Mindfulness to Reduce Stress & Anxiety
Updated: Mar 3
Mindfulness is everywhere. Books, magazines, news articles, apps, they all seem to be touting its benefits. But is this just another fad? Why should we give it more attention than any other trend?
Mindfulness is the practice of being present focused and letting go of distracting thoughts that can contribute to anxiety, depression and other emotional states. Originally based on eastern meditative techniques it is increasingly being used in western medicine as part of the treatment for anxiety, depression, PTSD, and other psychological disorders. Studies show that practicing mindfulness can also help improve one's ability to cope with chronic pain, chronic illness, and stress. Harvard researchers have found that regular practice improves the brain's ability to process difficult emotions such as fear.
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We humans are highly distractible. This helps us to be able to react to potential threats around us. We are naturally distracted, on average, around four times every second. Add to this the additional stress of our busy schedules, work and personal responsibilities, and yes, our addiction to technology (texts, emails, breaking news), and it's not surprising that we are seeing unprecedented levels of anxiety and depression, and the rise of angry expression and other negative behaviors in our society.
We really need a way to disconnect from the noise and learn how to deal with distractions, unhelpful thoughts and worries that tend to keep us from focusing on tasks we are working on or the people we are with at the present moment. This means our work performance can be more satisfying, and our relationships more rich and fulfilling.
Anyone can learn mindfulness even if they have a busy schedule, because it only takes a few minutes of practice per day. You can practice formal mindful meditation techniques, taking a few minutes to relax or just learn to use simple strategies to help you pay attention to the present, such as when you are working, walking, eating a meal, listening to music or even spending time with another person. The key is to start with a simple breathing exercise and increase the time you practice.
Here is a simple mindfulness exercise that can get you started:
Find a comfortable place to sit where there are few environmental distractions. Turn off your phone or set a timer for 3-5 minutes so you don’t have to think about the time. Close your eyes. Begin to think about your breath as you are inhaling and exhaling. Breathe in through your nose, filling your lungs so that your belly, rather than your chest, expands. Take natural but full breaths. Don’t force it. Focus on the sensation of the air going in through your nose and out through your mouth. Breath in for about 5 seconds, hold for a second and then softly exhale through pursed lips for about 6 seconds.
Silently count to ten with each inhalation and exhalation so you can hold your attention on your breath. In this exercise you are going to simply concentrate on what it feels like to breathe. When you are distracted by a sensation, a sound or a thought, notice it but don't linger on it. To let it go, focus back on your breathing as you inhale and exhale and begin counting again. This trains your ability to manage your attention. Do not be self critical if it's hard to do at first. Don't allow yourself to become frustrated.
Once you have completed at least a couple of minutes of deep breathing, begin to expand your awareness from your breath to the rest of your body, your jaw, your neck and shoulders, your arms, trunk and legs. Continue to breathe deeply but notice the sensation of sitting, the way your arms and hands lie, and the gradual relaxation of your muscles. Notice that as you focus on your breathing, the rest of the body will begin to relax also.
Now as this session of practice comes to an end, let your focus expand from your body to your surroundings. Maintaining the steady breathing rhythm, start to pay attention to your immediate surroundings. Slowly open your eyes, look around, and begin to move a bit and when you are ready, stand up slowly, stretch a bit, and resume your day.
The more you practice this exercise, the quicker your body will become conditioned to automatically relax when you do a deep breathing exercise like this either formally, or informally as needed throughout your day.
For more information on mindfulness, you can visit the Harvard University Center for Wellness and Health promotion, which offers online mindfulness tools and audio files which you can download.
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1 Powell, A. (2018, April 9). When science meets mindfulness [Blog post]. Retreived from https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2018/04/harvard-researchers-study-how-mindfulness-may-change-the-brain-in-depressed-patients/