Tame Stress and Anxiety by Practicing Mindfulness
If you’re feeling stressed, you’re not alone. According to a 2022 survey of more than 3,000 U.S. adults conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA), 76% of those surveyed said they had suffered health impacts due to their stress level in the prior month. Perhaps more alarmingly, 27% of all adults said that most days they are so stressed that they cannot function. The top stressors included work, inflation and the economy, personal or family health issues, financial struggles, family responsibilities, and relationship challenges. More than 60% of survey respondents also stated that they considered violence and conflict in the nation and abroad, the future of our nation, the coronavirus pandemic, the racial climate in the U.S., the current political climate, and/or climate change significant sources of their life stress.
Researchers have shown that short-term stress or “eustress” can actually help build our resilience and boost energy and immune system function temporarily. However, chronic, longer-term stress can wreak havoc on our bodies and minds and lead to an array of physiological diseases, such as diabetes, stroke, and heart disease, as well as ailments like chronic headaches, fatigue, muscle tension, and anxiety. This of course presents a serious problem for stressed-out Americans, as many of the stressors we face today cannot be quickly resolved; rather, they are persistent, longer-term issues that may take weeks, months, years or longer to subside. As a result, a very large number of Americans are enduring chronic stress with potentially debilitating health implications.
If you’re in need of a quick biology refresher at this point, maybe this will help: Chronic stress can cause our stress hormones, such as adrenaline (or epinephrine) and cortisol, to stay elevated in the body over time. Adrenaline causes the heart to beat faster and increases blood pressure. Chronically elevated cortisol can narrow the arteries, weaken the immune system, increase inflammation, cause persistent high blood sugar, disrupt normal function of blood vessels which can promote buildup of cholesterol in the arteries, increase your appetite and make you crave high-calorie foods, among other detrimental changes. Given all of this, it’s no wonder that chronic stress can lead to so many harmful conditions.
This is why the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends practicing mindfulness as a key strategy for managing chronic stress and anxiety, lowering cortisol, and preventing related ailments and diseases, in addition to other activities like exercise and healthy eating. Mindfulness is the capacity to be aware of where our attention is and retain our attention in the present moment, rather than allowing it to wander off or become distracted or carried away by thoughts, memories, worries, continual planning, and so on. In society today, our mind and our attention can easily become consumed by our work, stressful situations we are facing, negativity in the news and on social media, or even by our own self-critical thoughts. Mindfulness allows us to put our attention where we want it—and where it is helpful for us—rather than where it wants to be, which may have the opposite effect.
We can strengthen our muscle of attention—and our mindfulness—with practice, whether formally through meditation or informally in any moment of our day. In either case we are cultivating awareness of where our mind and our attention are focused from moment to moment and developing the skill of returning our attention to the present when we notice it has wandered off. With this awareness and skill, we have the flexibility to choose gratitude rather than disappointment when facing bad news, or marvel at the beauty of something in our environment instead of finding ourselves caught up in difficult thoughts or emotions.
If you feel practicing mindfulness could be beneficial for reducing your stress, here are a few ways you can start practicing mindfulness today:
- Become more aware of where your attention is focused throughout the day. If your mind is busy worrying about a personal issue, continually running through your to-do list, or ruminating on the conflict in Ukraine or the earthquakes in Turkey, and you find yourself feeling stressed or anxious, be intentional about taking a mindfulness break. Do something that helps you bring your attention back to the present moment. This may be pulling up your Insight Timer or Calm app and doing a breathing meditation. Or maybe you prefer taking a walk and paying attention to what you see and hear around you—like a beautiful tree or the sounds of the birds. Or perhaps you may just notice the sensations in your body as you sit or walk. The more awareness you have of when your mind is lost in thoughts or worries, the more opportunities you will have to give it a rest and live more in the moment.
- Begin a mindfulness meditation practice. Formal mindfulness practice doesn’t have to take very long to have a positive impact on your stress level. Studies have shown that even 7 to 10 minutes of meditation can bring beneficial effects. It can be helpful to gradually build up to this amount of time by starting with just 3 minutes or 5 minutes of meditation—whatever amount feels comfortable for you. A foundational mindfulness practice is simply focusing your attention on your breath and noticing the sensations you feel in your body as you inhale and exhale. Each time you notice that your attention has drifted off the breath, you can gently let go of the distracting thought, image, sound, etc. and bring your attention back to sensations of breathing.
- Take a class or pick up a book on cultivating mindfulness. Mindfulness and meditation classes are growing in popularity as many people seek new strategies for managing chronic stress and improving their overall health. Consider inquiring with your local gym or yoga studio, or search online for mindfulness meditation classes, like Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), near you or offered virtually. If reading is your cup of tea, consider picking up Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Mark Williams and Danny Penman or Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson.
Want to learn more about mindfulness from a certified mindfulness teacher and begin trying some mindfulness exercises yourself? Join a group class, like our weekly ZOOM Mindfulness Meditation on Tuesdays at 6:30PM for YMCA facility members. The Y also has many opportunities for reducing your stress through physical exercise and social connection. Visit the YMCA of Greater Houston’s website for more information or to join the Y today.
About the Author
Wendy Saunders is a Certified Teacher and Facilitator through Emory University in CBCT® (Cognitively-Based Compassion Training) and SEE Learning®, a K-12 educational program designed to build social, emotional, and ethical competencies through attention training, compassion cultivation, and trauma-informed resiliency skills. Wendy is also a facilitator of the Community Resiliency Model (CRM) ®, a program of the Trauma Resource Institute, the Founder of Compassionate Leader, LLC, and has worked with thousands of people in business, non-profit, education, and healthcare organizations across the country and internationally to cultivate mindfulness, compassion, resilience, and leadership skills.