Mindfulness to Relieve Anxiety and Stress

I’ve been doing therapy lately with a lot of people who are experiencing more than the usual amount of stress and anxiety. And they’re looking for ways to stay centered during difficult times. It’s inevitable that we are going to encounter sources of stress in our lives. I’m a big proponent of mindfulness and meditation practices to help reduce stress and anxiety, and cultivate kindness and compassion, especially self compassion – qualities we could all use more of.

Mindfulness is the practice of focusing on your experience in the present moment, without judgment – just being with what is. It’s about accepting ourselves, our feelings, our experience, and knowing that we’re okay. It’s easy to believe that just because we’re experiencing difficult feelings – anger, sadness, frustration - that something is wrong and we have to make a change.  But what if it’s alright to feel whatever we feel – pleasant or unpleasant – and we’re still okay, even if it’s uncomfortable? In therapy, I try to help people see that they are, in fact, okay, even when they are uncomfortable.

More often than not, when we look around at the present moment – where we are right now – all is well. But the mind tends to wander. And it often settles on something that made us unhappy yesterday or something bad that we think may happen tomorrow – replaying past conversations to a different conclusion, or imagining what we would say when/if... Or it tells us mundane and useless things that we already know – I’m working in the yard on a hot day. It’s uncomfortable. My mind has me thinking about how hot and I’m uncomfortable I am, as if I hadn’t noticed, or as if grumbling about it in my head is going to make it easier.

But if we hold still and stay here, we will see there is nothing to fear in this moment and this is the only moment. The futures we imagine never arrive, and when they do, they’re nothing like we imagine them. And replaying the past with the fantasy of a different outcome is just a way of beating ourselves up. And nothing is ever gained by that.

In the present moment, all is well. Mindfulness helps us tap into our wellness. Sure, we have difficult circumstances and uncomfortable feelings. Grief is part of life. Mindfulness helps us to be with those circumstances and feelings. while staying balanced and centered at the same time.

Mindfulness is a simple concept, but takes a lot of practice. It’s especially hard to do in just our every day experience, or when we’re distracted. So we need to train the mind. It’s not unlike training a puppy to heel. You’re walking your new puppy. It tries to wander away. You gently, but firmly, pull it back to your side.

One simple practice is just to take a few moments during the day to focus on your breathing. If you’re feeling stressed or tense, or if you’re about to go into a situation that has you nervous, just take a few minutes, place your hand over your diaphragm, and take ten long slow deep breaths. Chances are you’ll notice the noise in your head gets quieter, or at least more manageable, and you’ll feel a little more centered. You can pause and do this as often as you like during the day, or just when you’re feeling stressed.

Meditation is also a great mindfulness practice. Meditation helps us relax and reduce stress. It makes it easier to stay in the present moment. And in doing so, it becomes easier and more natural, to bring balance, calm and a sense of centeredness to our daily activities. Meditation helps us to be with the difficulties that arise without being swept away or overwhelmed by them, and generally to be more focused. I often teach people to meditate during therapy sessions.

I know, some people find the idea of meditation esoteric or intimidating. But it’s really not. It’s actually very simple. There are hundreds of ways to meditate. But here’s we’re talking about mindfulness meditation.

As I said, it is the tendency of the mind to wander. To stay in the present moment, the mind needs something to focus on – something constant. In mindfulness practice, we start by focusing on the breath. There’s nothing more constant than breathing in and breathing out.

So, to start find a comfortable place to sit with your back straight and both feet on the floor. Let your back fall into its natural curve – not so straight that it’s like you’re standing at attention. Let your hands rest in your lap or on your knees or thighs. Gently close your eyes and bring your attention to your breathing. There’s a couple of ways you can do this: You can focus on the sensation of your breath moving between your nose and your upper lip. Or you can focus on your chest or belly moving up and down as you breathe.

Your mind will wander away almost immediately, kind of like that playful puppy I mentioned earlier. When you notice that you’ve wandered off, gently, but firmly bring your attention back to your breathing. I emphasize gentleness here. Don’t get frustrated or start getting hard on yourself. An important part of this practice is learning to be kind and gentle with yourself. You may be lost in thought for a long time before you even notice it. That’s okay. When you notice your puppy mind has wandered off, just bring it back.

You can’t do this wrong. The doing it is the doing it. People come back to me all the time and tell me they can't meditate because they can't get the mind to be quiet. That's okay. The mind doesn't go quiet. Meditation helps us learn to have a different relationship with the noise.

Try this for ten to fifteen minutes every day. The effects are cumulative. You’ll start to feel more relaxed and centered day to day. The things that bother you won’t bother you as much. The sources of stress and anxiety may not go away. But they’ll be more manageable.

In any event, you’re here in the present moment. You’re reading this article. You’re breathing in and out. There’s nothing to fear in this moment, and this is the only moment.

We can train ourselves, train our minds to remember we are good and whole and well, even when we don’t feel that way. We can start by directing our thoughts to our wellness and affirm that we are good people.

I hope you’ve found these suggestions helpful. As always, if need help with difficult issues, or you think it’s time to talk to a therapist, feel free to call me at (812) 371-6330, or email me at ken@insight-counseling.org.