Before you continue reading, inhale deeply. Hold. 4, 3, 2, 1. Now exhale. Nicely done.
Sure, you breathe all day without thinking about it. But there are times when it makes sense to do what we just did: stop and focus on your breathing. Because doing that can help you return to the present moment.
And if you’re wondering whether we’re talking about mindfulness, we are.
This is the last email in our series about managing your stress. So we want to leave you with some expert-backed tips for being present and dealing with day-to-day worries — with help from Carolyn Rubenstein, a licensed clinical psychologist in Florida who specializes in anxiety and burnout.
But first, here’s a quick recap of what we covered last week:
How to prep before talking to a mental health professional.
What to know about connecting with the right therapist.
Why it’s important to talk things out with a clinician or a friend.
Give it another look here.
Step 1: Open Up and Say Ommm
Mindfulness might seem like a wellness buzzword. And it sort of is, but for good reason: It can alleviate feelings of anxiety and create a sense of calm (exactly what you want when you’re feeling stressed).
Thing to Know:
Mindfulness is the practice of being aware of your body, feelings, and surroundings in the present moment.
It’s meant to bring you back to what’s happening right now. As opposed to worrying about what’s to come. It could include silently answering questions like ‘Where are you right now?’ ‘How does the air smell?’ ‘How does your seat feel?’ ‘Which ideas are crowding your head?’ And they’re questions you can ask yourself anytime (think: while sitting in traffic, going for a walk, or eating your lunch).
Mindfulness is different from meditation. But they can go together. Meditation requires that you set aside time to clear your mind from that traffic jam of thoughts, ideas, and emotions. And there are several kinds, including:
🧘♀️ Mindfulness meditation
Which is exactly how it sounds. When you push yourself to notice your thoughts. And you let them pass by without judgment — almost as if they’re passing clouds.
🧠 Transcendental meditation
When you repeat a mantra in your head (aka a secret word that sounds good to you) to help clear your mind and transcend the present moment.
On the surface, being mindful might not seem like an important habit for your health. But studies show that meditating regularly for eight weeks could do wonders for your mental and physical health.
^Try meditating for that long each day. If it feels like an eternity — and you just don’t see yourself having that much uninterrupted quiet — try five minutes to start.
But if you’re not convinced meditation is for you, read on for more anti-stress practices.
Haesue Jo, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with experience providing mental health and behavioral counseling for kids, teens, and adults
When you slow down and deepen your breath, your body sends the message to your brain that you are safe, which can alleviate your stress. (And not ‘in danger,’ as quick, shallow, anxious breathing might indicate.) Those slower inhales and exhales can turn on your parasympathetic nervous system, which can help calm the body, Rubenstein says. Although she gravitates toward inhaling through her nose and exhaling through her mouth, she says it’s important to find the kind of breathing that relaxes you. Two of her go-to mindful breathing techniques are:
📦 Box breathing…
When four is your magic number. Inhale for four counts, hold for four, exhale for four, and hold for four. Repeat it four times. Or as much as you need. Try it by using the visual below as your guide.
✋ Hand breathing...
When you have some time on your hands. Start by stretching one hand out in front of you. Then take the pointer from the other hand to trace your outstretched fingers. Breathe in as you draw up each finger, and breathe out as you trace toward your palm. Repeat as needed.
Step 3: Have a Plan for Wherever, Whenever
Here are a few more strategies to help you get to a less-stressed state, regardless of where you are when those feelings bubble up:
For when you know you’re about to be triggered… Think: just before giving a big work presentation, attending an extended family gathering, or entering the DMV. Try some of these affirmations that Rubenstein suggests:
For when you *want to* move your body, but you can’t get up… Record yourself. Kind of (but not exactly) like that TikTok trend where people record themselves saying, “This is my first drink,” and later on, “This is my last drink.” And you can see how their moods changed. Rubenstein recommends recording a selfie video before and after exercising. Because “our brains are very poorly wired,” she says. And yours might want you to stay couch-bound. A selfie video can help you see how getting physical (yes, a walk counts) will probably make you feel happier. And that’s hugely important for your mental health.
For when you’re stressed because you can’t sleep and can’t sleep because you’re stressed... Make sure your bed is for sleepytime (and maybe sexytime) only. That means avoiding working from bed, watching TV in bed, and snacking in bed. It also means not getting under the covers until you give yourself time to wind down and get tired. The idea: to help you associate “bed” with “snooze central.” And avoid “conditioned insomnia.” Aka when going to bed makes you feel more awake than tired.
Keep in mind: You can’t just point a wand and say “mischief managed” when it comes to handling your mental health. Stress management is an ongoing process. (Which means you can feel free to go through this Well Journey again and again.) But with the help of some of the strategies above, things that once stressed you out might not cause your body to react as intensely in the future. “It gets so much easier,” says Rubenstein.
🙏 Time to practice gratitude
Our brains are naturally “focused on the negative,” says Rubenstein. And that can lead to self-defeating, negative thought patterns that affect your mental health (see: stress, anxiety, and depression). Regularly taking time to recount positive experiences — from a beautiful tree you saw to an enlightening conversation you had — can help you better frame your day, Rubenstein says. And even help you turn those negative thought patterns around.
One way to practice gratitude:
Write a thank-you card.
It can be to your colleague, parent, sister, dog walker, Trader Joe’s bagger, etc. Putting your gratitude in card form offers a double-whammy of good: It can make for a mental health boost for both you and the recipient. And studies show that expressing gratitude has a bigger positive impact than you’d expect.
Before we go, we want to practice some gratitude, too. We’re thankful you went on this stress management journey with us.
Next Wednesday, we’ll start tackling sleep. So you can build better habits that help you power down at night and stay on during the day. Have a question about sleep for our expert? Ask her here. But if you can’t wait ‘til then, you can find plenty more wellness content here.
Skimm’d by Carly Mallenbaum, Anthony Rivas, Karell Roxas, and Hannah Parker
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