How to Use Mindfulness to Reduce Stress
My post last week that offered 3 quick and easy tools to help you calm down was immensely popular. (Find post here). This week I’d like to follow up with more information about why these tools work and tell you how to use Mindfulness to reduce stress. Understanding the methodology behind the tools offers more of an opportunity to permanently get off the emotional roller coaster.
I said the tools work because they reorient you to the present moment. But, what do I mean?
The fact is, most of us do not live in the present moment. Instead, we tend to live anxiously in the future or in our memories of the past. But, we don’t do this consciously. It happens on autopilot, with our minds taking us along for the ride. In reality, because we are on autopilot most of us are not aware what we’re thinking.
This has emotional consequences.
The problem is that when we are thinking of the past it is usually not about pleasant memories. Instead, we are often thinking about past events that trigger painful emotions - such as sadness, anger, loneliness, shame, or guilt. Conversely, if we are thinking about the future it’s usually about all of the things that could go wrong or that we need to do. This results in an increase of anxiety, stress, and tension.
Personally, I am a master at bouncing between the past and the future, which for me often results in an increase in anxiety and resentment. For example, I’m really good at anticipating worse case scenarios when it comes to conflict. This can result in loss of sleep, muscle tension/pain in my shoulders and neck, and emotional and relational hardness that develops as I prepare for “battle.”
Sheri Van Dijk, MSW, author of Don't Let Your Emotions Run Your Life, says it best. She says,
The present might not be wonderful and full of happy emotions, but think of it this way: If you’re living in the present moment, you have to deal only with what’s actually going on in that moment. If you’re not living in the present, you still have to deal with whatever’s happening in the present moment, and you also have to deal with the emotions being brought up by the thoughts you’re having about the past or the future. It’s like bouncing between three realities at once, which can be exhausting.
The Definition of Mindfulness
So, back to why the tools work. They work because they are tools that assist you in practicing Mindfulness, which ultimately reduces the number and intensity of emotions you experience regularly.
Mindfulness is about doing one thing at a time,
in the present moment,
with your full attention,
and without judgment.
Being Mindful means waking up from autopilot, noticing your thoughts, feelings, and present experience without judging or rejecting them, and without attaching to them. It’s about learning self-awareness and self-acceptance.
The Benefits of Mindfulness
Mindfulness increases our:
Ability to Choose How to Act
Ability to be Self-Validating v. Self-Judging
The Practice of Mindfulness
Because Mindfulness is about living life in a way that is foreign to most of us it takes practice and patience. We have to practice mindfulness skills as we learn to live more mindfully. The tools I offered last week are all mindfulness skills. They each have you paying attention to the moment at hand, without judgment or holding on to it.
Other Mindfulness practices you may already be aware of are:
Ex. Focusing on body sensations, breath, or paying attention to whatever comes into our awareness
Ex. Praying the rosary, focusing on a particular passage, or centering prayer
Yoga or Martial Arts
Because Mindfulness is a way of living, most activities can be done mindfully. Hiking, listening to music, walking, cleaning, Paddle Boarding, reading, talking, horseback riding, for instance, are all activities that you can do mindfully.
I challenge you to take one of these activities, or something else you enjoy, this week and use it to practice being mindful. As you do,
Focus on the task at hand.
Pay attention to the present moment.
Accept whatever you happen to notice.
Bring you attention back when your mind has wandered, without judgment.