How to Manage Stress with Mindfulness and Meditation

Mindfulness meditation can help interrupt the stress cycle to allow space to respond instead of react. Discover our best tips and practices to equip you with tools to navigate stress.

Meditation for stress

What Is Stress?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, stress is the brain and body’s response to change, challenge, or demand. It is the body’s natural defense against danger brought on by an event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, or nervous. When a stressful event occurs, the body is flooded with hormones to avoid or confront danger. This is commonly referred to as the fight-or-flight response.

Stress can become a chronic condition if the proper steps to manage it are not taken. Chronic stress can cause chemical changes in the body that may raise blood pressure, heart rate, and blood sugar levels. Long-term stress or high levels of stress may also lead to mental and physical health problems.

How Do You Respond to Stress?

Strategies like ignoring or denying stress (what experts call avoidance coping), or distracting ourselves, which may be effective short-term, can also undermine our health and happiness in the long run. Research published in the Journal of Research in Personality shows that present-moment awareness, a key feature of mindfulness, increases stress resilience and effective coping.

Present-moment awareness involves monitoring and attending to current experience rather than predicting future events or dwelling on the past. Studies show that an individual’s disposition toward remaining in the present moment is linked to numerous health benefits including lower levels of perceived stress, anxiety and depression, improved mood, and a sense of improved well-being.

In the study, a team of Australian researchers examined the effects of present moment-awareness in a sample of 143, well-educated university students and staff (76.3% female) who were part of an online mindfulness training course. The researchers surveyed the study participants with a focus on three stress response variables.

Three stress response variables:

  • Your perceived competence in dealing with a stressful situation. Whether people believe they have the ability to handle a situation or not, plays a role in how they deal with stress. This is called coping self-efficacy and is an indicator of our ability to motivate ourselves to effectively respond to stressful circumstances.
  • Your reliance on core values when responding to stressful situations. Relying on values rather than reacting to immediate short-term situations is described as “values-consistent responding.” This describes when your responses are consistent with long-term goals and aspirations, rather than being influenced by the current situation. Being present, research shows, allows you to be more aware of your options and values, which translates to a heightened sense of well-being, diminished psychological distress, and greater pain tolerance in the presence of stressful circumstances.
  • Your level of avoidance of stressful feelings. Avoidance coping is characterized by a tendency to retreat from stressful life events. This coping style is associated with increased psychological distress, and reduced well-being across the lifespan.

Results of the study confirmed that those with greater present-moment awareness were more likely to respond to stress with strategies that lead to greater health and well-being. Specifically, being present in the moment when stressed was directly linked to greater perceived ability to handle that stress and more reliance on core values to navigate the situation.

4 Ways to Calm Your Mind in Stressful Times

The stress response is supposed to be short-lived because it wears down your body, your health, and your energy. Stress makes us narrowly focused, preventing us from seeing the bigger picture. When we’re calmer, our attention becomes broader. 

The question becomes, then, how do you wind down? Research suggests several practices that not only feel good but also put us into a calmer, more relaxed state—a state from which we can cope better with whatever life throws at us. 

1. Practice Breathing Exercises

Our breathing is a powerful way for us to regulate our emotions, and it is something we take for granted. Through your breath, you can activate your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS)—the calming response in your body.

One of the most calming breathing exercises you can do is to breathe in (e.g., to a count of four), hold, and then breathe out for up to twice as long (e.g., to a count of six or eight). You can gently constrict your throat, making a sound like the ocean, which is used in deep relaxation breathing. As you’re doing this, especially thanks to those long exhales, you’re activating the parasympathetic nervous system, reducing your heart rate and blood pressure.

2. Adopt an Attitude of Self-Compassion

Self-compassion is the ability to be mindful of your emotions—aware of the emotions that are going on inside whenever you fail at something. It doesn’t mean you identify with them; you can just observe and notice them, without feeding the fire. Self-compassion also involves understanding that everyone makes mistakes and that it’s part of being human. And it is the ability to speak to yourself the way you would speak to a friend who just failed, warmly and kindly.

3. Foster Genuine Connection

How often are we actually present for another person 100 percent? When was the last time somebody was 100 percent present with you?

Our greatest human need, after food and shelter, is to connect with other people in a positive way. The good news is that by taking care of yourself and your own well-being with practices like breathing and self-compassion, you are able to turn more attention outward to feel more connected, as well. 

4. Practice Having Compassion for Others

Imagine a day when things aren’t going well for you—you spilled your coffee on yourself, and it’s raining. And then a friend calls who’s having a true emergency in their life, and you jump up and go help them immediately. What happens to your state of mind in that moment?

All of a sudden you have high energy; you’re completely at their service. That is what practicing altruism, service, and compassion does to your life. It increases your well-being tremendously, as many of us have experienced when we perform little acts of kindness.