Using Mindfulness to Fight Stress
Mindful meditation may put you in touch with your emotions and provides a tool for coping in tough times.

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Using Mindfulness to Fight Stress

Your body usually tells you when things are not quite right inside. You're probably used to many of the signals: Yawning when you're sleepy. Achy joints after a challenging workout. Dry mouth when you're thirsty.

But what about when you're stressed or upset? Your body responds to that, too. Learning to recognize and respond to those signals can help you manage stress. One way to do that is to practice mindfulness.

Mindful meditation and mindfulness-based stress reduction
In a nutshell, mindfulness is focusing on yourself right now. What's going on in your mind and body? And how can you manage that?

Meditation is a technique used to focus your attention. Different types of meditation involve different physical and mental exercises. Most require a quiet place and an open mind. Some specify a position. And some have a certain focus, like a repeated word or phrase called a mantra.

In basic mindful meditation, you focus on breathing. This helps keep you grounded in the present. Thoughts and emotions may rumble through your head. That's fine. Observe them and then refocus on breathing. Don't judge these distractions or try to prevent them.

Here are other ways to be mindful:

  • Noticing body sensations such as itching, aching or tingling.
  • Using your senses to notice sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches.
  • Allowing yourself to experience emotions.
  • Noticing when cravings strike.

Whatever your technique, the goal is to be aware of your experience at that moment without judgment.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a program that combines mindful meditation with yoga and body awareness. Yoga poses help focus and calm your mind. And body "scans" draw your attention to parts of your body that may ache or be tense.

What's the problem with stress?
Stress happens when you feel like you can't keep up with demands. Small doses of stress can be good. Stress may give you an extra burst of energy to meet a deadline. Or help you get clear of danger.

But constant or chronic stress is harmful to your health. Your stressed body releases hormones that raise blood sugar, blood pressure and heart rate. If you are stressed for a long time, you may develop:

  • Depression or anxiety
  • Obesity
  • Heart problems, including high blood pressure
  • Insomnia
  • A weaker immune system

Stress has many symptoms and affects everyone differently. You may feel tired, fatigued and lack energy. Lack focus. Eat or sleep too much or too little. Feel out of control. Forget things. Stress can even cause physical pain.

Managing stress is important for your physical and mental health.

How mindfulness helps
Some studies have found that mindfulness can improve self-awareness and the ability to control emotions. It's been shown to treat depression and anxiety. And it reduces stress. But how?

  • It may physically change your brain. A study reported in 2011 found that mindful meditation increased gray matter in several parts of the brain. That included an area that helps control emotions.
  • It may affect your nervous system. Your nervous system has two parts. One prepares you for "fight or flight" when you are stressed. The other slows your heart rate and breathing to calm yourself. Research shows that some meditation can bolster the calming side.
  • It may teach you to handle daily stressors and emotions. During meditation, you are asked to focus on experiences without judgment. This may allow you to step back and react more rationally when life throws curveballs. MBSR includes assignments and exercises that teach you to cope with adversity. You may also learn to be more forgiving of yourself.
  • It may relax your body. Feeling sad or upset can cause physical pain or tension. Mindfulness can help ease those emotions, allowing your body to release its stress. The gentle movements of yoga also can stretch and relax muscles. And doing the MBSR body scans can draw your attention to stress-induced tightness or pain.

You can practice mindfulness throughout the day and in a variety of settings. You could be answering emails, sitting in traffic or waiting in line. The goal is for you to become more aware of your experience at that moment — without judgment.

Mindfulness is a tool for managing stress. It is not meant to be a replacement for medical care. Talk with your doctor about using meditation or MBSR. It's important to give your medical team a full picture of your health practices.

Constantly feeling overwhelmed can be a sign of depression. If you have thoughts of hurting yourself or others, call your health care professional, 911 or a suicide hotline such as 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433) or have someone drive you to your nearest emergency department.
By Emily A. King, Contributing Writer
Created on 06/07/2013
Updated on 06/07/2013
Sources:
  • American Psychological Association. Five tips to help manage stress.
  • National Women’s Health Information Center. Stress and your health fact sheet.
  • National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Meditation: An introduction.
Copyright © OptumHealth.
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