Because of the challenges often associated with work, family and finances, stress is normal for most people. But if you don’t handle stress well, it can often be consuming and interfere with your daily life.
Anxiety, worry and exhaustion are just a few of the possible side effects of stress. Not only are these feelings difficult to deal with, they can eventually take a toll on your mental and physical health. While you may not be able to avoid stressful situations, you can definitely manage how you respond to them.
Stress and anxiety often cause us to get stuck worrying about the future or reliving the past. In reality, the past can’t be changed and the future hasn’t happened, so taking your thoughts to another time is not going to be productive. This is where it can help to practice mindfulness.
Simply put, mindfulness is being present. When you are practicing mindfulness, you have awareness for each individual moment of the day. You are paying attention to and accepting how you feel, what you are thinking, the environment around you, and your senses in that instance. Being mindful means not rehashing what happened or thinking about what could happen. It’s living in the here and now.
Origins and Current Applications of Mindfulness
The practice of mindfulness originally comes from Buddhism, but has been gaining popularity in mainstream medicine and natural health. Jon Kabat-Zinn, former director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, has been the driving force for mindfulness in recent history, creating the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program in 1979. This program has been studied in depth since then, and thousands of reports have noted the positive effects of the practice.
The Health Benefits of Practicing Mindfulness
What are the health benefits associated with mindfulness? Staying in the moment won’t only help you deal with stress, it has also been found to improve physical, mental and behavioral health.
- Physical: Mindfulness can strengthen your immune system, lower blood pressure, decrease pain and improve sleep. Some studies suggest it can also increase density of gray matter in certain areas of the brain, contributing to memory, empathy and learning.
- Mental: Practicing mindfulness can help decrease depression, anxiety, negative emotions and drastic mood changes. It may also contribute to overall happiness and the treatment of certain mental illnesses.
- Behavioral: Being mindful has been linked to greater focus, self-compassion, regulation of emotions, relaxation and acceptance of experiences. As a result, relationships are more meaningful and individuals tend to gain a better grasp of reality.
In addition to the health and social benefits, mindfulness can be practiced by anyone. Whether getting professional treatment and guidance, formally meditating or just trying to become more aware in general, every person can incorporate this practice into daily life. If you are feeling stressed and anxious, try one of the four ideas below to increase your own mindfulness.
1. Mindful Breathing
A huge part of the practice is breathing. Stay quiet and turn your awareness to your breath. Notice how fast, how deep and what it feels like throughout your body as you inhale and exhale. When thoughts enter your mind, let them go without concern or question. As you keep your attention on breathing in and out, you will start to reduce outside noise and bring calm to your being. In this moment, try to focus on feeling grateful for your breath.
2. Purposeful Walking
Much like mindful breathing, bringing your attention to each step you take when walking can bring a sense of appreciation and enjoyment. When you recognize that walking is a gift that allows you to see the world around you, you may start to feel a sense of gratitude. Mindful walking can be done any time you need to get away from a stressful situation. With each step, focus on how your body moves, the feeling of your feet on the ground and the energy you create. Whenever you need a moment to yourself, walk back and forth for a few minutes and simply focus on yourself and how your body moves.
3. Being Present in Your Body
Increasing awareness of your feelings and sensations as you do normal, daily activities can give you a greater appreciation for life. Paying attention to each of your senses in a given moment will bring your focus to what is happening now as opposed to stressing about what did or could happen. Being present and aware starts with the breath and ends with total engagement of the senses. When your mind starts to stress or wander to an unsettling thought and you need to take a mindful moment, start with your breathing. Pay attention to how the air feels going in through your nose, how your stomach and chest expand to let the breath in, and the way the air feels on your lips as you exhale. Then, focus on the energy brought to your body by your breath and the sensations you experience:
- What do you see?
- What do you smell?
- What are you touching?
- What do you hear?
- What do you taste?
Once you have taken note of each of your senses, savor each one and actively participate in the moment by being conscious of all of your feelings. Scan your body from head to toe and let yourself enjoy how the energy affects each part of you, without trying to change it.
Meditation has long been used to reduce stress and anxiety and bring the mind into a sense of clarity and consciousness. There are several different techniques, but the primary goal of meditation is focus. For many people, achieving this results in greater self-understanding, better sleep, happier thoughts and improved concentration.
If you are interested in trying out meditation, there are a few basic steps you can follow to get started:
- Find a quiet place where you can limit distractions
- Sit up straight on a chair or cross-legged on the floor
- Close your eyes, relax your body and focus inward
- Pick one thing to focus on – maybe your stomach as you breathe or the air passing through your nostrils
- After several moments of concentration, start to widen your focus and try to become aware of other surroundings, embracing new ideas and sensations.
- Enjoy the moment.
When your mind starts to wander during meditation, be sure to stay persistent and reset your intention as necessary, bringing awareness back to one object before expanding it again.
Everyone can benefit from these practices, as they can be a lifeline in high-stress situations. Take a little time to be present each day – your mind and body will thank you.