You’ve probably heard that mindfulness helps reduce stress. But how does being mindful actually help you do that?
Mounting scientific evidence from hundreds of universities—including dedicated centers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in the United States and the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom—strongly suggests that mindfulness not only reduces stress but also gently builds an inner strength so that future stressors have less impact on our happiness and physical well-being. Here are some of the ways mindfulness helps you with stress.
Mindfulness not only reduces stress but also gently builds an inner strength so that future stressors have less impact on our happiness and physical well-being.
1. You become more aware of your thoughts. You can then step back from them and not take them so literally. That way, your stress response is not initiated in the first place.
2. You don’t immediately react to a situation. Instead, you have a moment to pause and then use your “wise mind” to come up with the best solution. Mindfulness helps you do this through the mindful exercises.
3. Mindfulness switches on your “being” mode of mind, which is associated with relaxation. Your “doing” mode of mind is associated with action and the stress response.
4. You are more aware and sensitive to the needs of your body. You may notice pains earlier and can then take appropriate action.
5. You are more aware of the emotions of others. As your emotional intelligence rises, you are less likely to get into conflict.
6. Your level of care and compassion for yourself and others rises. This compassionate mind soothes you and inhibits your stress response.
7. Mindfulness practice reduces activity in the part of your brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is central to switching on your stress response, so effectively, your background level of stress is reduced.
8. You are better able to focus. So you complete your work more efficiently, you have a greater sense of well-being, and this reduces the stress response. You are more likely to get into “the zone” or “flow,” as it’s termed in psychology by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
9. You can switch your attitude to the stress. Rather than just seeing the negative consequences of feeling stressed, mindfulness offers you the space to think differently about the stress itself. Observing how the increased pressure helps energize you has a positive effect on your body and mind.
A Meditation Practice for Responding to Your Stress
1. Bring to mind a current challenge in your life that is the cause of some stress. A situation that you’re willing to work with at the moment. Not your biggest challenge but not so small that it causes no stress at all. A 3 on a scale of 1–10 is a good guide.
2. Bring the situation vividly to mind. Imagine being in the situation and all the difficulties associated with it.
3. Notice whether you can feel the stress in your body. Physical tension, faster heart rate, a little bit of sweating, butterflies in your stomach, tightness in the back or shoulders or jaw, perhaps. Look out for your stress signals.
4. Tune in to your emotions. Notice how you feel. Label that emotion if you can, and be aware of where you feel the emotion, exactly, in your body. Just try to spot it as best you can. The more precisely you can locate the emotion and the more you notice about the sensation, the better. With time and experience, you’ll keep getting better at this.
5. Bring mindful attitudes to the emotion. These include curiosity, friendliness, and acceptance.
6. Try placing your hand on the location of the sensation—a friendly hand representing kindness. Do it the way you would place your hand on the injured knee of a child, with care and affection.
7. Feel the sensation together with your breathing. This can promote a present-moment awareness and mindful attitudes to your experience.
8. When you’re ready, bring this meditation to a close.