No matter how much we wish it wasn’t, the reality is that stress is a big part of our everyday lives. To a greater or lesser extent, we encounter stress in some form every day, whether it’s from our jobs, our children, our spouses or other relationships, our finances, or our families.
Even though it’s unavoidable, the long-term effects of stress can potentially be harmful to our bodies. According to the American Psychological Association, chronic stress can lead to negative effects on our body, including an elevated heart rate and blood pressure which increases our risk of having a heart attack, stroke, or developing hypertension.
While it’s recommended to try and minimise causes of stress, this is not always possible. In the case of these unavoidable stressors, the next best solution is to find an effective coping mechanism to deal with stress. Mindfulness is a technique that is easily accessible to anyone and can be applied in any situation to manage stress levels.
What Are Some Common Symptoms of Stress?
The effects of stress can creep up on us unsuspectingly, affecting our physical and mental wellbeing in a variety of ways. Some physical and emotional indicators of stress include:
- Pain and tension in certain areas of the body, particularly the muscles.
- Insomnia and other sleeping problems.
- Heart palpitations.
- Digestive problems, such as constipation, diarrhoea, and indigestion.
- Acne and skin problems.
- Exhaustion and fatigue.
- A feeling of irritability and being short-tempered.
- Experiencing depression and anxiety.
- Feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope.
- Cognitive impairments, like reduced attention span, inability to concentrate, remember things, or make decisions.
What is Mindfulness?
According to the University of Washington’s Healthy Aging and Physical Disability Research and Rehabilitation Center, mindfulness is a state of awareness in which you focus your attention on the present moment in an observational, non-judgmental way. It is a means of combating feelings of stress by turning your attention to the present moment and using sensory awareness to induce calm and a sense of focus. This can include:
- Focusing on the particulars of the present moment that we would usually ignore like physical sensations, smells, sounds, etc.
- Keeping your attention honed in on what is happening right now, instead of focusing on past or future occurrences.
- Acknowledging and accepting thoughts and feelings as they manifest without any sense of judgment.
- Recognising any negative thoughts and emotions in an observational manner and understanding that they are temporary and will pass.
What Mindfulness Techniques Can Combat Stress?
Research has shown that mindfulness can help to reduce feelings of stress and improve one’s mental and physical health. Using the practices of sensory awareness discussed above, there are certain mindfulness techniques that we can incorporate into our daily lives to reduce the negative physical and mental effects of stress.
- Focused breathing
This is a very simple technique that can be practised almost anywhere. Focus your attention on the sound and speed of your breathing, as you breathe in and out. Pay attention to the sound and rhythm of your breathing. Let any thoughts pass through your mind without reacting, refocusing your attention on your breaths.
- Meditative walking
Find a few minutes before, in between, or after work to practice some mindful movement in the form of a walk. Have a pre-set path, whether it’s in your backyard, or around the block, and begin to slowly walk with awareness.
Pay attention to the sensation of walking in your thighs, calves, and feet. Be aware of the feeling of balance as you put one foot in front of the other again and again. When you reach the end of the path, turn around and begin again in the opposite direction. Do this as many times as you like.
- Meditative sitting
This technique requires you to sit comfortably on the floor so is best saved for when you are in a more relaxed state at home (unless you are comfortable with doing it in your office, in which case, go for it!).
Sit cross-legged, or in a position most comfortable to you. Make sure your back is straight and your body is not slouching. Keep your hands comfortably rested on your lap and begin to breathe slowly and steadily through your nose.
Focus your attention on the sounds and feeling of breathing through your nose. If it’s easier to remain focused you can close your eyes. Acknowledge any thoughts that might cross your mind and then let them pass, realigning your concentration on your breath.
- Body scan
You can either sit or lie down using this technique and start from your head and work your way down to your feet, or from your feet to your head. In either position, focus your concentration on one body part at a time, taking note of any feelings or sensations. Slowly shift your attention from one body part to another, repeating this process, until you have worked your way to the top or bottom of your body.
It might not be possible to eliminate all sources of stress in our lives, but it is possible to control and manage our reactions to stress. Employing mindfulness techniques can help to moderate our stress levels and allow us to live a more balanced life.
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