Mindfulness for Anxiety and Stress:
6 Powerful Exercises to Rewire Your Brain
BY MELANIE GREENBERG, Ph.D.
there is substantial research showing that practicing mindfulness for anxiety, stress and just about anything else for that matter literally rewires brain neurons for peace and induces changes all the way down to the genetic level.
Staying Grounded in the Present Moment
To effectively manage stress and anxiety, you need to calm down your amygdala’s fear and panic. A mindfulness mind-set and stress reduction techniques are the antidote to being swept away or immobilized by stress and anxiety. Practicing mindfulness for stress and anxiety is an open, compassionate attitude toward your inner experience that creates a healthy distance between you and your stressful thoughts and anxious feelings, giving you the space to choose how to respond to them.
If I had to pick just one tool for dealing with stress and anxiety, I’d choose mindfulness. The use of mindfulness is supported by a growing neuroscientific literature, demonstrating actual changes to neurons in the amygdala following mindfulness training. Mindfulness-based interventions have gained the attention of therapists, educators, coaches, and even politicians and business leaders. This brain skill can have far-reaching beneficial effects, not only transforming brain neurons but improving immunity, health, life, and relationship satisfaction. Mindfulness for anxiety and stress has the potential to make not only individuals but even businesses, institutions, and societies more stress-proof.
In this article, you’ll learn about mindfulness, its history in ancient Buddhist philosophy, and the current use in the West of mindfulness exercises as a widely accepted and effective mind-body practice for anxiety and stress reduction. You’ll learn the qualities of a mindful mind-set and how to train your mind to be more mindful through mindfulness meditation practice and mind-set change. Read on, and learn why “The Mindful Revolution,” as Time magazine dubbed it, is the key to managing your stress and anxiety!
The Roots of Mindfulness
Mindfulness is both a skill and an attitude toward living that originated thousands of years ago as part of Buddhist philosophy. According to the Buddha, mental suffering (or inner stress) occurs because we cling to positive experiences, not wanting them to end, and we strive to avoid pain, sadness, and other negative experiences. This effort to control our mental and bodily experiences is misguided and out of touch with the reality of living. We can never escape loss and suffering because these are natural parts of life. Our experiences are always changing. Living things wither and die, to be replaced by new living things. The forces of nature are beyond human control.
The Buddha believed that although pain is inevitable, suffering is not. Suffering results from our attempts to cling to pleasure and push away pain. Buddhist teaching describes suffering in terms of being shot by two arrows. The first arrow is the pain and stress that are an inevitable part of being human. These types of stressors, such as aging, illness, and death, are beyond our control. The second arrow is the one we use to shoot ourselves in the foot by reacting to the natural experience of human suffering (or stress) with aversion and protest. It’s as if we’ve become phobic of our own emotions! When we begin to feel stressed, we create mental stories of worry and regret that compound our mental suffering. We get caught up in negative beliefs about ourselves, regrets about the past, or worries about the future, taking us out of the present moment. Or we try to push our feelings of stress and anxiety away through addictions and avoidance. These strategies just make things worse. As one of my wisest supervisors once said, “The cover-up is worse than the crime!” Practicing mindfulness for stress and anxiety returns us to the present moment.
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University of Massachusetts Medical School professor emeritus Jon Kabat-Zinn was the visionary who first introduced mindfulness practice for stress and anxiety to the Western medical establishment. He reframed the Buddhist concepts using scientific terminology, added some meditation exercises and yoga stretches, and developed an intensive eight-to-ten-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program that included forty minutes of mindfulness meditation practice each day as homework. He recruited into the program a group of chronic-pain patients who weren’t responding to regular medical treatment. Incredibly, these participants reported less pain, improved mood, and better mental health from the beginning to end of the mindfulness-based program (Kabat-Zinn 1982; Kabat-Zinn, Lipworth, and Burney 1985), and in comparison to a group of patients receiving the clinic’s normal care (Kabat-Zinn, Lipworth, and Burney 1985). And thus the Mindful Revolution was born.
Today, mindfulness-based interventions for pain, stress, depression, anxiety, cancer, addiction, and chronic illness are accepted worldwide. The credibility of mindfulness exercises as an intervention for anxiety and stress and stress-related illness has been enhanced by its strong neuroscientific base. University of Wisconsin professor of psychology and psychiatry Richie Davidson has been instrumental in demonstrating how mindfulness works in the brain and how mindfulness for stress can change brain structure and functioning to facilitate stress resilience and mental health.
Dr. Davidson’s research team used brain imaging technology to study mindfulness meditation techniques in Buddhist monks and novice meditators (Davidson et al. 2003; Lutz et al. 2004). Their findings suggest that “contemplative practices” such as meditation and mindfulness can improve compassion, empathy, kindness, and attention in the brain. These studies powerfully demonstrate neuroplasticity—that even adult brains can change their structure and pathways with repeated practice of new habits. By practicing mindfulness techniques for stress, you can learn to redirect the emotional reactivity of your stress response into more calm, peaceful, and attentive states.
Mindfulness and Your Amygdala
Your feelings of stress and anxiety result from your amygdala’s seeing external experiences or even your own emotions as threats. This is a problem, both because it’s impossible to escape many stressful experiences and because it’s impossible to stop stress-related emotions from arising.thinking parts of your brain know what’s happening. In other words, you can’t stop your amygdala from trying to protect you by initiating a stress response when it senses a change in circumstances that could lead to danger, loss, or pain. And you probably wouldn’t want it to! Without your amygdala, you might waltz into traffic, stick your hand on a hot stove, or hang out with unsavory characters without realizing the danger. But you do need to manage your amygdala so that it doesn’t compound your stress and anxiety or create unnecessary suffering for you. Using mindfulness techniques for stress and anxiety allows your prefrontal cortex to calm your amygdala when it overreacts, so you can avoid the Buddha’s second arrow (unnecessary suffering), resulting in stress reduction.
Mindfulness skills are the antidote to the amygdala’s rapid reactivity. With mindfulness techniques for anxiety and stress, you can learn to slow things down long enough for the prefrontal cortex to get on board and steer you through the stressful rough waters. Mindfulness meditation practice also creates a calm, relaxed state of mind that prompts your parasympathetic nervous system to calm down the physiology of the “fight, flight, or freeze” response and return to balance. Mindful states of mind send signals to your body that slow down your breathing and your heart rate. They tell your parasympathetic nervous system that the danger has passed and it can bring the body back to balance. In the next section, you’ll learn more about what mindfulness for stress and anxiety is and how you can practice mindfulness-based stress reduction to calm down your amygdala.
What Is Mindfulness?
Think of mindfulness for stress and anxiety as both an attitude toward living and a resilient brain skill that reduces your amygdala’s reactivity. Jon Kabat-Zinn defined mindfulness practice as a way of paying attention purposefully and with nonjudgmental acceptance to your present-moment experience (1994). When you practice adopting the stance of mindfulness for anxiety and stress toward your own experience in the moment, whatever that may be, you open up the space to sit peacefully with and examine your thoughts, feelings, or body sensations, rather than following your amygdala’s instructions to run away, be overwhelmed, or react impulsively. You replace fear of your own inner experience with a curious, gentle, welcoming attitude—free of judgment, self-blame, and aversion. Mindfulness techniques for anxiety and stress reduction allow you to remain grounded in the present moment even when you face difficult stressors, so that your stressful feelings and anxiety feel more manageable or less overwhelming.
Mindfulness for stress and anxiety is a state of mind, a deliberate, purposeful, focused way of looking at your experience in the present. Rather than experiencing stress or anxiety on automatic pilot, when you’re mindful, you look at your feelings of stress and anxiety from an observer vantage point. With mindfulness practice, you’re aware of the stress and anxiety flowing through your mind and body without feeling totally merged with it. You maintain the awareness that stress is a moving, dynamic state that’s flowing through you but that it isn’t all that you are. You’re more than whatever’s happening in your mind and body at the moment. Mindfulness meditation teachers often use the metaphor that you are the sky and your thoughts and feelings are clouds. The clouds float by, but the sky is always there. The sky provides the canvas for the clouds to float on. So you’re the sky, and your feelings of stress and anxiety are the clouds. You can sit out the storm until the sky is clear!
The best way to understand how your body reacts to mindfulness for stress and anxiety is to experience mindfulness-based stress reduction. The following mindfulness meditation technique will teach you to focus on your breath in a mindful way. The more often you do these sorts of mindfulness exercises for anxiety and stress, the more quickly you’ll develop an attitude of mindfulness.
Exercise: A Simple Breath Awareness Meditation
Here are some instructions for a basic breath awareness mindfulness meditation. Do this once or twice a day for two weeks, and observe what happens. There’s no right or wrong way to do this mindfulness practice for stress and anxiety. Try to accept whatever your individual experience is. The goal is not to achieve perfect focus on your breath, but rather to learn how your mind works! It’s normal for your mind to wander, but when you catch your mind wandering and deliberately bring it back, you’re learning to mindfully control the focus of your attention.
1. Pick a comfortable, quiet place where you won’t be disturbed.
2. Sit with your spine upright on a cushion on the floor or a chair. If you use a chair, make sure your feet are touching the ground. Close your eyes, or maintain a soft, unfocused gaze.
3. Begin to notice your breathing. Try to maintain an open and curious attitude. Notice where your breath goes when it enters and leaves your body.
4. Don’t try to force or change your breath in any way. It may change naturally as you observe it.
5. If your mind wanders, note what it’s doing, and then gently bring your attention back to your breath.
6. Continue observing your breath for eight to ten minutes. At the end of the practice, notice how your mind and body feel, then slowly come back to the room.
As you continue this mindfulness practice for stress reduction for two weeks, notice if your mind resists the idea of change by creating judgmental thoughts such as I won’t be able to keep it up or It won’t do any good. You don’t have to believe your judgmental thoughts; just notice them. Try to replace your judgmental attitude with one of curiosity, and keep an open mind so that you don’t prematurely limit your experience.
In addition to paying attention in an open, nonjudgmental way, there are other characteristics of a mindful state of mind that create a powerful shift in brain functioning. In the next section, we’ll discuss them in detail.
Characteristics of a Mindful State of Mind
Being mindful is more than meditating or focusing on your breath. Rather, it’s a state of mind, characterized by the following attributes.
1. An Observing Stance
Mindfulness for anxiety and stress doesn’t take away your stressful thoughts and feelings, but it changes your relationship to them. It’s as if you’re an observer who can look at these feelings without getting consumed by them or pushing them away. Thus, being mindful gives you more mental space and freedom. You don’t have to be controlled by your stress response; you can redirect your focus, thereby gaining more control over your behavior when stressed.
2. Slowing Things Down
When your amygdala senses a stressor, it acts very quickly to “hijack” your brain for emergency action. However, not every stressor is an emergency, and successfully dealing with most stressors requires thinking of solutions, tolerating anxiety and uncertainty, and adapting to new situations. These are all functions of your prefrontal cortex, which is slower to receive and process information than your amygdala. Therefore, the first step in being mindful is to slow things down so that you can take a broader view of the situation before reacting.
Mindfulness for stress and anxiety moves your mind out of “acting” mode into “watching” mode, taking away the sense of urgency and giving your mind and body time to get back in sync.
3. Focusing on the Present Moment
When you practice mindfulness for anxiety and stress, you focus your attention deliberately and openly on what’s happening in the present moment, both within you and around you. You may notice and describe your sensory experience—what you’re seeing, hearing, feeling, or smelling right at that moment. Or you may focus on your breath to see what’s happening inside and to ground yourself. This awareness of the present helps you stop ruminating about the past or worrying about the future.
4. Replacing Fear with Curiosity
Mindfulness for anxiety and stress replaces fear and emotional reactivity with an open, spacious curiosity. What’s that thought or feeling that’s arising? What does it look like and feel like? Is this something helpful or important that you want to focus on, or is it just an automatic event that you can observe as it passes through you? How does this emotion or experience change and unfold over time?
5. Openness and Non-judgment
Non-judgment is a key part of a mindfulness practice for stress and anxiety. When your amygdala triggers your stress response, you automatically begin to label the situation or your reactions as a threat that you need to escape. This is the aversion that the Buddha referred to as the second arrow. By observing your judging mind—a key mindfulness technique—you can avoid automatically buying into these negative judgments. You can then deliberately redirect your mind back to observing your thoughts and feelings with an open mind. This transforms your experience of stress by taking the terror and panic out of it.
6. An Attitude of Equanimity
Based on the Buddha’s original teachings about non-attachment to pleasure or pain, a mindfulness attitude is one of peace, balance, and equanimity. To have equanimity means to let go of “needing” things to be a certain way. Equanimity keeps us from getting shot by that second arrow of addictive cravings or feelings of panic and desperation.
Everything is impermanent, everything is changing, and many important life outcomes are at least partially out of our control. Therefore, we need to stand firm and not be swept off balance by stress and anxiety.
7. “Being” Instead of “Doing”
When you’re stressed, your amygdala creates an impetus for action to eliminate the threat so that you can be safe. Finding solutions or learning new skills in a stressful situation requires a goal-oriented mind-set. But your mind and body also need periods of rest and quiet so that you don’t get depleted by too much “doing.” Mindfulness for stress and anxiety teaches you how to just “be” in the moment, without any particular goal or outcome and without judging your experience or wanting to be rid of it.
In the next section, you’ll learn to deliberately focus on your body or your sensory experience with mindful openness and curiosity.
The “How” of Mindfulness
It sometimes takes weeks or even months of practice to really understand what it means to be mindful. Following are different ways of practicing mindfulness for stress and anxiety. Try all of them, or find the one that works best for you. Research shows that practicing mindfulness for at least thirty minutes per day can actually shrink your amygdala (Hölzel et al. 2011).
Optimize your environment for practicing mindfulness for anxiety and stress. You may want to create a “meditation corner” with a comfortable pillow and some pleasant objects for you to focus on. A scented candle, a flower, or a smooth stone can be an anchor for your mindful attention, as I’ll describe later in the article. Set aside a time every day for mindfulness practice, and put it in your schedule. You can practice mindfulness for stress and anxiety lying in bed, sitting cross-legged or in a chair, or even while walking, as you’ll see below. Find the way that works for you. You don’t always have to practice for thirty minutes. Studies show that five to twenty minutes of meditation per day for five weeks creates some of the same brain changes as longer periods of meditation (Moyer et al. 2011) I suggest you start with eight to ten minutes a day of formal practice and then gradually increase the length of your mindfulness meditations.
And so your mindfulness journey for stress reduction begins.
Exercise: Mindfulness of Your Breath
This mindfulness practice is the one I use most frequently with my clients because it allows you to really feel and connect with your breath and also to feel grounded and solid in your body. It’s my adaptation (with permission) of a mindfulness practice used by Daniel Siegel, author of many books and courses on mindfulness and the brain. This version of the instructions is for when you sit upright on the couch. Feel free to adapt the wording if you’re lying on the floor or bed.
1. Sit comfortably on the couch with an upright yet relaxed pose.
Now close your eyes or maintain a soft gaze. Let your mind and body begin to settle into the practice, noticing what your body feels like.
2. Focus your attention on your feet. Notice all the parts of your feet that are touching the floor. Notice your toes; where your toes join your foot; the middle of your foot; your heel; your ankle; the whole bottom of your foot; the inside and the outside.
3. Let your feet sink into the floor, noticing the support of the earth and feeling it ground you.
4. Begin to notice all the parts of your body that touch the couch— the back of your thighs, your seat, perhaps your back, your arms, and your hands. Let your hands and feet sink into the support of the couch and floor. Notice how your body feels as you sit, supported by the couch and floor.
5. Begin to notice your breath. Just breathe easily for a few breaths, noticing where your breath goes as you breathe in and as you breathe out. Notice the pause between your in-breath and your out-breath. If your mind wanders—as it probably will, because that’s what minds do—just notice where it goes for an instant and then slowly, gently, direct your attention back to your breath.
Continue to do this as you begin to notice your breath in your nose, chest, and belly.
6. Slowly, bring your attention to your breath as it enters your nostrils. Notice whether it’s hot or cold, light or heavy, and slow or fast. How does it feel? Notice where your breath touches your nostrils as you breathe in and as you breathe out. Continue to notice your breath in your nostrils for a few minutes.
7. Begin to notice your breath in your chest. Notice how your chest moves up and down with your breath like a wave, moving up as you breathe in and down as you breathe out. Just notice your chest as it expands and contracts with your breath. Watch the rhythmic wave in your chest as you breathe in and as you breathe out.
Continue watching your chest for a few minutes.
8. Direct your attention downward, toward your belly. You can put your hand on your belly to help you connect with the spot just below your belly button. This spot is at the very core and center of your body. Notice how your belly moves out when you breathe in and how it moves in when you breathe out. There’s no need to force or change your breath in any way. And if your mind wanders, bring it back to your belly kindly and gently. As you notice your breath in your belly, notice whether your breath changes or stays the same. Notice the rhythm of your breath in your belly.
9. As you notice your breath in your belly, begin to expand your attention outward toward your whole body. Begin to notice your whole body breathing as a single unit—breathing in and breathing out in a slow, steady rhythm. Notice the waves of breath as they move in and out of your body—filling your nose, the back of your throat, your chest, your ribcage, your belly, and your whole body with fresh, cleansing air. Notice how your breath travels through your body, and see whether it seems to open up any space in the area it touches. Just notice the rhythm of your whole body breathing as one: first the in-breath, then the pause between the breaths, and finally the out-breath. Breathing in and breathing out…
10. Slowly, begin to bring your attention back to the couch, to your hands and feet. Slowly open your eyes and begin to notice the room around you. Take your time, and notice how your body feels now. Is there any difference from when you began the mindfulness practice?
When my clients do this mindfulness practice, many report a deep sense of peace, comfort, and calm. Feeling stressed can create tension, tightness, and constriction in your body, particularly in your chest and belly. This mindfulness-based stress-reduction practice can help open up space in these areas. A mindful focus creates distance from feelings of stress and generates a sense of peace and well-being.
Your breath is a powerful anchor for your attention, but this isn’t the only way to practice mindfulness for anxiety and stress. You can also use your senses to create a sense of present-moment awareness and inner peace, as you’ll see in the next mindfulness practice.
Exercise: Mindfulness of Your Senses
When your amygdala sounds the alarm bells, you lose touch with the present moment as your emergency response kicks in. You may feel compelled to “do something” about the stressor or to run away from the overwhelming feelings. By deliberately focusing attention on your senses instead, you move from a “doing,” “getting,” or “avoiding” mindset to “noticing and describing” what’s around you. This mindfulness technique for stress reduction helps you feel more present and connected. We connect with the outside world through our senses. When we’re mindful of what’s around us, we gain awareness that we’re part of a larger world of living and inanimate objects. Connecting with your senses can also be a way of what psychologist Rick Hanson (2009) calls taking in the good, or deliberately directing your brain to focus on relaxing or pleasant things in a way that helps calm down your stress response.
Walking in nature is a wonderful way to practice mindfulness of the senses. Being outdoors and close to nature has a calming influence on your brain and body, a natural backdrop for mindfulness meditation for anxiety. When you can’t get outside, you can still practice mindfulness of your senses by adjusting the following practice to your situation. You can sit on your deck or in your garden or even look out the window, or you can look at pictures or photographs of nature scenes.
Exciting new research shows that walking outside in green spaces or even looking at nature scenes can increase your mind and body’s resilience to stress. A study of college students (Bratman et al. 2015) showed that walking in green campus parkland reduced anxiety and worry more than walking in a busy street and had some cognitive benefits as well. In another study (Van den Berg et al. 2015), students were shown one of two types of pictures: either nature scenes, with trees and empty pathways, or urban scenes, with cars and people. They were then given a stressful math test. Those who had been shown pictures of trees had faster cardiovascular recovery (for example, their heart rate returned to normal more quickly after the test was over) than those who had viewed urban scenes. Measures of vagal tone showed that their parasympathetic nervous systems were better able to put the brakes on their “fight or flight” response. Benefits of mindfulness for stress reduction can occur whether the scene is one or three dimensional.
Mindfulness of Your Senses in Nature
As you walk or sit in nature, begin to notice your surroundings as a whole, noticing also how you feel in these surroundings. Notice that you’re not alone—you’re a part of the rhythm and pace of nature.
1. Bring your attention slowly to what you see. Notice the colors: the rich browns of the earth, the greens of the trees, or the blues of the sky or water. Are the colors bright or muted? Notice which ones draw your attention. Notice light and shadows, shapes and textures. Which surfaces are smooth, and which are uneven? Which are shiny, and which are dull? Which have sharp angles, and which are rounded? Just notice everything that you see. Now pay particular attention to one object—perhaps a tree or a flower— and notice its color, shape, and texture.
2. Focus on what you hear. Perhaps you hear the chirping of birds, the sound of the wind, or a babbling brook. Notice the sounds your feet make as they crunch on the gravel or sink into the earth. Do you hear people’s voices? Do you hear a dog barking? Notice the pitch and rhythm of the sounds. Which ones draw you in? Notice how the sounds emerge and then fade away—try to notice the silence between the sounds. Now pick one of these sounds to focus on. Notice its tone, pitch, and rhythm. Notice whether it stays the same or changes.
3. Notice what you smell. The smells around you may be sweet or spicy, earthy or fresh, faint or intense. Now pick just one smell to focus on—perhaps the breeze, the earth, or the flowers—and notice everything you can about it.
4. Notice what you feel. Notice the temperature of the air. Notice the feeling of the sun or the fresh breeze on your skin. Notice whether the air is moving fast or slow. Notice the feeling of the ground beneath your feet.
5. Notice how you feel inside your body. What’s it like inside your chest, your back, and your belly? Do you feel any more spacious and calm than when you began this practice? Do you feel any part of you letting go of tension?
6. Notice how your feet feel as you walk. Try to slow the pace of your walking so that you notice each step: Right foot up, moving forward, and then down. Left foot up, moving forward, and then down…
For a short version of this mindfulness practice for stress reduction, pay attention to just one sense.
For example, focus only on what you see, hear, smell, or feel. Or just notice each step you take as you walk, without focusing on your surroundings. You can also do this mindfulness practice for stress and anxiety just about anywhere, at any time—not just in nature.
Exercise: Mindfulness of Objects
Another mindfulness exercise to calm your stressed-out brain is to focus on what’s around you. If you’re feeling stressed or anxious while making a presentation, interviewing for a job, taking an exam, or getting ready for an important dinner party, try silently naming three objects in the room and describing their color, shape, and texture as a quick and easy way of moving your mind from “fight, flight, or freeze” mode to “notice and describe” mode.
At home, create a “mindfulness corner” where you keep objects with interesting colors, textures, smells, or sounds. Use it as a sanctuary when you feel stressed, or simply practice your mindfulness exercises for anxiety and stress reduction there daily.
Each time you visit your “mindfulness corner,” spend a few minutes examining the sensory qualities of each object. Look at it, touch it, smell it, and taste it if appropriate. Things that might work well for this purpose include seashells, smooth stones, scented candles, mints, sprigs of lavender or rosemary, flowers or leaves, lemons, small glass bottles, wooden beads, soft fabric, and hand cream. You can also buy traditional meditation objects such as a mindfulness bell, a Tibetan singing bowl, a small statue of the Buddha, or a Himalayan salt candle.
The options are limited only by your budget!
The exercises in this article are great ways to learn and practice mindfulness for anxiety and stress. Yet, as we discussed earlier, mindfulness is also a state of mind and a way of living that’s larger than any particular practice.
Practicing mindfulness teaches you a stress-proof attitude that you can integrate into every aspect of your daily life. And the more you integrate mindfulness or stress and anxiety into your life, the more opportunity you’ll have to calm your amygdala when it starts trying to hijack your brain. In the following section, you’ll learn some ways of making mindfulness part of your daily routine.
Integrating Mindfulness into Your Everyday Life
When you’re feeling stressed or anxious, it’s often because you have too much to do and too little time or because you’re dealing with an emotionally difficult situation. Stress takes your mind away from the present moment as your amygdala focuses your attention on what will happen if you don’t solve the problems or complete the tasks. Your mind may get tired and murky; you may find yourself getting distracted or zoning out instead of focusing on what’s most important. You may run around on automatic pilot as your heart races and your breathing shortens in “fight, flight, or freeze” mode. These triggers serve to remind you to choose mindfulness to deal with stress and anxiety.
The following practice is adapted from a practice used by Dr. Elisha Goldstein (Goldstein 2010). Use it to become more mindful from the moment you wake up until you go to bed at night, constantly redirecting your brain back to the present and weakening your amygdala’s power to take away your sense of peace and connection with the world.
Integrating Mindfulness into Your Daily Routine
When you first wake up, instead of jumping out of bed, make time for the STOP practice described here. It’ll help you start your day off on a mindful note. Continue to use this mindfulness practice throughout the day whenever you begin to feel stressed or anxious, as a way of grounding yourself when stress begins to creep in.
1. Stop. Stop whatever you’re doing, and bring your mind back to the present moment.
2. Take a breath. Take a few deep breaths to slow down your “fight, flight, or freeze” response.
3. Observe. Begin to notice what you’re feeling, thinking, and doing.
What’s going on in your body? Describe any bodily sensations (such as tightness in your throat or shoulders) you become aware of. Is there an emotion word you can use to describe these feelings (such as “angry” or “scared”)? Try to stay in the moment with these feelings and “breathe into them”: imagine sending your breath into the areas that feel tight, constricted, or activated by these feelings.
4. Proceed. When you’re feeling sufficiently present and aware, go about your business in a deliberate way. You may want to simply continue what you were doing, but with a more mindful demeanor.
Here are some other ways to integrate mindfulness for anxiety and stress into your life as you get ready for and go about your day:
+ When you observe your morning routine, notice if your mind is already at work or school, worrying or planning how to deal with your daily tasks and challenges. When you notice your amygdala hijacking your thoughts, bring your attention back to the present moment. If you’re in the shower, notice the flow, temperature, and sound of the water, the bubbles, and the smell of the soap. When you drink your morning coffee, notice the smell of the coffee beans, the warmth of the cup, and the taste of the first sip. As you eat your breakfast, slow down and pay attention to the sight, smell, and taste of the food and how it feels to chew and swallow. Mornings offer multiple opportunities to practice your mindfulness-based stress reduction skills.
+ Mindfully greet the other members of your household or your pets. Slow down and focus on what they’re saying and their nonverbal expressions. Focus on your feelings of love for them.
Take time to say good-bye as you leave the house.
+ On your way to your destination, notice what your mind is doing. Try leaving the house a little earlier so that you can walk or drive more slowly. Let the things you would normally see as interruptions or obstacles (such as red lights or delays) be reminders to practice mindfulness for anxiety and stress reduction. If you feel yourself getting angry or impatient with the traffic or long red lights, direct your attention to your breath or focus on the things you see around you—the cars, the people walking by, the trees, the sky, and so on.
As you walk into work or school, drop off your children, or go about your errands, check in with your body and notice any tension.
Bring yourself back to the present moment by slowing down and focusing on your breathing, what you see around you, or the feelings in your feet as you walk. Do the STOP practice if you begin to notice bodily tension or negative emotions arising.
+ Practice STOP before checking your phone, checking your e-mail, or logging into social media. Set time limits for these tasks, and don’t let them sway you into mindless reactivity that distracts you from what’s most important.
+ Use STOP or breath awareness mindfulness practices throughout the day.
Notice if your muscles are tense, if your breathing is shallow, or if your mind is wandering. Notice if you’re feeling reactive, spaced out, or focused and alert. Change your focus by moving or stretching for a few minutes, practicing mindful breathing, or getting some fresh air.
Mindfulness is a skill you learn through repeated practice. It represents a shift in perspective away from constant focus on stressors and amygdala-driven reactivity. It allows your mind and body to rest peacefully and enjoy the moment despite the stress. Stress can be there, but it doesn’t have to consume you and take you away from the people you love, getting your work done, looking after your health, and being present in your life. But mindfulness for anxiety and stress is more than a change in attitude.
With a regular mindfulness practice for anxiety and stress reduction and by adopting a mindful attitude toward living, you can actually change the structure of your brain, as you’ll see in the next section.
How Mindfulness Calms Down Your Amygdala
Researchers have been studying the effects of mindfulness on the brain and body for more than twenty-five years using sophisticated technologies such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brain in real time. They have measured effects of mindfulness on depression, anxiety, physiological responses, blood pressure, and resistance to illness. There’s now a wide body of evidence showing that mindfulness meditation works to reduce your body and brain’s response to stress, taking away some of your amygdala’s power to steer you off course.
Mindfulness-based interventions are associated with improved mood, reduced anxiety, better coping when stressed, enhanced emotion regulation, and less physiological reactivity (such as sweating and rapid heartbeat) in response to stressors. A meta-analysis that pooled the results of twenty mindfulness studies concluded that “the consistent and relatively strong level of effect sizes across very different types of sample indicates that mindfulness training might enhance general features of coping with distress and disability in everyday life, as well as under more extraordinary conditions of serious disorder or stress” (Grossman et al. 2003, 39). This meta-analysis showed that mindfulness training reduced disability and improved mood and quality of life in people dealing with a variety of physical illnesses (such as cancer, chronic pain, and heart disease) and mental health issues. Mindfulness interventions have also been shown to reliably reduce anxiety, depression, and stress in healthy people (Chiesa and Serretti 2009; Khoury et al. 2013).
Studies show that mindfulness training for stress can make the amygdala less reactive to stressors. A study by researchers at the University Hospital Zurich (Lutz et al. 2014) focused on whether mindfulness training for anxiety and stress reduction could affect the brain when subjects viewed pictures designed to trigger emotions. One group of subjects was given mindfulness training, and the other group (the control group) wasn’t. Then both groups were shown pictures while their brains were scanned. Subjects were given clues that indicated whether the next picture would be positive, negative, neutral, or unknown (meaning there was a fifty-fifty chance it could be positive or negative). The subjects in the mindfulness group were instructed to use their mindfulness skills (for example, noticing their reactions without judgment) when the clue indicated that an unpleasant or unknown picture was coming. The brain scans showed that, compared to the control group, subjects in the mindfulness group had less activity in the amygdala and in brain regions involved in negative emotion when they anticipated seeing negative or unknown pictures.
Repeated practice of mindfulness for anxiety and stress over weeks or months may even change the structure of your amygdala. In a study by Harvard Medical School researchers (Hölzel et al. 2011), an eight-week mindfulness course led not only to reduced stress and anxiety but also to changes in the brain: the amount of nerve cells and neural connections shrank in the amygdala but increased in the hippocampus. Neither of these brain changes was found in the control group.
Scientists have pooled data from more than twenty studies (Fox et al. 2014) to show that mindfulness for stress and anxiety reduction affects at least eight different brain areas associated with self-regulation, memory, focus, motivation, compassion, and resilience. In particular, mindfulness can strengthen your hippocampus, an area that has many cortisol receptors and can be damaged by chronic stress. Your hippocampus can help you mentally process and file away stressful memories so that they’re less likely to be triggered later. This suggests that mindfulness practices can make your brain more resilient to stress.
These research results are exciting, because they prove that you don’t have to live in a monastery or on a mountaintop to calm your amygdala and strengthen your hippocampus with mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques.
Practicing mindfulness for stress over time makes your amygdala less reactive to negative events or uncertainty in your environment and helps your hippocampus process stressful events more effectively.
In this article, you learned about mindfulness for anxiety and stress as both a practice and an approach to living that can help you better deal with stress.
Mindfulness meditation has its roots in ancient Buddhist philosophy, but it has been adapted for Western use. Being mindful means having an open, accepting, and compassionate attitude toward your own experience in the present moment, whatever that may be. It means allowing, rather than pushing away your inner experience; it means being in the moment, rather than constantly worrying or rushing around.
Mindfulness-based interventions have helped reduce people’s feelings of stress, lower their blood pressure, and improve their resistance to illness. Mental health professionals use such mindfulness interventions to treat depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Mindfulness has also been shown to shrink the amygdala (the brain’s alarm center) and protect the hippocampus from being damaged by stress. The mindfulness exercises in this article can help you reduce your reactivity to stress and anxiety.
Do them as often as you can!
This article on mindfulness for anxiety and stress is excerpted with permission from The Stress-Proof Brain: Master Your Emotional Response to Stress Using Mindfulness and Neuroplasticity by Melanie Greenberg PhD. New Harbinger Publications, Inc. copyright © 2017 Melanie Greenberg.
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2. Moyer C. A., Donnelly M. P. W., Anderson J. C., Valek K. C., Huckaby S. J., Wiederholt D. A., et al. (2011). Frontal electroencephalographic asymmetry associated with positive emotion is produced by very brief meditation training. Psychol. Sci. 22 1277–1279 10.1177/0956797611418985
3. Grossman P, Niemann L, Schmidt S, Walach H. Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits. A meta-analysis. J Psychosom Res. 2004;57(1):35-43.
4. Britta K. Hölzel, et al. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research and Neuroimaging. 2011. Volume 191, Issue 1, Pages 36–43.
About The Author
Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D., is a practicing psychologist and executive coach in Marin County, CA, and an expert on managing stress, health, and relationships using proven techniques from neuroscience, mindfulness, and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). With more than twenty years of experience as a professor, writer, researcher, clinician, and coach, Greenberg has delivered workshops and talks to national and international audiences. She writes the Mindful Self-Express blog for Psychology Today, and is a popular media expert who has been quoted on cnn.com, forbes.com, BBC Radio, ABC News, Yahoo! Shine, and Lifehacker, as well as in Self, Redbook, Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Fitness Magazine, Women’s Day, Cosmopolitan, and The Huffington Post. She has also appeared on radio shows like Leading With Emotional Intelligence, The Best People We Know, Inner Healers, and Winning Life Through Pain. Greenberg was named one of the 30 Most Prominent Psychologists to Follow on Twitter. Visit her website at drmelaniegreenberg.biz