First, it is important to understand our body’s stress response in order to understand the benefits of mindfulness. When we are feeling emotional stress or anxiety, our body often responds. Stress triggers our body’s Fight-Flight-Freeze response and releases stress hormones into our bloodstream. These stress hormones trigger both physical and psychological responses and is a perfect example of the mind-body connection. Some physiological reactions we have are: muscle tension, rapid heart rate, sweating, difficulty breathing, chest pain, headaches, gastrointestinal discomfort, and dizziness. In current day, the majority of our stress is psychological and emotional, but our bodies still react in this physiological manner. These responses are not problematic when our stress response gets triggered infrequently because our bodies have time to recover. However, for people experiencing chronic stress or anxiety, the body can remain in an arousal state ready to “fight, flee or freeze” and the symptoms can persist. This is wear and tear on our bodies and minds.
Mindfulness is about training our brains to be in the current moment without evaluation or judgement. If you are trying to calm your thoughts but your body’s fire alarm is going off and telling you to be scared, then you are embarking on an uphill battle. Think about a time when your fire alarm went off while cooking – it makes you physically tense and unable to think clearly even though you knew a true fire wasn’t blazing. Mindfulness exercises can calm your body’s physical reactivity while also calming your thoughts. Additionally, we are often in all the shoulda-woulda-couldas of the past or the what-ifs of the future. Training our minds to be in the here-and-now, is an excellent way to move away from those ineffective thought patterns.
Mindfulness Meditation Audio: This involves a voice guiding you in focusing on your breath or body, likely with calming music in the background. The instructor will guide you to bring your awareness to the present moment non-judgmentally. You can find different audio on YouTube, Spotify and Apple Music by searching “mindful meditation.” Audios vary in length from 3 minutes to over 1 hour. Pick a length that works for your lifestyle and makes it easy to practice!
Mindful Tasks: This is a great strategy because it literally takes no extra time out of your life! Pick a task that you do anyways (i.e. showering, tooth brushing, cooking, laundry, commuting, etc.) Use all five senses to describe the moment without evaluation. For example, if you practice in the shower, notice the temperature of the water, what body part you are washing, where the water is hitting your body, the smell of the soap, the sound of the fan, etc.
Mindfulness is a workout for your brain. Just like any exercise, you will build this skill with practice. Your mind will likely wander from the present moment. Just notice your thoughts have strayed from the here-and-now, and gently circle your mind back to the present. Getting frustrated with yourself will not be very relaxing, so accept your mind wandering as a part of your practice.
Not all mindfulness exercises are created equal. Experiment with different audios and tasks and identify the ones you like. Pick the ones that resonate with you and stick to those. You don’t have to like them all!
Practice when you’re calm. When you first start to practice, do so during times when your body’s fire alarm isn’t going off and you aren’t emotionally elevated. Keeping your mind in the present moment is difficult, so until you strengthen the skill, it will be hard to engage with during elevated times. Once you have some practice, you will be able to utilize this coping strategy during emotionally charged moments.
Set a reminder to practice. Like anything new, it can be hard to remember. Set reminders for yourself so you remember to engage. Also, when we are emotionally elevated, we can’t think clearly. This makes it hard to remember that we can utilize mindful coping strategies. Ask a loved one to provide a gentle reminder or create an easily accessible list of coping strategies you can reference during these times.
Practicing mindfulness can have a profound effect on our minds and bodies. It is 2-for-1 by helping us calm our bodies and minds at the same time – who doesn’t love a deal?! So build your mindful muscle and feel stronger and calmer.
Lastly, mindfulness skills are a great adjunct to other types of therapy (i.e. CBT and EMDR.) Your therapist can guide you in how to use mindful awareness to help you manage your ineffective thought patterns and calm your physical and emotional elevations.