By practicing mindfulness, you can reduce stress, boost your brain, and power up your body
BY TORI RODRIGUEZ
It was sort of a pre-midlife crisis that led Jessica Obenschain, 35, to the practice that would transform her life. After a few fits and starts, she'd finally graduated from college at age 29; but when she looked around at the "real world"—then cascading into financial free fall—her plans to quickly score a job faltered. Her anxiety, however, mounted so much that she would have panic attacks a few times a week while driving, including to interviews. She'd have to pull over and call her husband for a ride home, leaving her car and potential employment behind.
While researching ways to cope, Jessica stumbled across mindfulness, the practice of living in—and accepting—the present moment. She gave it a try. "After a couple months, something changed," she says. "My panic just went away. The more I practiced, the more I realized I could take care of myself—behind the wheel and in general." These days, as a mom and freelance writer, she's largely without anxiety.
Jessica is just one of many turning to mindfulness, for everything from stress and anxiety relief to help with sleep to better performance at work (or at the gym, or even in bed!).
"Mindfulness has gone from a niche practice to something embraced by tens—if not hundreds—of millions of people," says Danny Penman, Ph.D., coauthor of Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World. It's showing up in the boardroom (Google offers its staff a program), the classroom (some school districts add it to teacher training), and even Congress (see Rep. Tim Ryan's new book, A Mindful Nation). And per new science, it works—with no negative side effects.
Gain Mind Control
Like most integrative mind-body therapies (yoga, acupuncture), mindfulness isn't exactly new. Its roots lie in ancient Buddhism, and a secular version was popularized stateside in the 1970s. But for decades, mainstream culture viewed it as New Age fluff, a hippie-esque way of tuning out.
Then came a perfect storm. Studies began exploding out of research labs, proving that mindfulness could be a key to fighting disease. At the same time, technology advanced to the point that we live under a nonstop bombardment of information, 24 hours a day. And the financial crisis hit, leaving people in a "constantly stressed, burned-out state of existence," says Penman. Suddenly, that New Age fluff was looking pretty good.
The concept is at once super simple and difficult to grasp. "Mindfulness is a full awareness of precisely what is happening in the present," says Penman. OK, but. . .huh? Think of it like this: Most of us spend a lot of time either mulling over the past (if only I'd kept my mouth shut) or worrying about the future (will I ever finish this assignment?). Mindfulness involves stilling that chatter and focusing on the here and now, says psychologist Susan Albers, Psy.D., a mindfulness expert at the Cleveland Clinic. "It is concentrating on what's happening in the moment, without dwelling, judging, or trying to change anything."
In other words, no overthinking or over-analyzing—or the opposite, banishing all thoughts. Unlike many forms of meditation, which involve totally clearing your mind, mindfulness means letting your thoughts come and go without rushing to figure out what they mean.
If that sounds a little too Zen, keep in mind that you can't be mindful allthe time. There is, however, a cumulative and lasting effect. "Mindfulness is both a process and an outcome," says Mirabai Bush, of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. "The day-to-day practice leads to a general state of heightened awareness." It also leads to some awesome health boons.
Turns out, all that harping on the past or future is way stressful. It activates your sympathetic nervous system, the driving force behind the body's fight-or-flight response. Kicking that into continuous high gear can seriously tax your body and mind, says Penman.
Obviously, no one can live worry-free. But what you can do is dial down a prolonged fight-or-flight impulse by flexing your parasympathetic nervous system, a.k.a. your relaxation response, via—yup, you guessed it—mindfulness.
The chill-out effect comes with major brain bonuses. People who practice everyday mindfulness can actually change the structure of their brains, beefing up the areas that control emotions and stress responses, says psychologist Britta Holzel, Ph.D., a neuroscience researcher at Charite Hospital in Berlin. That's why mindfulness can mean the difference between freaking out and keeping cool when, say, your friend flakes on dinner or you get unfair criticism from a boss. And why it's been proven to help ward off anxiety and depression.
Body-wise, the more mindful you are, the more dominant your relaxation response becomes, which means you have fewer stress hormones coursing through you at any given time. Hence the links between mindfulness and reductions in blood pressure, heart rate, and inflammation. The practice has also been shown to aid chronic fatigue sufferers in one study and cut irritable bowel syndrome symptoms by 38 percent, per another study. What's more, it can help increase your pain tolerance, and your social and sex lives benefit too: Mindfulness can lead to less social anxiety and more sexual satisfaction.
Start Your Practice
Best of all: Mindfulness is free. Caveat: It takes loads of practice. But before the idea of more work makes you turn away, consider that you can try it anytime, any place, in almost any situation. And once you get the hang of it, you'll automatically be more mindful, without much effort.
To start, try to set aside 10 to 20 minutes a day. Remember that "you'll never be able to spend tons of time in a state of mindfulness; the human mind is designed to wander, and that's OK," says Penman. So don't give yourself a mental spanking if you break your concentration. Keep at it with these step-by-step tips.
Just Breathe. The very thing that makes mindfulness so accessible—you can do it anywhere—is also what can make it seem confusing. The simplest place to begin is with your breath, says Diana Winston, director of mindfulness education at UCLA's Mindful Awareness Research Center. Sit or stand in a comfortable, quiet place and breathe naturally. No need to count inhalations and exhalations; just relax, focusing on the sensations in your stomach, chest, or nostrils. If your mind wanders, gently bring your attention back to your breath.
Use What You've Got. Next, try bringing that "here and now" awareness to everyday activities. For example, notice the warmth of the water and movement of your hands while washing the dishes; focus on how the bristles feel on your gums while brushing your teeth; observe the leaves, grass, and smells around you on a nature walk.
Find Your Center. Start employing that focus in small real-life situations. Take your mental temperature throughout the day. If you notice you are, for example, stressed about an upcoming work meeting, spend a few minutes in mindful breathing. Don't try to push your anxious thoughts away; rather, try watching your mind in action. Acknowledge your stress and where it's stemming from. This helps dissolve negativity, says Penman.
Get Ready For Prime Time. You can try mindfulness in higher-stakes scenarios—such as a confrontation with a friend. Practice mindful breathing beforehand, and then, even in the thick of conversation, stay aware of your breath, body, and emotions. Remain in the moment rather than jumping ahead to how you'll respond or fend off a verbal bruising. This will help you be a better listener and avoid saying anything you'll later regret.
Know How To Stop. If at any point you get frustrated—hey, it happens, even to the pros—fall back on the STOP method: Stop, Take a breath, Observe what's happening inside and around you at that moment, then Proceed with whatever you're doing. Eventually, your default emotional setting will be calmer—and your body and mind will thank you.
~ This article by Tori Rodriguez originally appeared in Women's Health Magazine. The wording here has been slightly modified to accurately to reflect Tori's views. ~