How to Meditate: Meditation 101 for Beginners
10 Science-Backed Benefits of Meditation
What is Meditation?
How to Meditate: Meditation 101 for Beginners
10 Science-Backed Benefits of Meditation
What is Meditation?
Benefits of Mindfulness: Mindful Living Can Change Your Life
Mindfulness 101: A Beginner's Guide
Note: This article is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical conditions and is not a substitute for consulting with your personal healthcare professionals.
Life can be stressful. And while, as humans, we are hardwired to be able to deal with some stress, and even to weather occasional periods of intensity, when stress is prolonged, it can have serious consequences for our physical health, our sense of well-being, and our overall quality of life.
And when stressful events are compounded—when problems and worries and heartbreak pile up—the impact on our physical and mental health can be severe. Chronic stress can wreak havoc on our lives, greatly increasing our risk for anxiety, depression, insomnia, high blood pressure, and heart disease. It can even lower our immunity.
Unfortunately we have little warning of when stressful life events will happen.
Even if your life is pretty balanced and you feel capable of managing upsets when they occur, every one of us, at some point, will be challenged to our limit. We will feel overwhelmed. We will struggle to cope with our emotions, with all we have to do, with everyday life in general.
That’s why learning to manage stress is so important for thriving in life. And doing so through mindfulness training not only helps you navigate stressful events with greater skill and ease, but it also provides you with important life tools, such as:
Learning stress management is possible at any age, and it’s also accumulative—the more you practice, the easier it becomes and the more far-reaching the effects.
Read on to learn mindfulness techniques for stress reduction and to help you navigate life’s ups and downs, and all the in-betweens, with greater ease, self-acceptance, and happiness.
Mindfulness meditation has been found to calm the stress response, commonly known as “fight-or-flight.”
The stress response occurs when the part of your brain called the amygdala perceives a threat. In response, a flood of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, are released, causing a range of physiological changes, such as increased respiration and blood flow to your extremities and to your brain, preparing your muscles to go into action and heightening your senses, among other potential life-preserving measures.
When the threat subsides, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in to slow these reactions and bring your body back to a baseline state.
But the stress response isn’t just a reaction to an obvious threat. It can be triggered by anything your brain perceives as a threat—like the psychological stress of feeling overwhelmed, or physical discomfort, such as chronic pain. Regardless of the cause, the brain and the body react in the same way, to prepare you to fight, freeze, or flee.
So, what happens when the “threat” isn’t really, well, a threat?
Your body is left in a hyper-aroused, amped-up state without any outlet for that energy. And there are some real consequences of this:
Over time, stress hormones and the resulting physiological reactions take a toll on our physical and mental health. The health problems associated with stress are well documented, and include things like high blood pressure, headaches, chronic inflammation, greater risk of heart disease, obesity, and depression, among other ills.
Also, the stress reaction can become habitual, creating a well-worn pattern of behavior that can cause you to overreact at even the slightest challenge or upset.
Through mindfulness practice, we can train ourselves to respond more skillfully to any challenging situation and perceived stress. Over time, mindfulness meditation and other mindfulness exercises actually decrease the size of the amygdala, effectively quieting an overactive stress-alert system. This is one of the reasons why numerous studies have found mindfulness to be an effective stress management tool.
Employing practices like mindfulness meditation and mindful breathing, and relaxation techniques, like the body scan, we learn to tune into body sensations when we’re first feeling stressed: maybe our breathing gets shallow, our muscles grow tense, we might feel heat rising or other physical sensations that provide clues to our agitated mental state.
With this knowledge, we can take conscious steps to help ourselves.
Practicing deep breathing, we activate the parasympathetic nervous system to help counter the mounting stress response.
We can be curious about what’s coming up for us, listening without judgment to what we might need in the present moment.
We can also practice self-compassion for our struggle, placing one hand on our heart or on an arm, providing soothing comfort that reminds us we’re safe.
As we calm ourselves, we gain a sense of clarity and spaciousness in our thinking to consider our next best action.
All of these steps are a form of self-care. In fact, one of the greatest health benefits of mindfulness might be its value as a tool for caring for ourselves.
When stressful things happen, we often become reactive. We may end up saying or doing things we regret later and our vision of the situation at hand can become clouded by a storm of emotions and flood of unhelpful thoughts. Sometimes our reactions make things worse.
Mindfulness helps us better manage stressful situations because it trains us to regulate our emotions, step back from our thoughts, and gives us the mental perspective to choose our thoughts, words, and actions more deliberately. In short, mindfulness helps us respond instead of react.
We can employ mindful breathing exercises to help us find a calmer center when our thoughts and emotions start to spin
We can ask ourselves questions, such as Is it true? to discern the true nature of an upset.
Breathing mindfully and using our awareness to understand what’s present for us are just two ways that we can use mindfulness to manage stress and to respond more effectively to situations instead of simply reacting.
When we practice mindfulness, we develop mental strength and calm that can help us weather the storms of life much more effectively.
Even when we feel challenged, we can practice a mindful breathing exercise; tune into our experience using an anchor, such as physical sensation; and give ourselves a pause. Through these three simple actions, we offer ourselves calming support and create a bit of space to explore what we might need at the moment and to choose what to do next. These are the immediate benefits of mindfulness.
As we grow our “mindfulness muscle,” we become more and more resilient to life’s challenges overall. We gain a broader perspective that can help us see situations with greater clarity. We’re less hard on ourselves, recognizing our own humanity and offering ourselves self-compassion when things are difficult. We’re better able to discern and take care of our needs, which makes us physically and mentally healthier and better prepared to face challenges.
Stressful things happen in life, that’s for sure—but much of the stress we experience on a daily basis is created from stress-inducing thoughts. Thought patterns like worry and rumination are good examples of this. Our thoughts can get us caught up in negativity, stress, anxiety, or even depression.
Mindfulness training helps us to “unhook” from unhelpful thoughts, which can otherwise pull us into emotional reactivity, stress, and struggle.
Through mindfulness exercises, we train ourselves in relating to our thoughts in new ways. Instead of getting caught up in them, we learn to step back from spinning thoughts by tuning into what’s happening in the present moment, such as physical sensations, to help ground us. From this more steady place, we can observe thoughts more calmly, and let them go.
Mindfulness helps give ourselves more mental space—to think clearly, choose our actions wisely, and stay connected with a steady sense of calm. This is the goal of mindfulness training programs including Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT).
Over time, the practice of mindfulness meditation helps us to let go of the habit of being caught up in our heads and reacting from our thoughts, and we become more able to stay grounded, balanced, and present as we navigate our way through life.
Stress and anxiety are on the rise around the world, with one global survey suggesting that almost 40% of adults experienced worry or stress the day before. A UK survey found that 74% of people surveyed had felt overwhelmed by stress at some point during the past year. Another survey from Lifeline Australia suggested that 90% of Australians feel they need to learn to stress less, with 74% of people reporting that they are stressed by their job.
The impact of this on our physical health cannot be overstated. Chronic stress, or a state of being in a continual stress-response mode, puts us at risk for serious health problems, such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, gastrointestinal issues, migraine headaches, anxiety, and depression.
And while mindfulness can help unwind, or prevent, these health problems, it also confers some pretty impressive health benefits to boot:
Technology has impacted every aspect of our lives. In so many ways, these advances are great. But technology has also ushered in a state of constant connectivity, largely displacing the natural cycles of high productivity balanced by periods of rest. Now we’re always on, always connected—and our bodies and minds don’t get a chance to fully rest and restore. This just makes us feel more stressed and overwhelmed.
Despite these impacts, there’s a perception that stress equals productivity; that in order to succeed, we have to be on, all the time.
Yet when we’re busy we tend to become frazzled, lose focus, and to start multitasking, a process that might seem efficient but that actually makes us up to 40% less productive and more prone to making mistakes.
Research shows that mindfulness training helps us get tasks done more efficiently, with less mistakes, and without the backdrop of heightened stress. Mindfulness makes us more clear headed and focused on what we’re doing. It also makes us less distracted.
In the workplace, researchers find that mindfulness meditation training decreases burnout and improves employees’ sense of well-being, both of which are important for job satisfaction.
It’s not a stretch to say that mindfulness is an essential ally in busy times and for busy people.
So, how, exactly, does one go about practicing mindfulness to help reduce stress and stay productive? Here are some tips to help get you started.
This means offering the same kindness and understanding to yourself that you would provide to a friend who was struggling.
STOP is a mindfulness technique you can do at any time to reconnect with yourself if you begin to feel overwhelmed, stressed, or anxious. Here’s how to do it:
S: Stop, literally, whatever action you are doing. If you’re walking, pause. If you’re reading news on your phone, put the phone down. If you’re driving, maybe pull over and put the car in park. Just cease activity for a few moments.
T: Take a breath. And then take another, maybe deeper this time. Breathing through your nose, mentally follow the air as it goes into your body, and then notice as it leaves. Do this a few more times.
O: Observe what’s going on in your body. Notice your posture, where your hands are, your shoulders. Do a mental scan of your entire body. Tune into any physical sensation, such as heat or prickling. Just notice what’s there, maybe imagining breathing into that area of your body.
P: Proceed. With this greater sense of awareness, ask yourself what you need. What next step or action might you take?
Mindful walking or running, or even just taking a few moments to move and stretch your body while tuning into physical sensation, can help shift you out of a stressed mental state and into one that’s more embodied, calm, and spacious. Even better: Do your mindful movement outdoors.
Stressful events and situations are part of life, and we can be sure that we’ll experience both. But stress need not be a constant state.
The benefits of mindfulness go far beyond managing stress. But mindfulness exercises might also just be the best tools we have at our disposal to manage the stressors of life with greater ease and equanimity—even in this overconnected, stress-inducing world.
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