Need Stress Relief? Try Mindfulness Meditation
Have you ever heard someone say that they cope with having a lot on their mind by doing mindfulness meditation? Sitting still with your thoughts might seem intimidating at first, but experts say this practice is one of the best ways to cope with stress.
But what is it?
“Mindfulness meditation is a form of present moment awareness,” explains Neda Gould, Ph.D , associate director of the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center Anxiety Disorders Clinic and head of a mindfulness program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “It’s about paying attention in the present moment — to what is here — in a nonjudgmental way without fixating on the past or dwelling on the future.”
Johns Hopkins research has shown that this practice of nonjudgmental self-awareness is one of the most effective ways to improve mood and anxiety. Gould and her colleagues are also researching how mindfulness meditation can address problems like migraines.
The good news: With practice, anyone can do it. The even better news for women is that some research suggests the practice may hold more benefits for them than for men.
Why Relaxation Is Different Than Meditation
Mindfulness meditation isn’t the same as trying to achieve a certain state, like relaxation. Instead, it’s simply about noticing and accepting experiences in the present moment, whether that is an intense emotion, sensations in the body, the rhythm of your breath or floating thoughts.
“In this sense, you can’t do it wrong,” Gould says. “By dropping in and being present with what’s here, a byproduct over time is often relaxation. But we don’t set that intention because it can make people stressed if they don’t actually achieve a state of relaxation.”
Rather than think about mindfulness as a goal, it’s helpful to think of mindful meditation as a muscle that you’re exercising. “Like any other muscle, it takes time and practice to build,” says Gould.
How to Do Mindful Meditation
Gould suggests beginning with 10 to 20 minutes of mindfulness meditation per day, eventually working up to 40 minutes or longer. Starting out using guided audio is very helpful.
She recommends focusing on the breath and the senses — taste, touch, sight, smell and sound — as “anchors.”
“Describe to yourself what’s going on,” she says. “This will bring you back to the present moment.”
Ways Mindfulness Can Help Your Health
In general, our natural response is to push away unpleasant experiences, says Gould. However, this often doesn’t work to make us feel better or ease anxiety. An alternative is to “make space” for negative sensations and accept them in any particular moment.
- Anxiety. Anxiety involves focusing on what Gould calls “future stories,” which can cause distress. Think of these future stories as the “what ifs” or fears that run through your mind when you’re quiet. “When we feel anxious, our mind is consumed with possibilities, but the only reality is what’s here right now. Most of our fears don’t happen,” Gould says. You can notice these thoughts and when you come back to the present, you can “drop the story,” she says, and lessen the worry.
- Depression. While anxiety is future-oriented, depression often involves a preoccupation with things that happened in the past. As with anxiety, it’s helpful to notice these thoughts and then let them go and return to the present.
- Pain. “We often add on to pain with our thoughts,” she says. For example, when you have a migraine and you dwell on how it seems like it will never end, you’re adding the mental pain of worry to the physical pain of the migraine. Using mindfulness meditation to manage pain allows you to be aware of the sensations of pain, allow them to exist, even explore them a bit if you can, and at any point, you can shift your attention to something more pleasant in your body or your surroundings. In this sense, you’re making space for the pain while also realizing that you don’t have to become overwhelmed by it.
- Sleep. Stress reactions, like racing thoughts, keep you from falling asleep. Gould recommends a type of mindfulness meditation called the body scan, where you notice present sensations in the body from head to toe and name to yourself in a few words what is present. There’s an expression, “If you can name it, you can tame it,” she says, which can ultimately help you to relax.
Most of all, don’t be discouraged if mindfulness meditation is difficult at first. Like any other discipline, it gets simpler with time.
“The more you do, the easier it gets,” Gould says.
Mindfulness as Medicine
Join clinical psychologist Neda Gould, Ph.D., to hear how you can use the practice of mindfulness to reduce chronic stress, anxiety and pain, during a panel discussion at A Woman’s Journey — Baltimore, a daylong women’s health event in November.