What is mindfulness? According to Harvard professor and mindfulness expert Dr. Ronald Siegel, “mindfulness is awareness of present experience with acceptance” (1). Mindfulness can also be described as steady awareness of the present moment. Mindfulness meditation is an ancient technique that has been used for over 2,500 years to enhance emotional well-being and alleviating suffering. Scientists studying mindfulness meditation are learning that it can be a powerful tool in treating many psychological illnesses including depression, anxiety, addiction, disordered eating, stress-related chronic disease (1). Those who take up mindfulness meditation practice often find themselves feeling happier, more fulfilled, better able to handle stress and adversity, and more compassionate.
There are many different ways to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness practices can include meditation (seated, lying, walking), mindful eating, yoga, breathing exercises, nature walks, forest bathing, journaling, and any activity that allows you to practice being fully present, aware, and focused on a task or activity. We can structure mindfulness into our day by setting a reminder to meditate or breathe, or we can find mindfulness within our daily activities. This might include a mindful eating practice, or sitting in silence with your breath for 5 minutes after parking your car.
Below we will discuss five mindfulness practices: meditation, breathing, forest-bathing, journaling, and digital detox. With a few simple steps you can incorporate more mindfulness into your daily routine.
The ancient practice of meditation has gained popularity in recent years, largely in part due to some solid scientific evidence on the profound effects meditation can have on brain physiology. In addition to lowering stress and anxiety, improving attention, fostering compassion and a calm state of mind, meditation can physically change our brains! A 2011 Harvard study on mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), a form of meditation, found that MBSR is associated with gray matter changes in regions of the brain involved with:
- Emotional regulation
- Self-referential processing – relating information from the external world to the self
- Perspective taking – perceiving a situation or understanding a concept from another’s point of view (2).
Interestingly, these changes persist beyond the time the individual is meditating. Meditation is an excellent example of neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to change throughout our lifespan. This includes formation of new connections, strengthening or weakening of existing connections, and increased or decreased gray matter. Our behaviors, thoughts, and environmental stimuli can literally change our brains for the better.
- An individualized practice
- Silent or guided
- Practiced sitting, laying, standing, or walking
- Challenging for most of us in the beginning
Meditation IS NOT:
- Something to master
- Stopping all thoughts
- A religion
If one keeps the above guidelines in mind, there is no wrong way to meditate. It can last 1 minute, or 30 minutes. Embrace whatever style suits your body, mind, and lifestyle. I recommend downloading a meditation app (yes, our smart phones can help facilitate mindfulness!) My favorite apps are 10% Happier, Insight Timer, and Meditation Studio. Insight Timer and Meditation Studio are free, while 10% Happier has a free version, but I personally find value in the annual subscription as it gives you unlimited access to multiple world renowned meditation teachers. Remember, as long as you are breathing, focusing your attention on the breath, and coming back to the breath when the mind wonders, you are meditating successfully.
The ancient practice of pranayama or breath-work dates back to the 2nd century BC, and has been practiced in Hindu and Buddhist traditions for centuries. There are dozens of different breathing practices, as simple as inhaling and exhaling, to more advanced techniques which should only be practiced under the guidance of an experienced instructor. Fortunately there are several simple, safe, and effective breathing exercises that be practiced anywhere.
Shinrin-yoku (Forest Bathing)
Shinrin-yoku, aka “taking in the forest atmosphere” is a practice named in 1982 in Japan. It has been long suspected that being in a natural environment promotes relaxation more so than being in an urban environment. Studies have been conducted to evaluate the physiologic benefits of Shinrin-yoku, and so far the results are impressive. One study showed that forest bathing for 30 minutes lowered saliva cortisol levels, lowered pulse rate and blood pressure, caused positive improvements in heart rate variability, increased parasympathetic nerve activity and decreased sympathetic nerve activity. The study participants also had positive psychological benefits and reported improved mood, less anxiety, tension, depression, and anger (3). Several other studies have produced similar results, and one study even showed improved blood glucose in diabetic patients who walked in the forest for 3-6 kilometers (3). Another 2017 study found that Shinrin-yoku significant lowered systolic and diastolic blood pressure in 732 participants (4).
Forest bathing is a simple and enjoyable mindfulness practice. Forest bathing can be practiced alone, or even with a partner. Be sure to focus on the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings, and resist the urge to use your smartphone or camera during this time.
Keeping a journal can help us tune into our internal dialogue, express gratitude, process challenging emotions, and set goals for the future. Our brains are so accustomed to jumping from thought to thought, task to task, that we may not even give ourselves time to process events that occurred during the day. Journaling at the end of the day is a nice way to process what went well, what didn’t, and perhaps how you plan to do things differently tomorrow. If you can’t squeeze in a longer journal, keeping a daily gratitude journal has been shown to increase empathy, compassion, and overall happiness. This is done by simply recalling and writing down 3-5 experiences that you feel grateful for, either that day or the day prior. It’s important to focus on experience, rather than items or people alone, and to even write how that experience made you feel. For example: “I am grateful for how my friend reached out to support me today when she knew I had a difficult meeting scheduled. This made me feel loved, and appreciative of her friendship.” Even if you find it challenging to journal each day, coming back to this practice during feelings of anxiety, overwhelm, or anger can be a wonderful mindfulness tool.
Have you ever considered taking a digital detox? We may not realize how often we rely on our digital devices, until we go 24 hours without them. Taking a short (or long) digital detox can help us become aware of our own relationship with technology, and can act as a catalyst for fostering new habits surrounding our smart devices. I suggest starting with 24 hours, and choosing a day where you definitely won’t need your devices for work or school. For me, that day is usually Sunday. Prepare for your detox by giving family and friends a heads up that you will be unreachable via phone/text/email for the day, and if it makes you feel better, give them a way to contact you in case of an emergency (maybe that’s a landline, or the phone number of your neighbor, or family member not participating in detox that day). The night before your planned detox, put your phone in another room (not your bedroom). Leave it on silent mode, or turn it off completely. When you wake up in the morning, your first thought may be to reach for your phone, but it won’t be there and your second thought might be “what should I do now?” Your detox could include phones, tablets, television, computer, or any thing that takes your attention away from what you really want to be doing.
I found my own digital detox refreshing and restorative. I spent lots of time reading, cooking, practicing yoga, meditating, organizing, and overall got way more done in the day than I would have if my phone was around to distract me every 30 minutes. If you take a vacation, consider a digital detox for half, or the entire trip! If you want to take photos and you have strong willpower, put your phone in airplane mode and use it as a camera only. Consider journaling how you feel during the detox, and perhaps set some intentions or goals that may help you create a healthier relationship with technology.
- Siegel, R.D. The Science of Mindfulness: A Research-Based Path to Well-Being. 2014.
- Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M., Gard, T., & Lazar, S. W. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research, 191(1), 36–43. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006
- Park, B. J., Tsunetsugu, Y., Kasetani, T., Kagawa, T., & Miyazaki, Y. (2010). The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan. Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine, 15(1), 18–26. http://doi.org/10.1007/s12199-009-0086-9
- Ideno, Y., Hayashi, K., Abe, Y., Ueda, K., Iso, H., Noda, M., … Suzuki, S. (2017). Blood pressure-lowering effect of Shinrin-yoku (Forest bathing): a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 17, 409. http://doi.org/10.1186/s12906-017-1912-z