Mindfulness: Hyping the hype and simplifying the practice

In a world full of trends, we often get wrapped up in parsing out what is simply “the next thing” to temporarily run the health and wellness space versus what is credible and effective. Mindfulness has gained popularity in mainstream media over the past years – and we hope it is here to stay.

Rooted in Eastern philosophical and spiritual practice with the aim of reducing suffering (traced back to early teachings of the Buddha), mindfulness has found itself integrated into modern psychology and healthcare over the last several decades. As a practice, mindfulness has been shown to effectively promote well-being through awareness and skillful response to emotional distress and unhelpful behaviors (e.g. reacting without thinking, substance use, snapping at others). While there are numerous ways to practice, apply, and integrate mindfulness into one’s daily life, at its core the practice is simply:

The awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally

– John Kabat-Zinn
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Initially, a mindfulness practice might seem overwhelming. Often, new practitioners feel deterred, with thoughts that they are ‘doing it wrong’ or ‘not good at it’. The nature of mindfulness as a practice is based on the idea that we are so often distracted by other thoughts. The practice of noticing distracted thoughts and pulling oneself back into the present moment is, in fact, the practice of mindfulness. Continued, effortful practice of paying attention to the present moment with openness, curiosity, kindness, and flexibility is the act of being mindful.

You’re not doing it wrong and you’re not doing it badly. Acknowledge that judgment toward yourself, notice your distracted mind, and return to your practice. Like all skills, mindfulness takes practice.

Getting technical: What is mindfulness?

We can talk about mindfulness in the context of a formal practice as well as a way of being; it can occur across different contexts and includes both formal and informal practices.

A formal mindfulness practice is defined by setting time aside to practice, whether that is breathwork in silence, a guided meditation, or mind-body practice such as yoga. These concentrated practices can bring the habit of cultivating mindfulness into everyday life.

An informal mindfulness practice takes any daily routine and infuses it with mindfulness. For example informal practice may occur while brushing your teeth, eating a meal, or walking the dog.

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To incorporate mindfulness throughout your day, simply approach everyday activities with curiosity and attention while engaging your five senses.

Research suggests that it is the frequency of informal mindfulness practices, not the duration of formal practices, that make a positive difference on well-being. Simply being more mindful during your daily life can benefit you. There’s no magic number to reap the benefits of being more mindful, just aim for consistency in your practice rather than focusing on achieving a certain frequency.

What do we gain from mindfulness?

The benefits of cultivating mindfulness are vast. First, practicing mindfulness allows for present moment awareness. Dwelling on past woes or future-oriented worries quickly remove us from our active lives; the present moment is the only time we have some sense of control over. Regular mindful practices are related to several other positive outcomes, such as improved self-regulation and self-management, decreased impulsivity and increased flexibility to difficult times, improved empathy and compassion, and mental health boosts.

Self-Regulation & Self-Management

Self-regulation, the ability to respond to experiences with emotions in a flexible way, relies on feedback loops between the brain and body as well as the self and the environment. Imagine you’re a thermometer and your top priority is to maintain 50°. If the sun comes out and your temperature starts to rise or it starts to get colder and your temperature drops, you’re not engaging in self-regulation.

If, instead, you find some shade or put on a jacket to maintain 50°, you are able to flexibly respond to changes in the environment.

During mindfulness, the practice of intention and attention help to enhance these feedback loops and provide both more consistency in functioning and adaptability to adversity. 

Decreased Impulsivity & Increased Flexibility to Difficult Times

Mindfulness helps regions of the brain associated with adaptive response to stress and difficult situations. This means that even when something does make you upset or angry, your brain will have the skills to help regulate your emotions and return to a calmer state. 

Mindfulness actually changes your brain. Just like exercise on the track or hitting the weight room, mindfulness has been shown to have structural changes on different components of your brain responsible for adaptive responding, learning and memory, and emotion regulation. In fact, neuroimaging actually shows positive changes in gray matter, a major player in information processing in the brain.

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Empathy & Compassion

Empathy, the ability to understand and even feel someone else’s feelings, and compassion may be strengthened by mindful practice. When your own emotions are regulated, you may have more space for other’s experiences. In addition, the practice of non-judgmental awareness in the present moment encourages an empathetic lens on both self and others. When you are not consumed by the past or future, you have the energy and space to tend to those around you, helping cultivate better connection.

Mental Well-Being

Mindfulness-based therapies have been shown to be effective in the treatment of several conditions, most robust for anxiety, depression, and stress. Mindfulness-based training has also been shown to support student, trainee, and therapist wellness.

The beneficial effects of mindfulness on mental health have been looked at in several ways, one of which is by adding it to therapeutic interventions (e.g. therapy). Briefly, mindfulness-based interventions teach individuals to give their full attention to the present experience, embracing stressful situations without judgment.

Compared to other well-known, evidence-based therapeutic interventions, interventions based on mindfulness appear to have better outcomes for individuals with mental illness, especially among those with depression, pain, smoking, and other forms of addiction. Some researchers recommend using mindfulness-based interventions among patients with neuropsychological concerns, like brain injuries and dementia.

Mindfulness meditation apps have been shown to improve well being and perceived workplace support while decreasing effects of job strain and overall distress.

Try these guided mindfulness practices

Two of our favorite mindfulness apps with guided practice

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We’re Pandemic-Fatigued, Now What? Stress Management That Works

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This last year has given us a number of challenges, twists, and surprises (and that still feels like an understatement). We’ve all been affected by hardships in one way or another, whether in the form of loss, fear, financial insecurity, unrest, or other forms of distress, the common theme experienced is stress.

The stress response

Stress is a normal, physical, mental, and emotional reaction to change in daily life. It’s not inherently bad and, in fact, small doses of stress can help us stay motivated and driven. Stress can also be something we experience in response to positive changes, like family planning or starting a new job.

When stressors are large, however, or when they last for long periods of time, stress can start to take a negative toll on the body. The body’s stress response is more commonly referred to as “fight or flight” (more recently recognized as “fight, flight, or freeze”). When confronted with danger, our bodies adapted to get us prepared to manage the threat. In order to get us ready to appropriately engage in combat, run away, or stay hidden, part of our nervous system (the sympathetic nervous system) activates, secreting adrenaline into our bloodstream. This response is helpful when faced with a real threat that requires a quick resolution, but this response is also elicited from chronic daily stress.

This era of a pandemic has caused significant distress in a number of ways, increasing stress levels and affecting nearly everyone. Fear of uncertainty and the unknown, concern for the health of oneself and loved ones, financial insecurity, political unrest, and social isolation to name a few.

If left unmanaged, chronic stress can lead to serious, negative health outcomes, including a weakened immune system, mental health concerns like anxiety and depression, cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal distress, among others. Conversely, effective management of stress improves quality of life, reduced emotional distress.

To manage stress, we have two options: (1) decrease contact with stressful stimuli, or (2) change the relationship between a stress reaction and emotion distress. Some things we can’t change. We can’t change the fact that we are in a global pandemic or that political tensions exist within families. We can change some things, though, such as filtering news intake. On the other hand, we can change the relationship with have to stressful stimuli by practicing self-care to build resiliency and better cope with stressful reactions.

Below are several evidence-based practices for stress management:

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Tips (That Work) to Manage Your Stress

Mindset

These mindset-focused practices come from various theoretical approaches to clinical interventions to reduce negative thoughts and change the way negativity affects you.

Focus on what you can control

Sometimes, we worry about things that we don’t actually have control over (e.g., the course of the pandemic, other people’s health, other people’s behavior), which can cause significant distress. Bring awareness to how much time and energy you give to worrying about things you don’t actually have control over.

How much time do you  spend worrying about things outside of your control?

How do you feel during and after thinking about those things?

Not having control over difficult situations is a significant stressor. It’s also emotionally draining without room for change. Instead, can you shift your focus to things that you can control?

Examples of things we can control include: how we act, how much time we spend thinking about certain things, how we cope with stress, and how we spend our time.

Be intentional about content you take in

Watching the news and scrolling through social media can be triggering and upsetting. Coverage of the pandemic and political climate seem to be everywhere. There is a balance between staying informed and practicing self-care by turning the news off and limiting time of social media.

Notice how watching the news or scrolling through Facebook makes you feel. If it makes you feel upset, anxious, or distressed, can you make intentional changes in how much and what kind of content you take in?

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

Focus on the gains

Many caregivers and those in the helping professions (e.g., healthcare, emergency response, education, social services, and more) are holding the stress of those they serve, in addition to their own. The weight of secondary stress and trauma can turn into compassion fatigue, characterized by fatigue, loss of interest, lack of motivation, and irritability.

The antidote to compassion fatigue is compassion satisfaction.

Rossi et al. (2012)

There are really hard, draining aspects to your work, and there are also rewarding aspects that likely drew you to your field. When you notice yourself fixating on the negativity, shift your attention to the positive aspects of your work as a helper.

What feels rewarding in your work? Do you feel like your work has made you a better person? What might others appreciate about the work you do?

This shift in mindset aids in more positive outcomes because there is a higher ability to tolerate stress when we can view it as a challenge that we can overcome rather than something impossible.

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Identify and label unhelpful thoughts

The way that we think can sometimes cause problems or distress. By noticing and labeling unhelpful thoughts, we can help our brain learn to think differently. Some unhelpful thoughts that might come up around pandemic stress include:

Catastrophizing: thinking about the worst-case scenario and assuming it will happen to you (e.g., “I’m going to get very, very sick”)

Magnification or minimization: hyper-focusing on a problem (e.g., hoarding toilet paper) or situation or distancing from it altogether (e.g., ignoring safety suggestions and guidelines)

Jumping to conclusions: drawing conclusions or making decisions before gathering sufficient information (e.g., “I feel fatigued, I must be ill”)

When you notice yourself having one of these unhelpful thoughts:

  1. Acknowledge the thought as a potentially unhelpful thought
  2. Ask yourself, “what is the evidence that this is true?” and “what is the evidence that this is false?”
  3. Using information from your identified evidence, replace your unhelpful thought with a more-informed, rational thought.

Create some distance between yourself and your thoughts

Our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are interconnected. Sometimes, we place more weight on thoughts than we should, like believing thoughts to be facts. Placing that kind of weight on unhelpful thoughts can be very distressing.

Instead, when noticing an unhelpful thought, distance yourself from that thought by changing the weight you give it. Label the thought as a thought; remind yourself it is not a factual piece of information. This helps label the thought as a thought, and not give it the weight of a fact, reducing any associated distress. For example, “I feel fatigued, I must have COVID” would turn into something like, “I am having the thought that I have COVID based on my noticing that I feel fatigued”.

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Focus on Your Wellness

Focusing on wellness helps you build psychological resiliency against stress. By improving overall wellness, you set yourself up to manage stress better, reducing negative outcomes.

Foster social connectedness

Research shows just how important social connection is on mental health, which by extension impacts physical health. Despite physical distance, you can foster social wellness through socially-distant activities, phone calls, virtual programming through various community organizations, or other virtual connection.

Make time to care for yourself

Self-care describes things you can do for yourself to take care of oneself and reduce stress in one’s life. While, for some, that might look like rewarding oneself at the end of the week or engaging in a relaxing activity, self-care is also making sure you eat well, sleep enough, move your body regularly, and get a good dose of nature.

It’s important to not abandon your wellness and self-care habits, despite the challenges of the pandemic. Instead, how can you adapt your routines so you can still practice self-care within the constraints of the pandemic?

For example, if not being able to go to group exercise classes at your favorite community center keeps you from wanting to exercise, can you join a virtual exercise group that still highlights the community aspect of groups?

Sometimes, self-care, wellness habits, or mindset practices can feel easier said than done. Set yourself up for success by:

Creating an action plan: Decide what you want to do, setting only a few goals at a time, and assess the barriers ahead of time. Think about what might get in the way of you succeeding and brainstorm ways to overcome those barriers if they come up. Help yourself out more by including cues (things that will serve as reminders) based on you and your life.

Setting S.M.A.R.T. goals: When setting goals for yourself, make them Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound. (Use this template).

Photo by Madison Inouye on Pexels.com
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Distress management

While stress management takes more of a preventative approach to mental health, sometimes we can become activated or fall into what feels like a crisis. In those cases, we need to find ways to bring our nervous system back to baseline.

Sensory grounding                         

Stressful, anxious thoughts take us out of what’s going on in the present moment, where we actually have control. When in high-distress, tap into your physical, sensory experience to return your attention to what’s going on presently.

Stop and focus on noticing what you see, different things you hear, what you feel in different parts of your body, and what you smell and taste.

This practice forces yourself back into the present moment, instead of feeling overwhelmed by stress, anxiety, depression, or other sources of distress. The present moment is the only time that we have control.

Deep breathing

By regulating stress hormones and activating specific parts of the brain for emotion regulation, deep breathing exercises are therapeutically used to lower anxiety and psychological distress, also aiding in sleep. Practice this a few times each day to build this as a skill and to counter distressing reactions to daily stress.

Find a comfortable seat or lay down. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. When you breathe, breathe through your diaphragm. When practicing deep breathing, you should feel your stomach moving, expanding as you inhale and deflating as you exhale, rather than feeling your chest moving with your breath.

Inhale for four counts, and hold briefly. Exhale for four counts, pausing for a moment. Pay attention to what it feels like to inhale slowly, and how it feels to exhale with control. Continue breathing deeply until you feel you have returned to baseline.

Pair this exercise with spiritual practice (e.g., inhaling peace, goodness, calm; exhaling distress, negativity out) or visualization (e.g., imagine a candle flame that grows as you inhale and dims as you exhale or a balloon that slowly expands and deflates).


By no means, is starting all these new routines the expectation or even realistic. Start small and find something that works for you.

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Getting outside to get well: Forest bathing and urban greenspaces

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Exposure to nature is highly related to overall physical and mental health, whether it comes in larger, outdoor doses or through a collection of houseplants.

The known benefits of human connection to nature, however, is not a new discovery. Despite the relative newness of ecopsychology as a scientific field of study, these concepts reflect centuries of humans relating to the earth. Connectedness to the natural world is consistent with indigenous ways of knowing and healing that has only recently been looked at with a scientific eye. In fact, one theorized explanation for the stress relieving mechanisms of exposure to the natural environment is that we’re reviving a lost connection between ourselves and the natural world that was once an important relationship.

A natural de-stressor

When we experience ‘stress’, what we are experiencing happens at a physiological level. To confront the stressor, our bodies naturally respond with several physical changes, such as increased heart rate, muscle tension, and changes in breathing. This response (also called the ‘fight-flight-freeze response’) is helpful in the short-term, but can have detrimental effects on health and wellness if chronically activated, meaning activated for long periods of time and/or frequently. 

As a form of stress relief, the restorative effects of interaction with nature tap into another bodily response, the ‘rest and digest response’, which causes the body to relax and revive. 

Photo by Anthony on Pexels.com

More on stress management that works here.

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Forest bathing

Shinrin-Yoku, popularly known as ‘Forest Bathing’, is a Japanese practice (introduced by the Forest Agency of Japanese government in the 1980’s) that includes sensory mindfulness. The utilization of all five senses taps into the rest and digest response, and when paired with mindful awareness, leads to a de-stressed, relaxed state. Although Forest Bathing might sound poetically intimidating to try, it’s actually considered to be one of the most convenient ways to up your interaction with nature and easily taps into sight, sound, and smell sensations. 

Try it: Head outside and pay attention to your senses. Being mindfully aware is hard, there are lots of things that distract us. Give yourself some time to build a practice.

For how long? According to a 2019 study, spending at least 2 hours a week in nature is the best dose for health benefits.


Photo by Maria Orlova on Pexels.com

Urban solutions

The beneficial effects of nature on human health seems like a simple method of health promotion and disease prevention; however, natural spaces are not equitably accessible. Those in lower socioeconomic areas are less likely to have access to parks and other forms of natural spaces. 

One solution? City infrastructure that includes urban green spaces, with intention to inclusivity as to not promote gentrification. More accessible nature in cities is related to improved mental health and increased longevity; outcomes are dependent on how people interact with greenspaces when available, though. Further research is needed to clarify the relationship between urban natural spaces and wellness.


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