Practicing mindfulness can give us superhuman ability to cope with stress. But despite the overwhelming benefits of building a mindfulness practice, people often think of it as yet another item on an endless to-do list. Some hold the belief that they simply aren’t good at ‘being present,’ while others may view it as indulgent or selfish. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Mindfulness is a state of active attention to the present moment. And while that might seem like a state you should be able to innately achieve, mindfulness is, in fact, a skill that we hone through specific techniques.
By taking just a few seconds to center our brains, we can sharpen our critical thinking skills, heighten our focus, and improve our attention spans. Mindfulness also helps us enhance interpersonal skills, giving us more empathy, compassion, and patience for our loved ones and colleagues.
No matter what name we call it — mindfulness, contemplation, mental hygiene — the science is clear: mindfulness is a practice that works. Here are a few easy ways to get started:
How it works — When we breathe deeply, we engage our vagus nerve and parasympathetic nervous system. This directly combats the release of stress hormones (like cortisol and adrenaline) while lowering our blood pressure and slowing down our heart rate, thus initiating a sense of peace in the body and mind. So, when we learn to activate the calming parasympathetic pathways on command, we are essentially telling our fight-or-flight responses to take a backseat.
How to get started — Breathe deeply through the nose into the lower lobes of your lungs, feeling the abdomen expand fully before breathing out slowly. Repeat this two or three times while reminding yourself of something empowering or reassuring, perhaps something regarding your ability to slow down or control your actions. I personally like to use the phrase, “This emotion doesn’t control me. I control me.”
How it works — A mantra, or positive reminder, is an affirmation that motivates or inspires us in some way. The development and repetition of a mantra further relax the nervous system, decelerates the overtaking of discursive or negative thoughts and better allows us to connect with a relaxed and focused self. I like to think of it as the home button on my phone; it sends all the clutter away and brings me back to base when I need it most. After all, our thoughts drive our attitudes, actions, and behaviors, and a positive affirmation keeps us on track.
How to get started — Think about an idea, goal, concept, or emotion you’d like to focus on, such as “calm,” “confidence,” or “success.” Now, turn it into a declarative statement like, “I am calm,” or “I have everything I need to succeed.” Because affirmations are positive statements meant to combat negative thoughts, it is important to phrase it as though it were already true and make it about what you are, as opposed to what you are not. For example, rather than saying “I’m not insecure,” use “I am confident and secure,” instead. We do this to reinforce a healthy self-narrative and foster a sense of self-integrity. Repeat your positive reminder throughout your day, science supports it.
How it works — The body scan is a cognitive reset tool that brings awareness to how our emotional experiences impact our physical selves. For each emotion we confront in our day, our bodies keep tally via fatigue, back pain, headaches, stomach aches, and so much more. So, when we “scan” our bodies for physical signs of stress, we are learning how to better respond to the emotional and physical cues that influence our reasoning, comprehension or perception during moments of frustration or overwhelm.
How to get started — Following a deep breath, think about different muscle groups relaxing. Notice your eyes. Are they darting around the room? Let them be neutral and focused on a single point. Notice your cheeks and your jaw. Are they tight? Let them fall. Check in with your shoulders. Are they tense? Let them relax. What about your hands? Go ahead and release them. Continue all the way down your body, noticing how your hips feel sitting in your chair, how your feet feel resting on the floor, and how your other muscle groups might be retaining stress.
How it works — Practicing mindfulness doesn’t actually require that much time. It’s a myth that we have to set aside an hour a day for meditation in order to be mindful. We can see results from only a few minutes here and there, but the best kind of practice is one we actually do.
How to get started — Layer mindfulness practice into a part of your day that’s already calm and consistent because as I always say, it’s hard to learn to swim if you’re already drowning. Being that mindfulness is a form of mental hygiene, I like to pair it with a personal hygiene practice such as deep breathing while in the shower or completing a body scan while brushing my teeth. Spend some time thinking through what small moments in the day you can commit to regularly engaging one of the listed exercises.
Stress will affect us no matter how diligently we practice mindfulness. This is because mindfulness doesn’t eliminate pressure from our lives; rather, it helps us cope. When we’re finding ourselves stressed, it’s important to acknowledge our discomfort, connect inward with the experience and then take action to lessen its impact. It may sound counterintuitive, but slowing down actually gives us more time in the long run as we become less likely to make snap decisions or regrettable mistakes.
So go ahead and allow yourself to take a moment to pause the next time you’re feeling stressed. It will help you understand your own thoughts and feelings with more clarity, and ultimately handle challenges with more composure.