals here have for several years adopted similar therapies for patients with emotional distress, companies and business schools are also turning to mindfulness training in the last few years, as more studies show that it can improve well-being and productivity.

The Straits Times has found at least two firms and several individual coaches offering classes to teach people to be mindful. This is also becoming a topic of interest among academics here.

Mindfulness meditation has its roots in Eastern traditions, but it was molecular biologist Jon Kabat-Zinn from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who popularised the theory.

More than 20,000 people worldwide have completed his mindfulness-based stress-reduction (MBSR) programme, which started in 1979. There are about 1,000 instructors trained in it worldwide. Other similar programmes have also sprung up.

Trainers here said they have seen more interest from Singaporeans and foreigners in the last few years.

Ms Sheryl Bathman, director and trainer at LifeSteps, which provides counselling and psychotherapy services, said there were just 12 people in its first eight-week MBSR class four years ago. Now it can easily fill classes of about 20 each.

Ms Wong Puyee, a senior trainer at The Potential Project (TPP), which conducts mindfulness classes in over 20 countries, including Singapore, said its first 10-week programme - which cost $1,500 - in 2011 had three participants. Now about 25 attend each session.

Both companies conduct up to three runs every year.

TPP also started an online version in January, in which participants listen to guided audio tracks and watch pre-recorded training videos.

It costs $1,000 and has seven people on it now.

It has also trained staff from 20 organisations here, including American Express, Google, hotel group Starwood and government agencies.

American Express, which sent 75 staff for mindfulness training last year, conducted a survey which found the sessions had reduced stress and staff could focus on tasks better.

Ms Choo Chong Ling, 29, one of its human resource employees, said she now takes a few minutes to breathe and block out distractions before going into meetings.

"This allows me to freshen up my thoughts and mind."

Mr Ebrahim Mama, 50, a safety adviser in an oil and gas multinational company, said: "It's the small things that I notice now, like when my children are trying to tell me something, or people's reactions in meetings."

Google, which runs its own mindfulness programme to help staff manage emotions, has a meditation room in its Marina View office.

Staff hold "mindful lunches" where they sit together and focus on eating and tasting their food.

Educators are also looking to mine mindfulness.

Last August, the National University of Singapore Business School introduced aspects of mindfulness in a core module in its Master of Business Administration (MBA) curriculum.

Said Ms Chua Nan Sze Marie-Antonie, director of graduate studies at the NUS Business School: "To be an effective leader, one must understand the triggers that will influence a specific person in a specific situation... while helping to overcome doubts, challenges and fears along the way."

At the Singapore Management University, its faculty started doing research on mindfulness in 2005. Last year, it started an initiative to further study it. Students there are introduced to practices such as mindful breathing during some lectures and counselling sessions.

Associate Professor Jochen Reb, who heads the initiative, hopes to introduce modules on mindfulness for students.

Those in the executive development programmes could start as early as this year.

His own research involving 230 Singaporean working adults in 2011 found that those who were more mindful were happier and performed better.

The professor, who teaches organisational behaviour and human resources, has also introduced meditation in his classes.

Students giggle at the start as they feel awkward, he acknowledged.

"Some don't feel anything as they're too distracted, but some tell me later that it's useful."

Faculty members at business school Insead have also set aside time for meditation in their MBA and executive development courses.

Some students have also been having meditation meetings since December.

Kaplan Singapore, which also runs corporate training, has in the last two years integrated mindfulness into at least three programmes.

Said its executive vice-president Leon Choon: "Traditionally, many organisations focus on dealing with performance issues using the 'hard skills' approach." But people could be facing non-work challenges, he added.

Ultimately, being mindful can mean being more effective, said Mr Rasmus Hougaard, 40, the managing director of TPP.

"We multi-task so that we can do more at the same time but the brain can't keep up and we make mistakes. It's about developing a mind that is clear and calm so that people are more effective in their work."

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