We can’t avoid all stress in our lives, but we can prevent it from seriously affecting us.
That’s the goal of “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction,” a practice developed at the University of Massachusetts in the 1970s as a way to combat the stress of everyday life through mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the mental state achieved by focusing your awareness on the present moment, while non-judgmentally observing your feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. It’s been used as a stress mitigation technique for thousands of years, but the science backing up its results is only now starting to come to light. Exercises and meditations like the kinds you do in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction not only help mitigate the impact of stressful events, they help decrease depression, reduce anxiety, and can even improve your brain health and help you live longer.
The official “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction” workshop is an 8 week program, but anyone can use its practices at home, at work, and throughout their lives.
If you want to reduce stress in your life through mindfulness, try incorporating these exercises and meditations.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Exercises
These exercises involve more physical activity than a typical meditation if you want the benefits of mindfulness without committing to a meditative practice. See how you can work these exercises into your day to create more mindfulness, and reduce stress in the process.
Conscious awareness is a form of informal meditation you can do at any time, simply by observing your surroundings and internal states without judging them, lingering on them, or trying to change them. You could observe yourself breathing, watch the movements of tree leaves, or deliberately try to stay aware of what you’re doing during otherwise automatic behaviors like washing your hands or driving your car.
This conscious awareness helps to quiet racing thoughts that can lead to stress by focusing your attention on your environment or on watching your thoughts instead. And what you’ll find is that when you take time to be consciously aware of your environment and your mental state, you’ll naturally start to calm down and stress will fade away.
Mindful walking is a form of meditation and conscious awareness where you simply walk while trying to stay as aware of your movements and experience as possible.
To practice mindful walking, start walking at a slower than normal pace. Breathe deeply and deliberately, and try to feel the entire sensation of walking, from heel, to the flat of your foot, to your toes. When your attention drifts from the sensations of walking, refocus it on the movement of your body, the world around you, or on your thoughts. Don’t let yourself get lost in this observation, rather, try to watch it non-judgmentally.
By focusing your attention on the sensation of walking and the world around you, you’ll naturally feel any stress fade away, and be less reactive to new stresses that arise later in the day.
Try being more deliberate in how you eat and drink as well to add more mindfulness to your daily life.
Instead of eating as quickly as possible while reading the news on your phone or watching TV, try focusing your attention on the sensations of eating. Move your fork to your mouth slower, chew deliberately, feel the food get broken up and taste it more fully before you swallow it.
As you drink, feel the water, tea, coffee, move around in your mouth and feel how your body changes as you swallow it. When your attention drifts, refocus it on the sensations of eating and try to stay fully attentive to what you’re experiencing. By cultivating more mindfulness while eating, too, you’ll further reduce how affected you are by stressful events.
If you want a more active way to take advantage of Mindfulness-Based stress reduction, try practicing Hatha Yoga in the mornings or evenings.
The stretches and movements of Hatha Yoga, as with many other kinds of Yoga, seek to focus your attention on the physical experience you’re having and draw your mind away from racing or ruminating on its normal thoughts.
The easiest way to get started is to follow some or all of a recorded hatha yoga flow on YouTube:
Even normal exercise, like long distance running, sprinting, or weightlifting can become a mindful practice and reduce stress.
Feel each step, breath, lift, or motion, and try to focus your entire attention on it. In doing so, you’ll be practicing more mindfulness and reducing stress, while also getting the stress reducing benefits of the exercise itself.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Meditations
In addition to the exercises that will help you develop more mindfulness and reduce stress, there are certain forms of meditation you may find useful.
Body Scan Meditation
The simplest form of meditation you can try for reducing stress is a body scan meditation.
To start, lie on your back on a couch or yoga mat and simply let yourself start to relax. Start by observing the contact between your body and the floor. How does it feel to be touching the ground? Where can you feel it most, and how much attention can you give to those points?
Then, start at the top of your head and “scan” down through your body mentally, taking note of how each part of your body feels. Is anything tense? Sore? Don’t judge the feelings, simply observe them as you work down from your head to your toes.
Try to move through your body as slowly as possible, taking time to really how each part of it feels. Once you’ve done down to your toes and back up to your head, try to release any remaining tension and simply focus on your breath. When you feel like you’re finished, go ahead and get back up.
This kind of meditation helps you to focus your attention on small sensations instead of any stressful thoughts, and will reduce the stress you experience while not doing the meditation as well.
Sitting meditation will feel familiar to you, coming from learning how to scan your body. To begin, sit with a straight and dignified posture – your head, neck, and back should all be in alignment. Relax your shoulders and place your hands on your knees or in your lap.
Once you’re comfortable in your posture, focus on your breathing. Feel it come in, and go back out. Don’t control it, just observe it.
Your mind may start to wander as you get deeper into the exercise. When it does, calmly return it to your breath. Observe the impulses you feel. Try not to think about what to do next or something that happened in the past. Keep focusing on your breath.
This practice helps you accept each moment as it comes and goes. In the long run, this will train your mind to be less reactive and more stable when stressful situations arise, allowing you to better handle stressful situations.
While a normal sitting meditation will help reduce your feelings of stress, there are certain guided meditations specifically focused on helping you reduce stress and anxiety in the moment.
These guided meditations help you focus on the feelings and your thoughts around them, and slowly let them go. They’re even used in medical treatments to help patients with intense reactions to stress and anxiety.
You can use a shorter, de-stressing and relaxing meditation like this one:
Or you can also use a longer, medical de-stressed meditation like this one:
Living Mindfully, With Less Stress
As you incorporate these exercises and meditations into your life, you’ll find that you react less intensely to stressful situations and are better able to handle them when they arise. Over time, you’ll start to see yourself reacting negatively in the moment, but then be able to let that sensation go as you do your other racing thoughts when being mindful.
It can help to be notified when you start to feel those tense feelings, too, by using a device like Spire. It gives you a subtle notification when you’re getting tense, encouraging you to pause and return to more a more mindful state and let those stressful feelings go.
But whether you use a device or not, these exercises and meditations for mindfulness will help you significantly reduce your feelings of stress.