How to Use Mindfulness to Reduce Stress

How to deal with stress?

This is the proverbial question everyone asks and few know how to do it well. There are three concepts we will discuss that will lay the foundation on how to sustainably manage stress.

  1. Mindfulness

  2. Modification of stress response

  3. Patience


Mindfulness

Just be mindful and stress will go away, problem solved! You may have heard someone say this before. But, before we can be mindful we must first define mindfulness. Mindfulness is awareness of one's thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations without inherently judging what is perceived. Meaning being aware of critical thought or emotion and instead of leaning into the negatives being observant of the why’s and how it came up in the first place.


Think of mindfulness almost like a warning system that brings to your attention when stress is building. Mindfulness is a relatively easy practice that, like a muscle being trained, needs consistent daily use to strengthen up.

The following two exercises are what we recommend for those starting their mindfulness journey.

  1. Body Scans:

  2. Start by either sitting or laying down on your back

  3. Next imagine you are scanning from your head to your toes for felt body sensations like muscle tension, pain, temperature..etc

  4. Describe the body sensations to yourself, not aloud.

I explain this exercise more in-depth in this blog post or, if you prefer listening, in this YouTube video.

  1. Five Senses Exercise:

  2. Start by either sitting or laying down on your back

  3. Next focus on one of the five senses (sight,hearing, touch, smell, taste) and describe it to yourself, not aloud.

  4. Before moving on to the next sense, move your focus over to your breath for one slow inhale and exhale.

Again, if you would like to learn more about the five senses exercise we have blog posts dedicated to explaining it and YouTube videos if you prefer to follow an audio recording.

Modification

Have you ever stopped to think about what's the first thing you notice when you start to get stressed? Some things you may notice are:

  • Racing thoughts

  • Holding breath

  • Hyperventilation

  • Sweating

These can be classified under the fight or flight response, or activation of the sympathetic nervous system. When this system turns on and turns on often, due to chronic stress, it eventually overwhelms the nervous system causing all kinds of havoc. Normally there is a brake that eases the fight or flight response, the parasympathetic system, but when stress is chronic the brakes don’t get applied effectively. That’s where stress modification comes into play. In a nutshell, modification is learning how to apply the brakes consciously so the stress train doesn’t run off its track and cause chaos.

A very efficient and powerful way to activate the parasympathetic system is to breathe diaphragmatically in a slow controlled manner. This breathing stimulates the vagus nerve which allows the body to relax. There are other ways to modify your stress response but this is one of the easiest ways to do it on your own.

  1. Diaphragmatic Breathing (Belly Breathing):

  2. Start by either sitting or laying down on your back. Begin breathing from your nose and not your mouth.

  3. Next place your hands on your stomach so you can begin to feel your diaphragm move up as you inhale and move down as you exhale

  4. Your breath should come from your belly not your chest, so chest movement should be minimal.

  5. Breathing should not be strained and it should be quiet. If you are constricting your airways breathing will not be quiet.

  6. Remember start slow and if you feel lightheaded take a break. The goal is to slow your breathing down, not breath deeply.

Apps like breathe+ and breathly are useful to help pace your breath. Slowing your breathing down to 8 breaths per minute should be your first goal. Now if that explanation only created more questions I would recommend either seeing a biofeedback therapist or watching a video online. Coaching makes learning diaphragmatic breathing 100 times easier.

Patience

Okay so you now have some mindfulness exercises to practice and your coping mechanism when you get stressed is diaphragmatic breathing, we’re good now yea? Well, actually the hardest skill to practice is patience with oneself. These exercises take practice and honestly most people heavily judge themselves instead of being mindful. What we recommend to build self patience is to create a 1-2 minute break once or twice a day where you stop and reflect on the following questions.

  1. Did something stress me out today, this morning, or fill in the time of day

  2. If so, how did I react?

  3. Did i judge myself/actions/thoughts

  4. What did I do to cope with this stressor

  5. Was I able to let go of the stress or did I hold on to it via muscle tension, thoughts, or emotions?

Mindfulness is a cyclical process. You start by focusing on one thing, like a body scan, then move on to calming yourself down, with a breathing exercise. So you can again focus longer on one thing, insert any meditation exercise, so instead of reacting to a stressor you can be proactive. So word of advice, take it slow, forgive yourself repeatedly, and try to have fun. If at the end of the day you take life too seriously it will only laugh at you and you will feel silly.



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