By Corey Lewis, CPT, CSCS
Stress: unfortunately, it’s more prevalent than it’s ever been. Ask 100 people what gives them anxiety, and you’ll more than likely pick up on some common themes: work, school, money. family, health, social life, the future. If you felt triggered in the least bit after reading that list, please don’t be too hard on yourself—stress is normal. In fact, it’d be pretty strange if you didn’t worry about that big work presentation or about figuring out a secondary stream of income. But that doesn’t make it any easier to accept, especially when it keeps you from living your best life. The rest of this article contains some easy and effective mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques to help manage your nerves. They won’t completely eliminate the stressors in your life, but they’ll hopefully make it much easier for you to manage them.
No matter what you’re doing with your life these days, I can guarantee you feel stressed sometimes. So what causes stress, exactly?
Most people find some part of their professional lives stressful, whether it’s a demanding boss or a challenging workload. Sometimes, simply getting to work on time (and schlepping home after a long day) can be a major stressor, too. Traffic is the pits, other drivers are rude and aggressive, and gas is pricey. (Or, if you’re a mass transit commuter, major delays and inconsiderate seatmates can darken your mood before 8 AM.) And, for all your heroic efforts to arrive on time and perform better on the job, you may feel under-compensated. That can make you feel resentful of your work situation and cause serious anxiety about your finances.
And, speaking of finances, it’s safe to say that the majority of us worry about money, too. Whether it’s your student loans, your mortgage, or your children’s college funds, money’s often a pretty stressful topic. We’re all striving for a work-life balance, but when you feel you’re drowning in debt, it becomes extra challenging. It’s pretty tempting to work long hours or even pick up a second job to make ends meet. And when you’re burning the candle at both ends, you have less time to relax and enjoy life. Boom: you’re now under even more stress.
Most people consider home and loved ones their “safe place” from the demands of work, school, and other major stressors. Sometimes, however, family and friends can cause more stress than they relieve. If you’re a parent, for example, you know you’re constantly worrying about your kids, whether they’re young or fully grown. You may wonder if they are eating a balanced diet or doing well in school. Maybe more importantly, you may be thing about their happiness.
And aging relatives can be every bit as worrisome as young kids, especially if you’re a primary caretaker. Providing full-time care for someone with a serious illness like Alzheimer’s can take a major toll on your well-being.
Furthermore, while we’re on the subject of illness, it’s not uncommon to feel anxious about your own health. It’s too easy to punch a few symptoms into your favorite search engine and conclude that you’re dying of a rare disease. (Can I recommend that you quit doing that? It’s one quick way to worry less. If you’re sick, call your doctor!) You might worry that your diet isn’t healthy or that you should be exercising more often. But who has time to make those lifestyle changes when the demands of work and family are so great?
So, after reading that and contemplating your own sources of stress, do you feel a tension headache or heartburn developing? If so, I can promise you’re far from alone. Let’s explore how to eliminate some stress using a few easy and free or low-cost stress reduction techniques. There’s a wealth of peer-reviewed scientific evidence to support their use. Your mind and body will thank you for making them a part of your life!
To begin: just what is mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR)? It’s an evidence-based practice developed at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in the ‘70s. Its primary goal is to help people to better manage their anxiety, depression, pain, illness, and (of course!) stress.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques emphasize the concept of being present in the moment without judgment. (That’s tougher than it might sound!) It’s a heightened awareness of your thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations. Have you ever put aside everything you were doing to close your eyes, take some deep breaths, and focus your attention on the sensation of each inhalation and exhalation? If so, that’s exactly the kind of exercise MBSR uses to help you achieve a sense of calm and relaxation. Give it a try right now, even for just a few minutes. You’ll likely notice some of the positive effects we’re talking about.
If this feels a little foreign or like a waste of time, it’s worth it to ask yourself why. There’s a pervasive attitude these days that being busy (and even stressed) is highly desirable. In casual conversations, you may hear people competing to see who is the most overburdened and exhausted. That culture can make you feel like taking some time for mindfulness-based self-care techniques is overly indulgent. “I don’t have time for this ‘stop and smell the roses’ stuff,” you might say to yourself. “I have too much to do at work and at home.”
Stop right there: this line of thinking is pretty toxic! Making time for simple stress reduction exercises is an important part of taking care of yourself, just like eating well and exercising. And, hey, it can only help your overall productivity, not to mention your happiness! So, please, let go of the idea that you don’t deserve to devote some of your days to quiet mindfulness meditation. It’s an investment in your overall well-being.
Now, it’s time to check out some of the numerous amazing benefits of mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques. You’ll see why it’s worth it to put aside just a few minutes each day to let all your stress go.
You’re serious about learning how to get rid of stress, or at least how to better manage it. In that case, mindfulness meditation/MBSR is exactly what you need. In fact, I’d argue that everyone could benefit from being more mindful. Here are just some of the positive changes you might notice when you adopt mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques:
As you can see, practicing MBSR can help you improve your quality of life, no matter what you’re facing. Moreover, you do not need a diagnosis like the ones above for MBSR to be of use to you. It’s a useful tool for dealing with everyday stressors, like your job and your bank account. It may also help in reducing cortisol levels, when practiced consistently. Cortisol is a stress hormone, and your body can get into the habit of overproducing it if you’re always worked up. That can lead to anxiety and depression, weight gain, heart disease, and poor sleep. You definitely want to keep your cortisol levels under control, to the best of your ability.
While evidence supports the benefits of mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques, it is not a substitute for medical care. It was never intended to be. It’s considered a complementary therapy, meaning it works well alongside medical treatment, not in place of it. If you’re under a doctor’s care for a chronic condition, please continue on your current course of treatment. And if you’re not, but you’ve been feeling unwell on a regular basis, please seek a professional medical opinion. That said, your practitioner will likely be delighted to hear that you’re incorporating MBSR into your lifestyle!
Now, let’s take a closer look at some of the ways you can start practicing mindfulness-based stress reduction in your daily life. You can begin to enjoy many of the mindfulness benefits I’ve discussed right away!
Wait: didn’t we just establish that student loans are a huge source of stress? Who has the time and money for more school? There’s good news! Taking a course in mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques and learning some helpful tips on reducing stress can be affordable or even free.
If you live near the UMass Center for Mindfulness in Shrewsbury, MA, you can register for a course in MBSR. If you’re not local to the Center, it could be a great destination for a rejuvenating mindfulness retreat. (The beautiful scenery of western Massachusetts doesn’t hurt, either, especially in the fall months!)
But if you don’t live nearby, the Center’s online programs are an excellent alternative. Moreover, institutions of higher learning are increasingly cognizant of major wellness trends and their benefits for students. The college or university nearest to you may offer a mindfulness program open to the public or available for auditing.
These days, schools aren’t the only institutions to offer MBSR-based courses and programs. Your local hospital, house of worship, yoga studio, performing arts center, or gym may have classes available in stress reduction techniques, as well. And if you’re searching for nearby options and continuing to strike out, consider bringing a program to you! You could organize a class guided by an MBSR expert in your workplace, church group, or even your home. Or you might consider starting a small group class with friends, neighbors, and/or loved ones. After all, who doesn’t have some stress to work through? The UMass MBSR teacher directory can help you to find a certified teacher in your area.
What do you do when you’re stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic or sitting on a delayed train full of unruly passengers? You could utter a few words you’d rather your kids not overhear or curse those fickle transit gods. If you’re looking to decrease your blood pressure and regulate your mood, however, you’d be better served by listening to music. Mindfulness meditation and music therapy work well together for a reason: music is an amazing tool for increased mental wellness.
Evidence-based music therapy programs are available in a variety of settings: hospitals, nursing facilities, and schools for special-needs populations, to name a few. Some community music schools (the kind with open registration for vocal and instrumental lessons) offer programs to the public. Some board-certified music therapists also have private practices. If you’re currently receiving long-term treatment, you might inquire about the availability of music therapy at your place of care.
You don’t need to participate in specialized therapy, however, to harness the power of music to knock out some stress. Collections of music for mindfulness-based stress reduction are available on popular apps like Spotify. You can experiment with playlists curated by mindfulness experts to see what works best for you. As you listen, take note of what helps you to feel the most relaxed. Is there a genre or niche that attracts you, like Bach’s works for strings or Philip Glass’s minimalist works? What do you find soothing, and what’s too distracting? Do you prefer music with no singing? You’ll soon have a better understanding of the kind of music that helps you reach a more mindful state. Now be sure to load those blissful tracks onto your smartphone so that you’re prepared for even the worst gridlock. This is one of many simple stress reduction techniques that you can practice anywhere!
Next, let’s talk a little bit about how to be more mindful in another part of your daily life: eating. Everyone needs to eat (obviously), but most people have developed some bad habits when it comes to chowing down. You might dine with the TV on or with your smartphones in hand, distracted by the noise and information. You may rush through your lunch hour or, worse, don’t allow yourself to take one. Later, you might chide yourself for bad dietary choices: oversized portions, empty calories, and imbalanced plates. It doesn’t have to be this way, and, in fact, it shouldn’t be!
As you work diligently toward becoming more mindful in your daily life, make eating with intention one of your goals. Give this mindful eating exercise a try—it’ll likely throw into sharp relief how much you rush through your meals. Pay attention to the feelings of hunger and fullness, as they’re both keys. Take the time to stop for lunch or a snack before your belly is rumbling. Likewise, put down your fork before you feel stuffed and lethargic. And, in between, take the time to chew slowly and savor each bite of your meal.
Practicing this kind of thoughtful and intentional eating can help you develop your mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques and abilities. For example, you might find this exercise in mindfully eating a raisin useful. It’s an excellent way to train your brain to focus on the present, locking into each sensation as you eat. Please note that you don’t have to use a raisin for the exercise to be effective if you prefer another food.
Mindful eating offers serious benefits. If you’ve been trying to lose weight and don’t understand why it’s not coming off, the answer may lie in better eating through mindfulness. It could be far more effective for you than any of the trendy diet plans you’ve read about. So, if dropping a few pounds is important to you (and your health), it’s time to explore eating mindfully. It could be the key to achieving your goal weight. And, even if you’re not trying to cut back, thoughtful eating is another useful tool to better manage your stress level.
It’s not easy to stop and put your mind and body into decompression mode when you’re in the middle of a stressful situation. In the office, for example, you might experience too many distractions to practice your MBSR exercises. The phone rings nonstop, coworkers are always stopping by to talk, and the boss has a watchful eye on you. Similarly, it might not be easy to meditate at home if you have chatty roommates or boisterous young kids. So if you’re in the middle of some minor chaos and need to bust some stress, what can you do? Stop what you’re doing (within reason, of course!) and take a short, solitary stroll.
Going for a walk is a simple, no-cost, effective way to achieve a more peaceful state of mind. It’s a low-impact exercise that requires no equipment or special attire. And if the weather is less than ideal, you can do it inside. You don’t have to go on an aerobic, multi-mile “power walk” for it to be useful. Try a walk down the hall at the office or a few leisurely laps around your house, to start. Pay attention to your deep breathing, your steps, and the way your body feels as you walk. Now you’re on your way to a more mindful state—even if your feet aren’t taking you anywhere you haven’t been before. You may even find that your mindful walking breaks and music listening sessions go well together.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a form of exercise more compatible with the goals of mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques than yoga. It’s an excellent way to stretch, breathe, and quiet your mind, and it’s appropriate for a variety of populations. Yoga for young people, for example, can help kids to reduce school-related stress. It’s similarly effective for mental health professionals, school employees, and PTSD-afflicted veterans. We all face unique sets of stressors, but yoga is an awesome way to tackle the bulk of them.
As I mentioned in my first tip, you’ll likely find great class offerings at your local yoga studio. But one of the wonderful things about yoga is that you can practice it anywhere. YouTube, for example, has some excellent video tutorials, guided by expert mental health professionals:
As you can see, there’s no need to invest in several classes per week if there’s no room in your budget or schedule. (After all, the goal here is to reduce stress, not add to it!) Armed with a yoga mat, comfortable clothing, and some peace and quiet, you can practice right in your living room. You might consider streaming YouTube on your TV for a bigger and clearer picture of each pose. Once you’ve gotten the hang of the routine, you may prefer to practice without the video. Is it the silence that helps you to achieve a greater sense of calm? Is it soft music? It really depends on what works best for you.
So there you have it: five great ideas for incorporating mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques into your daily life. These tips can help you to establish a framework for yourself, but please don’t think of them as hard and fast rules. As you spend some time with yourself in this new way, you’ll learn more about what speaks to you personally. Perhaps meditating to music is helpful for you, but the raisin-eating exercise makes you feel silly. Or maybe you’ll love yoga, but find that walking doesn’t do nearly as much for your mental state. You won’t know for sure until you try!
I hope these simple tips for mindfulness-based stress reduction have inspired you to work actively to achieve greater inner peace. Just make sure you understand eustress vs. distress. Then, remember that you absolutely deserve to take great care of your mind as well as your body—every day!