Beat stress by training your mind to focus on the present

The smartphone app is about as simple as it gets, but it helps Ms Winifred Loh tackle the stress that comes with being director of a non-profit social organisation.

Every hour, the app beeps out one simple message: Take three deep breaths.

And that, says Ms Loh, helps her "focus on the important things and stay sane when things don't go well".

She says this method of reducing work-related stress comes from her practice of mindfulness - a technique developed to train the mind to focus on the present and be aware of oneself.

This yoga of the mind helps her and other working professionals relax in high-pressure situations.

"It helps me compose myself" ahead of tough meetings, says Ms Loh, who heads the Centre for Non-Profit Leadership. It helps her stay focused on "what's really important in the larger scheme of things".

In a First World nation like Singapore, work-related stress can be a common ailment among professionals. A survey last year found that, for every stress-free employee, there were 2.8 people who suffered.

Mindfulness - loosely derived from the ancient Buddhist meditative art of Vipassana, or insightfulness - involves a series of breathing and concentration exercises.

"We tend to live in either the past or the future - we are rarely fully in the present moment," says Coaching Tiger founder Jaya Machet, who has taken a course on mindfulness from The Potential Project, a training and consultancy firm with branches in 20 countries.

She tells The Straits Times the technique helps people to be more aware of the present moment and to respond rather than react to events.

She and Ms Loh are students of a mindfulness training programme tailor-made to suit the needs of professionals in the corporate world, where work hours can stretch beyond the normal 9-to-5.

"Corporate-based mindfulness interventions help people develop more skilful and agile ways of leading and working, managing their attention and enjoying work," says Ms Sarah Robertson, commercial director of The Potential Project.

She says its programme combines scientific research and mind-training techniques to suit busy workplaces.

Many other institutes in Singapore offer courses in mindfulness, teaching awareness techniques with exercises that include having you observe your breathing for up to a minute or silently watching an object in its natural surroundings.

Courses can be customised for individuals or groups, with an emphasis on stress reduction and therapy.

The Potential Project also provides online courses - an option taken up by Ms Cecile Diversy, a human resources director at a multinational company. She says mindfulness has taught her to recognise emotions, like anger, and view them from another perspective.

Practitioners say such mental strategies have helped them develop patience, balance and acceptance in their work and personal lives.

Many Singapore professionals already practising this technique to cope with stress at work are now applying it to their personal lives - and claiming excellent results.

Mr Will Chua, also a student at The Potential Project, cites his relationship with his mother Lily Khoo.

"We both have short fuses, and had big arguments over family and work situations," said Mr Chua, a co-founder of Folo Farms, which specialises in growing organic food.

He says mindfulness has increased his "capacity to withhold judgment and listen deeply".

"Two years ago, my mother and I probably could not last a day together," he says. He moved back with her about 18 months ago, and they now live happily together, he says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 10, 2015, with the headline 'Beat stress by training your mind to focus on the present'. Print Edition | Subscribe