In the hustle and bustle of our modern lives, stress has become an unwelcome companion that affects our mental and physical well-being. While it's impossible to eliminate stress entirely, mindfulness meditation offers a powerful tool to manage and reduce its impact. Here’s how it works and why you should try it today.
It's no secret that we’re stressed, with the World Health Organisation estimated stress-related mental health disorders affect a whopping 1 billion people around the world, the USA’s National Institute of Mental Health reported a sizeable 20% of adults suffering from anxiety disorder. So what can we do? While therapy and medical support plays a major role in treating these conditions and managing stress, we can’t always access them – they’re not exactly cheap, right? – but there are small things we can do each day to reduce our stress levels. Mindfulness meditation is one simple practise we can spend a little time on to reap long-term reward. The best part? It costs absolutely nothing!
What is Mindfulness Meditation?
Mindfulness meditation involves focusing on the present moment, acknowledging thoughts and feelings as they arise, and observing them without judgment. By training the mind to be fully present, mindfulness cultivates a sense of calm and self-awareness, leading to a reduction in stress and anxiety. Research has shown that regular mindfulness meditation can lead to changes in brain activity. The practice activates the prefrontal cortex, the area responsible for rational thinking and emotional regulation, while simultaneously reducing activity in the amygdala, the region associated with stress and fear responses. This shift in brain activity allows for a calmer response to stressful situations. Another interesting piece of research indicates that mindfulness meditation can affect the way we process pain, making it more manageable.
This practise has been linked to decreased cortisol levels—the hormone released in response to stress. By reducing cortisol production, mindfulness helps the body enter a more relaxed state, promoting physical and emotional well-being. Mindfulness meditation fosters emotional regulation by promoting awareness and acceptance of emotions as they arise – people learn to respond to challenging emotions with compassion and non-reactivity, diminishing the impact of stress on emotional wellbeing. Think about how many rash decisions you’ve made or stomach-drops you’ve experienced upon hearing stressful news – it explains why so many people fall victim to email scams! With mindfulness, you’ll learn to take in new information in a calmer, more thoughtful way.
Rumination, when we dwell on negative thoughts and past experiences, is a common contributor to chronic stress – you may recall many a night where you lay awake worrying about the past or the future. Mindfulness meditation teaches individuals to observe thoughts without becoming entangled in them. By breaking the cycle of rumination, mindfulness frees the mind from stress-inducing thought patterns. What does that mean? Improved sleep quality! And a good night’s sleep is the key to a good day, after all the hormones involved in the REM cycle also affect our appetite, energy levels and, yes, our ability to manage stress. Ever notice that those days where you just can’t handle the little things are usually the days that you’re running on empty? Mindfulness meditation can promote relaxation and help quiet the mind, facilitating better sleep quality and enhancing overall wellbeing. It also encourages self-compassion and self-acceptance. As individuals develop a non-judgmental attitude towards themselves, they are better equipped to cope with stress and cultivate a more positive outlook on life.
Now this isn’t a cure for any mental health condition, but it is a helpful practise we can all keep up our sleeves. Just a few minutes a day can make a huge difference! Here are a few ways you can get started:
- Find a comfortable seated position or lie down on your back.
- Close your eyes and bring your attention to your breath.
- Focus on the sensation of your breath as it enters and leaves your nostrils or the rise and fall of your abdomen.
- Whenever your mind wanders, gently bring your focus back to your breath without judgment.
Body Scan Meditation
- Find a comfortable lying position, arms at your sides, and palms facing up.
- Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths to relax.
- Starting from the top of your head, slowly scan your body from head to toe, paying attention to any sensations or tensions you feel along the way.
- Bring your awareness to each body part, acknowledging any sensations or discomfort with non-judgmental awareness.
- Allow each body part to relax as you breathe out, releasing any tension you may feel.
- Find a quiet space to walk, indoors or outdoors.
- Begin walking at a natural pace, paying attention to each step you take.
- Notice the sensation of your feet lifting off the ground, moving through the air, and making contact with the surface beneath.
- Be fully present in each moment of the walking process, observing your surroundings, the feeling of the air on your skin, and the rhythm of your steps.
- Find a comfortable seated position and close your eyes.
- Take a few deep breaths to centre yourself.
- Repeat simple phrases such as "May I be happy, may I be healthy, may I be safe, may I live with ease."
- After directing these phrases toward yourself, extend them to others, starting with someone you care about, then to acquaintances, and eventually to all living beings.
Remember, mindfulness meditation is about being present in the moment and observing your thoughts and feelings without judgment. It's normal for the mind to wander during meditation; when it happens, gently guide your attention back to the practice. Consistency is key; practicing mindfulness regularly can help you experience the many benefits it offers for your mental and emotional wellbeing.
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