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A beginner's guide to mindfulness: What is it and how can it help your mental health?
Mindfulness is a way to help cope with stress and possibly boost health. Learn how it works and how to get started.
Do you feel stressed out a lot? And are you looking for a way to feel better? One good way to help manage daily stress is a technique called mindfulness.
When you’re being mindful, you focus on what’s happening right now. You tune out your worries about your big meeting tomorrow or bills due next week. You stop thinking about a mistake you made yesterday. Instead, you zero in on this moment.
The goal is to be in a space of gentle watching, says Scott Glassman, PsyD. He’s a psychologist and the author of A Happier You. Look closely at what’s happening in the moment. Then accept it, without trying to change it.
Here are some basics about how mindfulness works, why it can help and how to get started.
What is mindfulness, anyway?
Mindfulness is simply focusing on the now.1 There are lots of ways to do it, but they all have a few things in common:
- You do it with intention. It doesn’t just happen. You make a choice to be mindful for a period of time.
- You pay close attention to one thing. No multitasking. You focus on what’s going on right now. Everything else gets brushed aside.
- You forget the past and ignore the future. Sometimes, thoughts about yesterday or tomorrow come to mind. But you just let them go. Think of them as clouds floating away. Then go back to being in the present moment.
- You don’t judge. Other thoughts may pop into your head. But don’t talk badly to yourself. Don’t decide whether your thoughts are good or bad. Just notice them. Then let them go and bring yourself back to the moment.
Does mindfulness really work?
Yes. Mindfulness can help improve health and well-being.1 In a recent study, one group of people with anxiety took an eight-week mindfulness class. A second group took anxiety medicine. At the end, anxiety levels dropped by more than 30% for both groups. The study showed mindfulness worked as well as medicine.2
No time to take a class? No worries. Another study showed that people with chronic (long-term) pain noticed their anxiety and pain decrease after a quick intro to mindfulness.3
How can mindfulness help me?
Mindfulness may help you relax, unwind and feel more at ease. Over time, it can help ease stress. The best part: Not only could you feel calmer, but you may become healthier too.
Mindfulness can help lower your heart rate and blood pressure.1,4 It can even help you cope with pain, says Glassman. “People’s pain decreases in intensity and it has less impact on their lives.” Some other potential health benefits of mindfulness:4
- It may lower stress, anxiety and depression. This is because it can change parts of your brain linked to attention and regulating your emotions.5
- It can help lower symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). It can help people with PTSD to better understand their emotions and behavior. That way, they can cope better with difficult situations.4
- It can help manage weight. That’s because being in the now can help you pay better attention to your eating experience and choices.6
- It may improve mental health for some people with cancer, specifically breast cancer. That includes reducing things like distress, fatigue, pain, and symptoms of anxiety and depression.4
Mindfulness may also help improve your mental health if you have diabetes. Many people with diabetes deal with distress related to their symptoms and overall health. Mindfulness can help lessen those feelings like being overwhelmed, sad or stressed.7
How do I start being mindful?
There are lots of different ways to practice mindfulness. A simple way to begin: Find a comfortable spot and sit or lie down. Do whatever feels comfortable for you. Then close your eyes and notice how you’re breathing.
You can try this anywhere and anytime you have a free moment. “Just bring your attention to the movements of your breathing,” Glassman says. “Notice air moving into your body and leaving your body. Follow each breath and notice how your in-breath connects to your out-breath.”
Make it a habit: Do this for as long as you like. If you have 30 minutes, that’s great. And if you only have time for a few breaths, that can help too. “If you find that your mind is wandering,” Glassman says, gently notice that. Then focus back on your breathing.
How can I find time for mindfulness?
Your day may already be pretty full. So, turn the things you do every day into mindfulness time. This can be eating, brushing your teeth or taking a shower. “Look at something you do every day. See if you can do it in a more mindful way,” says J. Kim Penberthy, PhD. She is a board-certified clinical psychologist with the University of Virginia School of Medicine and author of the book Living Mindfully Across the Lifespan: An Intergenerational Guide.
Glassman calls this “drop-in mindfulness.” "That’s when you “drop into” any moment in of your day with a fuller awareness, establishing a deeper connection to the present." he says.
Make it a habit: Try not to rush into the next project on your list. Instead, try focusing on what you’re doing right now. Penberthy suggests paying attention to your senses. Senses are what you touch, taste, hear, see and smell.
For example, if you’re washing dishes, feel the warmth of the water. Hear the water running. Smell the dish soap. Folding laundry? Notice the scent and the texture of the fresh clothes. If you’re slicing carrots for dinner, notice their color and crunch. Feel the breeze on your face when you go for a walk.
Mindfulness is making me frustrated, not calm. What am I doing wrong?
A good thing to remember: There’s no “wrong way” to be mindful. If you’re feeling frustrated, try not to judge yourself. “It’s really easy to think when you’re starting out, ‘I’m not very good at this.’ But that frustration is something that you can notice in a mindful way, bringing gentle acceptance to it,” says Glassman. "That helps it pass more quickly."
Make it a habit: Start small. Try being mindful for just 30 seconds at a time. Then build from there. If your mind starts wandering, bring it back to your breath or to a positive thought. Penberthy also recommends trying mindful movement. "This is an active practice, such as Tai Chi or mindful walking." Some people may find it easier to practice mindfulness this way.
- National Institutes of Health. Mindfulness for your health. Published June 2021. Accessed April 1, 2023.
- JAMA Psychiatry. Mindfulness-based stress reduction vs. escitalopram for the treatment of adults with anxiety disorders. Published November 9, 2022. Accessed March 23, 2023.
- Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. Let it be: Mindful-acceptance down-regulates pain and negative emotion. Published January 27, 2020. Accessed March 23, 2023.
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Meditation and mindfulness: What you need to know. Published June 2022. Accessed March 23, 2023.
- American Psychological Association. Mindfulness meditation: A research-proven way to reduce stress. Published October 30, 2019. Accessed April 24, 2023.
- UnitedHealthcare. Mindful eating. Accessed April 24, 2023.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mini-Lesson: Mindfulness Strategies for Managing Diabetes Distress. Last reviewed May 18, 2022. Accessed April 20, 2023.
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