Did you spend last night tossing and turning and this morning glaring into a cup of coffee? There’s a good chance you didn’t just wake up on the wrong side of the bed — stress might be at the root of the problem.
Millennials spend the total equivalent of 63 days per year feeling stressed, and 71 percent wake up in the middle of the night worrying about something between one and three times a week. All that time spent with a furrowed brow can take a toll on your health, both mental and physical.
Mindfulness exercises can be a key strategy for reducing stress and replacing it with important benefits like sleeping better, feeling happier and even preventing heart disease.
What Is Mindfulness?
Loosely defined, mindfulness is about how you focus your awareness — slowing down, not taking things for granted and being present in the moment, to start. Mindfulness exercises can be as extensive as hours of meditation or as quick as the time it takes to appreciate the smell of a fresh cup of coffee at your desk when work becomes overwhelming.
How can smelling coffee solve anything, you might ask? Well, there are always excuses for not putting your needs first: There are bills to pay and responsibilities to take care of, and there’s not enough time in the day to drop everything and go to the spa whenever you’re having a rough morning. But mindfulness exercises can lower stress levels without disrupting your day — it’s better to take a minute for relaxation now than to spend an hour staring at the ceiling at 3 a.m. sweating over that big decision you have to make the next day.
How Can I Practice Mindfulness Exercises?
Mindfulness can happen anywhere, anytime. Here are some easy ways to get started.
- Pay attention. Do you remember your trip to work this morning? Do you really, or do you just remember that you went? Most people run on autopilot, especially when they’re doing something routine. Take time during your commute or when you’re with friends or family to really pay attention. Hear the music coming from the car in the lane next to you. Observe how that table lamp casts a pattern of green light on the floor. Smell the perfume that lingers on you after you hug your friend. Touch the cold bar top. Enjoy experiencing life in the moment.
- Find joy in the simple pleasures. The little things add up. Appreciate the puppy you saw on the way to the grocery store or the fact that your spouse is making chili this weekend. If your tomatoes are finally growing, that’s cause for celebration — maybe not a party, per se, but a celebration nonetheless. Don’t ignore when good things happen, no matter how tiny they are.
- Focus on your breathing. When you find yourself stuck on a problem or worrying about the future, take a page out of the book that actors, world leaders and others have relied on to stay calm: breath work. There are countless ways to perform breathing exercises, but you don’t need to do anything complicated to reduce stress. Just close your eyes and inhale deeply. Then, focus on your breath as you exhale long and slow. Repeat for a minute or two until you feel calmer and more relaxed. That’s all it takes.
- Practice body scan meditation. This is a little more involved, but it might be a great tool for a private moment or getting back to sleep when you wake up in the middle of the night. Lying or sitting in a comfortable position, bring your attention to each body part, starting with your toes. Contract your muscles, then release. Move on to your calves and continue upward. It’s normal to become distracted while doing this — just finish your thought and return to the exercise. If you start doing this regularly, you’ll find yourself becoming less distracted as you go, and that it takes less time to relax your body and your mind.
- Try sorting boxes. No, this isn’t an attempt to guilt you into finally organizing your closet — the boxes are all in your mind. Set a timer for five minutes and close your eyes. Try to take notice of everything that pops into your head. Picture three boxes: one for thoughts, one for emotions and one for sensations. Practice clearing your mind and assessing whatever comes into it until time is up.
Telling yourself not to worry about things isn’t effective — sooner or later, the stress will come back worse than before. Mindfulness exercises are a simple way to save yourself from another day of pulling your hair out.