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Mind Over Matter: Using Mindfulness To Move Through Stress

Mind Over Matter: Using Mindfulness To Move Through Stress

Aug 16, 2023

Lingering in the past and anticipating the future can both create stress in our lives. Practicing mindfulness allows us to release stress and embrace the present.

Have you ever noticed that a lot of the stress in our lives seems to come from either lingering in the past or anticipating the future? Maybe you’re worried about a big deadline coming up at work, or maybe you’re overthinking a conversation you had with someone a few days ago. In both scenarios, you’re feeling stressed now, even though the actual stressful situation isn’t currently happening.

Stress has a way of pulling us out of the present moment - which is why learning to accept and embrace the present can be such an impactful tool for stress relief. So today, let’s dive into the practice of mindfulness: what it is, how it affects stress, and how we can focus on perceiving without judging to move through stressful situations.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a skill defined by focusing your attention on the present moment, maintaining awareness of your thoughts, feelings, physical body, and surrounding environment. When you practice mindfulness, you’re completely focused on the “here and now.” You aren’t dwelling on the past or thinking about the future.

How does mindfulness affect stress?

Mindfulness can be practiced anytime and anywhere, but it can be particularly helpful when you’re feeling overwhelmed by stress and anxiety. Many studies have shown that mindfulness can reduce stress. Practicing mindfulness can also increase positive emotions, decrease negative emotions, and even affect gray matter in areas of the brain responsible for emotional regulation. It’s also great for helping us tune out distractions and improve our focus. So, while stress can leave us feeling distracted, overwhelmed, anxious, or irritable, practicing mindfulness can help mitigate those negative feelings associated with stress.

Perceiving without judging

Another important aspect of mindfulness is learning to be aware of your thoughts and emotions, without feeling the need to react to them. True mindfulness requires perceiving without judging; you accept your present reality and all its thoughts and feelings, whether they are positive or negative. You then embrace these thoughts and feelings without evaluating them. They simply exist as a part of you in this space and time. They do not require you to analyze or act on them.

Learning to observe without reacting can do a lot to loosen the hold stress has on us. Think about it: when you classify a thought or emotion as “bad,” it makes you feel pressured to do something to change it. This in turn creates (or adds to) stress. When you instead take a more neutral, mindful approach (that things “are the way they are”), you remove that pressure and instead give yourself grace and peace of mind.

Common mindfulness exercises

Mindfulness relies on your ability to focus on self-awareness. So, different approaches to practicing mindfulness may work better for different people. Here are a few examples of mindfulness exercises you can try.

Mindful breathing

Awareness of our breaths and controlling our breathing plays a significant role in both relieving stress and anxiety and in helping us feel grounded in the present moment. Try a grounding breathing technique like box breathing or belly breathing when practicing mindfulness.

Mindful meditation

Meditation is another popular and effective way to practice mindfulness. There are many different forms of meditation to choose from, from body scanning to mantra meditation to Vipassana. Remember to choose a calm, comfortable space to begin your meditation.

Mindful drawing

Some people find practicing mindfulness easier when they are able to engage their physical bodies at the same time. Mindful drawing is a simple way to ground yourself in the present and focus your thoughts, while keeping your hands busy. You don’t have to be a talented artist to try it - just grab a piece of paper and a pencil and see where your mindfulness journey takes you.

Mindful walking

A different variation on engaging physically with your mindfulness journey is mindful walking. Choose a location away from other people when you can. (It will help you avoid distractions and boost your self-awareness.) Just remember to walk slowly - you want to keep your heart rate and breathing calm.

Tips for practicing mindfulness

However you choose to practice mindfulness, keep the following general guidelines in mind:

  • Pay close attention to your breathing. Whether or not your approach to mindfulness incorporates a specific breathing exercise, paying attention to your breaths is one of the key ways to ground yourself in the present and feel calm.
  • Focus on your senses. Take in your surroundings with all of your senses, noticing even the small things you normally wouldn’t consciously focus on.
  • Define your emotions. What are you feeling in the moment? How strong are your emotions? Are you feeling predominantly one way, or many things all at once?
  • Be aware of your body. Tune in to your physicality as well as your emotions. How are you positioned? What sensations are you experiencing? 
  • Observe without judgment or action. Remember as you take in information about your physical body, your thoughts, and your emotions, you should do so without judgment and without compelling yourself to act on any of your observations. 
  • Stay in the present. Mindfulness is about the current moment. Don’t let your thoughts stray to things in the past or speculate about the future.
  • Accept yourself as you are. Your thoughts and feelings don’t need to be defined as “good” or “bad.” Accept yourself as you are in this moment, without burdening yourself with expectations.

You may find mindfulness challenging at first, but practice makes shifting your attention to the present easier over time. Start with short sessions during periods of low stress to get a feel for what works for you. Soon, you’ll be able to practice mindfulness anytime, anywhere.

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