With all that we experience each day, it is no wonder that stress can build up and affect our lives. Work, relationships, money, health issues, current events, or family problems can elevate our stress levels. Often times to an unhealthy level. Stress can affect our emotional and physical well-being. Within the body, stress can result in:
- tense muscles,
- increased heart rate,
- stomach pain,
- digestion issues,
- brain drain,
- reproductive issues,
- increase our risk for hypertension,
- heart attack,
It is easy to see that there is a great need to keep our daily stressors at bay. Our mental health relies greatly on how we can handle stress and/or events in our life. Anxiety, depression, anger, and agitation all can be reduced when we learn to recognize our feelings and then learn to cope with them.
I recently visited with a few of our Care Navigators (social workers) and one common tip they had for reducing stress in our lives was to practice mindfulness, but what is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the conscious awareness of what we are doing and what is going on around us. It is using all our senses to enter a state of mind where you are in touch with your thoughts, bodily sensations, and emotions. It is pausing and taking notice of the things going on around you and being present in the moment. The intentional practice of mindfulness can help you cope anytime you feel overwhelmed and research shows that by doing practicing mindfulness you can actually remodel the physical structure of your brain.
There are many different mindful activities and you can practice mindfulness at any time. Even while doing mundane tasks such as brushing your teeth, eating a meal, or driving your car. Start off recognizing what is going on and then allow yourself the experience of being right there in the moment. Pause and notice how the steering wheel feels in your hand. What sounds do you hear as you are driving? What color is the sky today? Are there clouds out? How many cars are on the road with you? Are there more or less than normal? Feel the weight of your body in your seat and feel how the air hit your face.
Just like learning anything new, you will need to practice this a few times. Mindful.org gives some great practice instructions. Follow these steps to try mindfulness right now:
- Take your seat. Whatever you’re sitting on—a chair, a meditation cushion, a park bench—find a spot that gives you a stable, solid seat, not perching or hanging back.
- Notice what your legs are doing. If on a cushion on the floor, cross your legs comfortably in front of you. (If you already do some kind of seated yoga posture, go ahead.) If on a chair, it’s good if the bottoms of your feet are touching the floor.
- Straighten—but don’t stiffen—your upper body. The spine has natural curvature. Let it be there. Your head and shoulders can comfortably rest on top of your vertebrae.
- Situate your upper arms parallel to your upper body. Then let your hands drop onto the tops of your legs. With your upper arms at your sides, your hands will land in the right spot. Too far forward will make you hunch. Too far back will make you stiff. You’re tuning the strings of your body—not too tight and not too loose.
- Drop your chin a little and let your gaze fall gently downward. You may let your eyelids lower. If you feel the need, you may lower them completely, but it’s not necessary to close your eyes when meditating. You can simply let what appears before your eyes be there without focusing on it.
- Be there for a few moments. Relax. Bring your attention to your breath or the sensations in your body.
- Feel your breath—or some say “follow” it—as it goes out and as it goes in. (Some versions of this practice put more emphasis on the outbreath, and for the inbreath you simply leave a spacious pause.) Either way, draw your attention to the physical sensation of breathing: the air moving through your nose or mouth, the rising and falling of your belly, or your chest. Choose your focal point, and with each breath, you can mentally note “breathing in” and “breathing out.”
- Inevitably, your attention will leave the breath and wander to other places. Don’t worry. There’s no need to block or eliminate thinking. When you get around to noticing your mind wandering—in a few seconds, a minute, five minutes—just gently return your attention to the breath.
- Practice pausing before making any physical adjustments, such as moving your body or scratching an itch. With intention, shift at a moment you choose, allowing space between what you experience and what you choose to do.
- You may find your mind wandering constantly—that’s normal, too. Instead of wrestling with or engaging with those thoughts as much, practice observing without needing to react. Just sit and pay attention. As hard as it is to maintain, that’s all there is. Come back over and over again without judgment or expectation.
- When you’re ready, gently lift your gaze (if your eyes are closed, open them). Take a moment and notice any sounds in the environment. Notice how your body feels right now. Notice your thoughts and emotions. Pausing for a moment, decide how you’d like to continue on with your day.
In the midst of challenging times, our minds can become overwhelmed and we can experience increased stress and anxiety. For those caring for others, it is especially important to find a balance and also care for yourself. Listen to Garrett as he shares mindfulness tips you can do to help you stay grounded, calm, and more in control.
Garrett Price, MASF, LPC, CSP