An introduction to mindfulness meditation
Chronic stress negatively impacts your mental and physical health. As many as 40% of caregivers indicate their stress level as high to very high. When we experience high levels of stress – both external and internal – it causes physiological changes. Breathing becomes shallower; the heart beats faster; blood pressure increases; energy is brought to your muscles, and other systems slow down in order to fuel the ‘fight or flight’ stress response.
As you can imagine, continually activating your stress response will take a toll on your body and overall well-being. While we cannot control what causes stress in our lives, we can always control the way we respond. One technique to help you manage negative emotions, build emotional strength, and reduce stress is mindfulness meditation.
What is mindfulness meditation?
Mindfulness is the ability to pay attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, while suspending judgment or at least being aware of your judgment. Meditation is a contemplative practice where we bring our attention to a focus point, such as our breathing. Mindfulness meditation is the combination of both practices.
How do you practice mindfulness meditation?
The easiest and simplest mindfulness practice to bring into your life is the sitting practice, which can take as little as three minutes.
Here is a 4-step mindfulness meditation practice you can try right now:
- Sit in a chair with your back supported and your feet planted on the ground. Place your palms face down on your thighs or clasped in your lap. Close your eyes.
- Bring awareness to the moment – be aware of your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. Recognize and accept these thoughts, feelings, and sensations without judgement.
- Now, shift the focus of your attention to your breath – focus on each inhale and exhale and what you are experiencing as you breathe: the rise and fall of your chest, how the air feels in your nostrils, the sound of your exhale. Is your breathing smooth? Shallow? Does it change as you focus on it? If your attention drifts, bring it back to your breath.
- Expand your awareness to your entire body – from the top of your head to your toes. Take 3 deep breaths – in through your nose, out through your mouth. Open your eyes.
How does mindfulness meditation reduce stress?
What you practice grows stronger – so if you practice anger, it will grow stronger. If you practice compassion, acceptance, patience, and kindness, these skills will grow stronger. By learning new skills, you can change the brain’s structure and connectivity. The more open you become to experiencing and accepting your thoughts and emotions rather than reacting to them or trying to suppress or avoid them, the less likely your brain will activate the ‘fight or flight’ stress response.
Source: The above content was adapted, in part, from an Ontario Caregiver Organization webinar presented by Dr. Alexandra Fiocco, Director of the Stress and Healthy Aging Research Laboratory at Ryerson University. Additional resources include: mindfulnessstudies.com; and a podcast by Dr. Fiocco found at https://www.brainshape.ca/podcast/episode6