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Anyone can quickly learn how to practice mindfulness, a relaxed state of being aware of oneself and the pleasures, stresses, and other sensations of the present moment without being judgemental. There are several mindfulness techniques you can use anytime during the day to curb stress or anxiety in the face of specific situations.
Read further to learn about specific mindfulness meditation exercises that, once included in your daily routine, can help you learn how to practice mindfulness throughout life.
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What is mindfulness?
Put simply, mindfulness is an “awareness of one’s internal states and surroundings” (American Psychological Association, n.d.). A key aspect is to pay attention to experiences in a nonjudgmental way (Galante, 2021).
The art and practice of mindfulness involve becoming more aware of yourself, where you are, what you’re doing, and what’s going on around you, all without letting things overwhelm you. It’s an ongoing effort to be in the moment, relaxed yet alert, more accepting of the challenges and stresses in life, more appreciative of what’s good.
Mindfulness does not try to quiet your mind or distract you from reality. It’s not some out-of-body experience. Instead, it encourages you to constantly return your focus to the present, even amid some natural mind-wandering, to help you react more positively to stressful situations and not get carried away with negative thoughts (Kaiser Permanente, n.d.).
The daily practice of mindfulness meditation can reduce stress and anxiety, lessen symptoms of depression, and improve overall well-being (American Psychological Association, 2019).
Mindfulness meditation can also improve chronic pain management, and preliminary evidence suggests it could improve outcomes for stress-related diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, and diabetes (Creswell, 2019).
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How to practice mindfulness
There are countless ways to practice mindfulness.
One way is to simply stop what you’re doing to take a few deep breaths and pay full attention to yourself and any external stimuli. You can also do dedicated mindfulness meditation sessions in a quiet room at home or with a group as a way to learn the art and practice of mindfulness.
Two general approaches are among the most studied (American Psychological Association, 2019):
- MBSR: Mindfulness-based stress reduction is taught via meditation over several weeks, at home or in group settings.
- MBCT: Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is used to treat depression by combining mindfulness meditation with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to help people manage negative emotions and thoughts.
You can practice mindfulness skills daily in just about any situation in everyday life. Here is one approach (Mayo Clinic, 2020):
- Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.
- Pay more attention to simple pleasures, such as food or the sights, sounds, and smells during everyday activities.
- Try to be in the moment by being open and accepting, either of a situation of yourself.
Another approach is likewise billed as being doable in any situation and promises to help you relax and lower your blood pressure (Harvard Health Publishing, 2021):
- Pay attention to the sensations in your body.
- Breathe through your nose, filling your lungs.
- Breathe out through your mouth.
- Pay attention to the sensation of breathing.
- Do the task at hand, slowly and deliberately, while continuing to breathe deeply.
- If your mind wanders from the task, bring your focus back to the sensations in the moment.
Another mindfulness technique is called STOP, and it goes like this (Kaiser Permanente, n.d.):
- Stop what you’re doing—literally pause and collect yourself.
- Take a conscious breath, a deep breath (or two).
- Observe your thoughts, emotions, and sensations (tension? butterflies?).
- Proceed from a place of greater presence, strength, and wisdom.
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Exercise for stressful situations
Do you get stuck in traffic a lot? Find yourself screaming at drivers who cut you off? There’s a mindfulness technique for that, too (Kaiser Permanente, n.d.):
- Take a deep breath.
- Ask yourself what you need (perhaps to feel safe or just to find relief).
- Give that to yourself (try to release body tension, and/or tell yourself to feel safe).
- See other drivers (actually look at them — they’re probably dealing with similar feelings).
- Take a deep breath.
You can also practice mindfulness when you wake up. Experts suggest taking a couple of minutes when you first wake to simply notice your breathing. Whatever thoughts pop into your head—like the list of things that must get done—just let them go and focus on your breathing. At work, try a more extended version of the same exercise: Simply sit and focus on your breathing, and count to yourself during each inhale and exhale for up to 10 minutes (Hougaard, 2016).
You can even practice mindfulness while you walk by focusing on the literal grounding effect of your feet contacting the surface (Behan, 2020).
How to do mindfulness meditation
There’s not much research on the benefits of being mindful, but many studies document the benefits of mindfulness meditation exercises. While the meditation exercises are often very similar to those mentioned above, sessions devoted to mindfulness meditation typically last 5 to 20 minutes or more and are often done with the help of a guide in a group setting or via an app or online. These exercises aim to enable you to practice mindfulness throughout your day.
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At the core of mindfulness meditation is a focus on breathing, which serves as an anchor to the present moment. A repeated word or phrase—a mantra—can also serve this purpose, as can a body scan, in which you focus on each part of the body, one after the other (Behan, 2020).
A simple example of a mindfulness meditation exercise is to sit on the floor cross-legged or in a straight-backed chair and do the following (Harvard Health Publishing, 2021):
- Focus on the air flowing into your nose and out of your mouth. Or, focus on your belly rising and falling as you breathe.
- Once you’re concentrating well, begin paying attention to other sensations.
- Embrace then let go of those sensations without judging them as good or bad. If your mind wanders, focus again on breathing and then re-expand your awareness.
The goal: “By doing this and by allowing thoughts to come and go without attachment, without trying to hold on to them, we learn that calm and stillness follows. We come to know our own minds over time and to be aware of patterns of thinking that habitually arise” (Behan, 2020).
You can pursue mindfulness through many means, whether via group therapy clinics, online guides, apps, or podcasts (American Psychological Association, 2019). So if you’re stressed out now and then, and you can find a few minutes to ponder things, you’d be mindful to try a little mindfulness.
- American Psychological Association (2019) Mindfulness meditation: A research-proven way to reduce stress. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/topics/mindfulness/meditation
- Behan C. (2020). The benefits of meditation and mindfulness practices during times of crisis such as COVID-19. Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine; 37(4):256-258. doi: 10.1017/ipm.2020.38. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7287297/
- Creswell JD, Lindsay EK, Villalba DK, Chin B. (2019). Mindfulness training and physical health: mechanisms and outcomes. Psychosomatic Medicine; 81(3):224-232. doi: 10.1097/PSY.0000000000000675. Retrieved from https://journals.lww.com/psychosomaticmedicine/Abstract/2019/04000/Mindfulness_Training_and_Physical_Health_.2.aspx
- Galante J, Friedrich C, Dawson AF, Modrego-Alarcón M, Gebbing P, Delgado-Suárez I, et al. (2021). Mindfulness-based programmes for mental health promotion in adults in nonclinical settings: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. PLoS Medicine; 18(1):e1003481. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1003481. Retrieved from https://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1003481
- Harvard Health Publishing (2021) Two mindfulness meditation exercises to try. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/alternative-and-integrative-health/two-mindfulness-meditation-exercises-to-try
- Hougaard R., Carter J. (2016). How to practice mindfulness throughout your work day. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2016/03/how-to-practice-mindfulness-throughout-your-work-day
- Kaiser Permanente (n.d.) Mindfulness. Retrieved from https://healthy.kaiserpermanente.org/health-wellness/mental-health/tools-resources/mindfulness
- Mayo Clinic (2020) Mindfulness exercises. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/consumer-health/in-depth/mindfulness-exercises/art-20046356
Felix Gussone is a physician, health journalist and a Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.