Updated: Aug 8, 2022
The word ‘mindfulness’ is probably not new to you. You might even practice some sort of mindfulness in your daily life. But how exactly can it help you reduce stress? Read on to find out.
What is mindfulness?
Hear the word ‘mindfulness’ and an image of a cross-legged meditating yogi might spring to mind, right? In reality, mindfulness is so much more than just mindfulness meditation: it’s something that can be practiced anywhere and anytime and it’s not just reserved for zen yogis and seasoned meditators. As mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”
What does that actually mean?
It means fully noticing what’s going on in your present moment experience: what you’re feeling, what you’re observing, what you’re doing and so on. In practice, this might look like fully focusing on the task at hand–cooking dinner, eating, folding washing–or tuning in with all your senses when you’re spending time in nature.
Here’s the thing: we need to practice mindfulness techniques daily to be able to access them on demand and really reap the benefits. Think of it like building muscle. But why would you want to train your mindfulness muscle?
There are many benefits to regularly practicing mindfulness for your mental, emotional, and physical health and wellbeing, but one that is particularly compelling in today’s busy world is how it can help people cope with and reduce stress. Even if the ultimate goal of mindfulness isn't stress reduction, it can be a very powerful outcome of a mindfulness practice.
What is stress?
Put simply, it’s how the body and mind responds to the changes, challenges and demands that life throws at you. When something you experience makes you feel scared, nervous, or angry, it’s the body’s natural defense mechanism to cope with this “dangerous” situation. It’s the body’s fight or flight response to help you survive in the face of danger.
Of course, it’s normal to experience occasional stress in life. But–and this is key–the body’s stress response is designed to be short-lived because it wears you down. The stresses of modern life–demanding jobs, juggling work and family life, traffic jams, information overload, global pandemics–mean that many people spend way too much of their time feeling stressed out. Perhaps if you’re reading this, you know all too well that if stress goes unmanaged, it can become chronic and affect your mental, emotional and physical health.
When you feel stressed, you might be tempted to turn to short-term stress management solutions like ignoring it, denying it exists or distracting yourself. But we all know that these strategies are not supportive of health or wellbeing in the long-run. So how can you sustainably reduce your stress and shift into a calmer, more relaxed state, a state from which you can cope better with whatever stresses are thrown your way?
With mindfulness, of course! Read on to find out some of the top ways that mindfulness can help you reduce stress.
Mindfulness changes your perception of the world and yourself
One of the most powerful things that mindfulness can do is reframe the way you view the world and change your attitude to stress. So instead of only seeing the negative consequences of feeling stressed, mindfulness helps you to think differently about stress itself. For example, you’re prompted to notice the positive effects of stress on your body and mind, like that it helps energize you.
You also become more aware of your thoughts, helping you to take a step back from them instead of letting them consume and overwhelm you. By being more tuned into how you perceive the world and yourself, you might become aware of your stress response before it even gets in motion and be better able to prevent it.
On top of this, instead of worrying about the future or dwelling on the past, mindfulness aims to keep you firmly rooted in the present moment. Present-moment awareness, a central pillar of mindfulness, helps you cope better with and be more resilient to stress. Being able to remain in the present moment can positively impact levels of perceived stress and a sense of wellbeing.
Mindfulness shifts you out of the mind and into the body
In today’s world, we tend to live up in our minds and ignore what our bodies are telling us. This is a great shame as it can be full of so much wisdom. Mindfulness is not about stopping your thoughts, but it does teach you to tap into the intelligence the body holds. It helps you to tune into what’s going on in your body and listen to what it needs at any given moment.
What has this got to do with reducing stress?
By practicing mindfulness, you can notice when you’re starting to feel stressed and take appropriate action to bring yourself out of fight and flight state and regulate your emotions so you feel more calm and grounded. For example, by doing mindful breathing exercises, you can activate your parasympathetic nervous system–the calming “rest and digest” response in your body–and move out of a stressed state.
Mindfulness helps you mindfully respond rather than react
Imagine this: you’re having one of those days when it seems like you’re being hit by one stressful thing after another. And finally something breaks the camel's back and you snap; you react on an impulse and say or do something you might later regret. Sound familiar?
How about instead of this kind of knee-jerk reaction, you naturally do this: take a moment to pause and use your “wise mind” to come up with a solution. Mindfulness helps you to train this muscle with mindful exercises so you can relate to life’s challenges in new ways. Think of it as learning to intuitively take a deep breath whenever life throws stressors or challenges your way.
How does this work? Mindfulness shifts you into a state of “being” rather than “doing”. Where your “doing” mode is all about taking action and activating a stress response, your “being” mode is associated with rest and relaxation. Mindfulness meditation can help you switch into a being mode, interrupt the stress cycle and create the space to respond mindfully to stress rather than react impulsively.
Mindfulness reduces the stress response in your brain
When you’re stressed, a part of your brain called the amygdala that processes stressful situations lights up. Its job is to process perceived dangers, like stressful situations, and shift you into the fight or flight mode that humans need for survival. Imagine the kind of “pumped up” state humans needed to be in when fighting a wild animal back in hunter-gatherer times. That is exactly what this response is for: survival.
If the amygdala stays lit up for long periods of time, this can lead to–you guessed it–chronic stress. The solution? Mindfulness techniques like breathing and meditation reduce activity in the amygdala, switching off your stress response and bringing stress levels down. Such techniques help you to access your inner calm when external stressors cross your path. Whereas stress makes you narrowly focused and prevents you from seeing the bigger picture, being in a calmer state allows you to more clearly see your options, shift your perspective about what is happening and respond flexibly.
Mindfulness helps you take better care of yourself
When you practice mindfulness as part of your daily life, it seeps into your lifestyle choices and helps you live life in a way that supports your wellbeing. How? With mindfulness tools and techniques in your back pocket, you become more accustomed to listening to your body and mind, noticing what you actually need and then making life decisions based on what you hear. This means that you can adopt mindful daily habits and a mindful lifestyle that is more supportive of your wellbeing and helps to nip stress in the bud before it blossoms into a full-blown flowerbed!
Mindfulness also helps you to become more self-compassionate by teaching you to notice your emotions as you go through life, without identifying with them or judging them. When you’re self-compassionate, you rationalize making mistakes as part of being a human and you can speak more kindly to yourself when you have a perceived “failure”. This is important when it comes to stress, as if you can be a passive observer when stress is rearing its head, you can speak more kindly to yourself and know that it’s just part of being human.
Mindfulness improves how you relate to and communicate with others
As humans, we are hard-wired for connection: we have an inherent need to be nourished by connection just like we need food and water. But let’s be honest, how often are we totally present for other people? We often run around being half present and half somewhere else in our minds.
Mindfulness teaches you to be fully present when with others, helping to foster connections and improve relationships. Also, by taking care of yourself and your own wellbeing with practices like breathing and self-compassion, you have more available attention to connect with others as well.
That sounds great, right? But how does that help reduce stress? It’s simple, mindful listening helps you be more aware of the emotions of others. The higher your emotional intelligence, the less likely you are to get into conflict. Less conflict, less stress! Also, when you practice mindfulness, your level of care and compassion for yourself and others rises. When you have this increased capacity to treat others with compassion and act on it by performing small acts of kindness, it makes you feel good. Win win!
Want to learn more about mindfulness-based stress reduction?
Now you know about some of the many ways that mindfulness can help reduce stress, I bet you’re keen to learn some mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques, right? You’re in luck because in March I’m running an 8-week online Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program that will teach you everything you need to know to use mindfulness techniques to reduce stress. It’s a super practical group program where you’ll get to explore mindfulness through meditations, exercises, mindfulness principles and discuss how to apply it in everyday life.
Developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, the MBSR course is the most established mindfulness course available today. The curriculum has been widely researched showing significant health benefits for people, both on a physical and mental level, particularly when it comes to its effectiveness in reducing stress. You’ll come away with a go-to stress-management and stress-reduction toolkit full of mindfulness techniques that fit in with your busy lifestyle.
Are you ready to mindfully reduce your stress?
If so, take a look at the program outline and sign up here. I look forward to sharing this mindfulness journey with you!