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Why Mindfulness Will Help You Manage Stress

Staying focused on the present might actually help you rewire your brain to handle stress better.

When life's chaos overwhelms you, the idea of slowing down might seem overly simple and possibly even counter-intuitive. In fact, many people do the exact opposite: they push through and ignore the discomfort; they attempt to control the environment to reduce the stress. Right now, the chaos and uncertainty of life generate a new type of stress -- one that is out of our control but that affects our daily lives and overall mental health.

For decades, yogis, gurus, and meditation practitioners have lauded the benefits of mindfulness meditation to bring peace of mind, calm serenity, and decrease stress. Fortunately, even if you don't prescribe to these philosophies, science now supports these age-long beliefs. Harvard Neuroscientist Sara Lazar studies the effects of mindfulness on brain function. Her data demonstrate through MRI brain scans that meditation causes changes to the gray matter in the hippocampus (the region of the brain that controls learning, memory, and emotion), the temporo-parietal junction (the area responsible for empathy and compassion), and the amygdala (which manages our flight-and-flight responses)*. Moreover, other studies found similar results: mindfulness meditation improves stress, reduces anxiety, and lowers levels of depression.

A key component of Lazar's research, in my opinion, specifically focuses not on what factors generated these changes, but rather on how these changes occurred despite certain factors. The MRI scans of the participants showed that meditation has the potential to change key regions of the brain that involve memory, emotions, and improve resilience against stress without changes to their stressful environments.

"The MRI scans of the participants showed that meditation has the potential to change key regions of the brain that involve memory, emotions, and improve resilience against stress without changes to their stressful environments."

Why is this important?

RIght now, unwanted and uncontrollable changes in our normal environments elicits feelings of overwhelm and stress. Stress, as it turns out, is generally a time-sensitive phenomenon. If you consider the context around when stressed or anxiety occurs, it's related to what has already happened (e.g., "this pandemic really changed my life...") or what may happen in the future (e.g., "How long will I these changes last and what impact will they have?"). When considering this moment, the "right now" (not five minutes ago, not five minutes from now, not this hour....just right now), stress and anxiety disappear. There is nothing to stress about in this current moment because you're only experiencing it as it's coming -- there's no worry about what already happened; no concerns about what will take place.

So, taking Lazar's research into account, the key takeaway is this: people have the ability to use mindfulness to manage their stress response to the current public health chaos without having control over the chaos itself.

Enter: Mindfulness

The key tenets of mindfulness are simple: focus on the present moment with non-judgment and acknowledging thoughts and feelings without attaching to them.

Sounds easy enough, right? Well, if you've tried it before, you know that it's more challenging that you might think at first glance. When you take a moment for stillness, your mind might start acting like a sugar-filled spider monkey, hopping from idea to idea and screaming at you along the way.

What does mindfulness look like? Contrary to what you might think, it doesn't always look the same. So, if you're skeptical about sitting in half-lotus humming "OM" for 30 minutes, rest assured. Mindfulness goes way beyond the typical yogi sitting in meditation.

Here are five ways you can experience mindfulness right in your own home:

1. Download an app

I've mentioned this in other posts, so I'm listing it as my first and simplest option. Many meditation and mindfulness apps provide guidance through mindfulness exercises and are available in both free and paid formats. My favorites are Headspace and Calm, but plenty of others exist, too. Meditation guides and yogis also offer free guided mindfulness on Instagram and FaceBook.

Debby Seigel Photography

2. Go for a walk.

Step outside for a 15-minute walk, and when you do, make note of everything around you. What do you smell? What colors do you see? What is blooming right now? What does the temperature feel like on your skin? If your mind starts to wander to other things, just acknowledge what's happening and go back to noticing nature around you.

3. Color

Yes, I'm aware that you're an adult.

And, yes, I'm aware that you probably stopped coloring in second grade.

Yet, research suggests that engaging in art activities, like coloring, becomes mindful because your brain focuses exclusively on that task and doesn't wander to other ideas and thoughts. Try drawing a mandala with radial symmetry (which is actually meditative in its origins but fairly easy to construct):

Click here for an easy tutorial on how to draw and color your own mandala. If you don't feel creative, just print off a coloring sheet from Pinterest or another art site. It doesn't have to take up half of your day. For a good mental health break, just set aside 15 minutes to pause with a sheet of paper and a few colored pencils.

4. Take a shower.

When you're stuck inside, it's easy to keep on your comfy clothes and skip the morning routine. Instead, make sure to schedule yourself a shower. While it seems unnecessary, just going through the ritual of getting yourself dressed in the morning provides some normalcy, which may reduce your stress. Additionally, and more interestingly, the shower itself offers an opportunity for mindfulness: when you get in, take a moment to breathe. Feel the water on your skin; the temperature, the weight. Feel the water begin to run down your body, starting from the top of your head; moving down your shoulders, back, and chest; past your knees to your feet and down the drain.

5. Enjoy your lunch

Have you ever watched someone eat something that they thoroughly enjoy? They're focused entirely on what they're eating, without distractions or preoccupations. They savor each bite, taking time to taste and enjoy their meal. Being mindful of how you're eating also translates to general mindfulness. In the middle of your day, make sure you take a lunch: walk into your kitchen and create your meal; then, sit down without screens, books, or distractions and eat. Notice what you're eating, how it tastes, and how it feels as you're chewing it. Notice what it feels like for you to sit without distraction and eat.

No matter how you do it, slowing down and being present offers the opportunity to destress and improve your ability to cope with the uncertainty around you. Look at your day today and ask yourself:

When will you fit in five minutes of mindfulness?

- MFS. Written 03/27/2020

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