Mindfulness: Reduce Stress, Improve Sleep and More
Mindfulness is more than just another buzzword, trend, or way to idle away your spare time. Using mindfulness and mindset practices can help us be more present and purposeful in our day to day life. Mindfulness also helps us manage stress in a healthy way, which influences not only our emotional wellbeing, but our physical health too.
While new research has uncovered just how broad the benefits of mindfulness are, people have been learning, practising and teaching mindfulness for thousands of years. Its long history can be traced from Buddhist and Hindu origins to its secular presence in all sectors of modern society.
When we regularly practice mindfulness, we become innately more mindful and self aware, helping us to break unhealthy habits that no longer serve us, or those around us. We are then more ready and willing to choose healthier options that have the potential to transform our health, and our lives.
So if you’ve been resisting the stillness of meditation or you thought breathwork was just for Buddhists, you might like to learn how slowing down can help you reach your health goals sooner.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness involves actively and consciously practising being fully aware, and mindful, in the present moment. Practising mindfulness helps us switch off from auto-pilot and separate ourselves from our thoughts.
The term mindfulness is said to have been coined in 1881 by a British magistrate, Thomas William Rhys Davids, who was learning Pali, an early branch of Buddhism. He came upon the term mindfulness as a translation of the Buddhist concept of ‘sati’, which he understood as attention.
Mindfulness, as it is known today, became more popular in the 1970s when Molecular Biologist Jon Kabat-Zinn reintroduced the term as a secular alternative to meditation. His definition of mindfulness was ‘the awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose in the present moment, and non-judgmentally’.
That awareness can be conjured through any number of mindfulness practices, including meditation, yoga, breathwork, vagus nerve stimulation, journaling, and many more. These practices range from traditional meditations that have been practised for thousands of years, through to modern-day methods, or simply whatever feels right for the individual.
How can mindfulness benefit our health?
Mindfulness practices can have a positive influence on all aspects of our health - emotional, social, spiritual and physical.
The stress-relieving nature of mindfulness supports healthy hormonal balance, helping to curb the release of cortisol (the stress hormone), while stimulating endorphins (feel-good chemicals), oxytocin (love hormone) and the vagus nerve. This can result in improved moods, enhanced focus, lower blood pressure, improved digestion, healthy thyroid, better sleep, higher energy, and a greater sense of wellbeing.
Mindfulness does this by overriding the ‘fight or flight’ response triggered by chronic stress and high cortisol levels, which allows energy and blood flow to return from the extremities, back to supporting other body functions like digestion and regulation of blood pressure.
Researchers have found mindfulness activities also have the ability to naturally reduce inflammation, which can have profound benefits for all aspects of health. One ground-breaking study by Harvard also revealed that clearing your mind for just 15 minutes a day can alter the expression of over 170 genes. In doing so, it can regulate not only inflammation, but circadian rhythms, energy metabolism and blood pressure.
Signs you could benefit from a mindfulness practice
- Regularly feeling rushed or overwhelmed by your to-do list
- Procrastination and indecision
- Wired but tired - feeling mentally or physically exhausted, but your mind won’t switch off
- Low energy and fatigue
- Difficulty sleeping, either struggling to fall asleep or stay asleep
- Negative thought patterns, thinking the worst about yourself, other people and situations
- Negative self talk and self image
- Difficulty being ‘in the moment’, preoccupied with the past or future
- Spending a lot of time on your phone, social media or emails
- Feelings of disassociation or out of body experiences
Mindfulness practices you can try
There are many ways to practice mindfulness, starting with making a conscious effort to be more mindful in our everyday lives. You can bring mindfulness to everything you do - brushing your teeth, eating breakfast, and even washing the dishes, by consciously being fully aware in the present moment. This can involve switching off screens, bringing awareness to the breath, being aware of your body and the space you’re in, not worrying about what’s coming next, and compassionately releasing expectations, judgements and thoughts as they arise.
It’s a simple practice, although it can take a great deal of time to master. Even with many months of practice, many of us still find it challenging to sit in stillness for 30 seconds without intrusive thoughts leading our attention astray. But, by incorporating regular mindfulness practices into your daily routine, you can gradually improve and help bring about the profound positive changes of this aged old practice.
Yoga: Most people think of yoga as a form of gentle exercise or stretching. But the practice of physical postures, or the asana, is just one of the eight limbs of yoga. The others include Yama: restraints, Niyama: Observances, Pranayama: Breath control, Pratyahara: Withdrawal of senses, Dharana: Concentration, Dhyana: Meditation, Samadhi: Pure contemplation. Combined, these eight limbs of yoga provide the perfect pathway to practising mindfulness. But if you are just starting out, or not ready to delve into the traditional principles of yoga, practising the physical asanas can still bring many benefits to both mind and body. For beginners, start with Yoga with Adriene on YouTube.
Meditation: Most people assume meditation requires sitting in silence with no thoughts, which is difficult for those of us with racing minds. However, all it really needs is a commitment to set aside some time to be still in the present moment. Thoughts will come and go, and your mind will wander. The purpose is to learn how to release these thoughts without judgement and bring awareness back to the breath and body.
Tai Chi: Originally developed as a form of self defence, tai chi is now practised widely as a way to release stress. Tai chi stimulates the body and brain into a state of greater awareness which is the key to mindfulness.
Acceptance and Commitment: Acceptance and commitment therapy, or ACT, is a guided pathway to mindfulness. Often described as mindfulness without meditation, ACT is an innovative and creative mindfulness therapy with a focus on values, acceptance, compassion and living in the present moment. Created by US Psychologist Steven C Hayes in the 1980s, ACT has proven effective with a range of psychological and physical health issues.
Breathwork: We all breathe without giving it a second thought - literally! But the way we breathe changes dramatically when we bring awareness to the breath. Busy schedules and high stress levels result in shallow, rapid breathing which doesn’t oxygenate our brain or blood to full capacity. Bringing awareness to the breath like in the 4-7-8 breathing exercise here can improve outcomes in study and work, reduce anxiety, improve digestion, and decrease negative thought patterns.
Mindful eating: Our busy schedules often result in eating poor quality food on the run, at our desks, in the car, or skipping meals entirely. By preparing and sitting down to a healthy whole food meal, made with love, and enjoying it slowly, we can improve digestion, and absorb more nutrients from the food we eat. Activate all of the senses by first looking at your food, then enjoy the aroma, feel the warmth or coolness of the food, and then explore the taste. This practice can encourage us to eat healthier and bring greater mindfulness to our daily routines.
Colouring: It might seem like child’s play, however mindful colouring has been found to reduce anxiety and stress while improving sleep, focus, vision and motor skills. So next time you see an adult’s colouring book in the shops, grab one and get creative!
Journalling: Writing provides an outlet for processing difficult emotions, debriefing, and working through thoughts and memories. It’s also an opportunity to reflect on the things we are grateful for and put our hopes and aspirations for the future on paper. Research has found regular journaling helps to reduce stress and anxiety while increasing productivity, memory, coping ability and wellbeing.
Curious about how you can get more mindfulness in your days? In your next call with your health coach, ask them about how to implement a mindfulness practice to reap the health benefits that mindfulness offers.
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