My introduction to mindfulness practices came during a time of personal upheaval. I was anxious and fearful, critical of others and myself. And I could turn most any negative thought into something bigger than it truly was.
On the outside, I looked fine. But inside was turmoil.
Mindfulness helps reduce stress
Mindfulness-based stress reduction was a specialty of the psychotherapist I had begun meeting with regularly. She told me about mindful breathing and offered to talk me through my first “body scan” to see if I found it beneficial.
I sat in a rocking chair, closed my eyes, and followed her prompts. If my mind started to wander, she instructed me, I was to gently and without judgment guide it back to her words.
We started with an instruction to find my breath. For perhaps a minute, I concentrated on breathing in, and breathing out, simply noticing how I breathed. I noticed my body’s ability to regulate its breathing. Then, I moved my attention from my breath through my body. Starting with my forehead, face and jaw – did I feel tension there? If so, I brought my attention to that area, breathing in new energy and breathing out the tension. I stayed in each area where I found tension for as many seconds and breaths as I needed.
I moved from my head and face to my shoulders, stomach, lower back, and feet. And at each body part, I repeated the process of bringing attention to the area, breathing in new energy, and breathing out tension. Finally expanding my awareness to my entire body, I felt the breath as a whole moving into and out of my body from head to toe.
How mindful meditation affected me
The whole process took anywhere from five to 15 minutes; I lost track of time. Immediately I felt the benefits. I could breathe more deeply. I felt relaxed, lighter. Wow, I thought. So there’s something here.
I didn’t remember the last time I had been still and taken control of my thoughts.
But after experiencing that, I realized that anytime I felt anxious or tense, I could conduct a body scan for just a few moments or for much longer. I prefer to be lying down in a quiet room without distractions, but sitting or standing works as well. Sometimes I wake up feeling anxious about my day, and a quick body scan helps me restart.
A more thorough explanation and walk-through of a body scan can be found in A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook by Bob Stahl and Elisha Goldstein. And I will list other resources at the end of this article.
As my therapist guided me through other mindfulness practices during our sessions, I began to awaken more fully to the world around me. It didn’t happen overnight, but the practices helped me find presence, stillness, compassion, gratitude, and ultimately connection.
Overall health benefits of mindfulness
The health benefits of mindfulness include improvements in levels of anxiety, panic, and general mood disturbance. And they have been documented clinically for more than 35 years. Researchers have studied the effects of mindfulness on people with cancer and major depressive illness. They’ve studied those in high stress work environments. And they’ve found significant benefits. Other reports support its use in cases of chronic pain, fibromyalgia, and binge eating.
“There is still much to be understood about how practicing mindfulness actually helps in these various conditions. That it helps seems clear,” writes Jeffrey Brantley, MD, in his book Calming Your Anxious Mind: how mindfulness and compassion can free you from anxiety, fear & panic.
Brantley is founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program at Duke University’s Center for Integrative Medicine. He has written several books. Calming Your Anxious Mind examines the role of thoughts and attitudes in health, while acknowledging that medical science hasn’t concluded why anxiety and panic happen or how to best treat them.
“By learning to be present and to stay connected with your body and mind and what is happening in the present moment, you have your best chance of understanding your own experiences of fear, anxiety, and panic,” Brantley writes. “Out of that understanding, you will make the most effective response for healing.”
If you’d like to learn more, the following books are a great start. Please support local booksellers when possible. Locate one near you at indiebound.org:
- Five good minutes: 100 morning practices to help you stay calm and focused all day long, by Jeffrey Brantley MD and Wendy Millstein
- Calming your anxious mind: How mindfulness & compassion can free you from anxiety, fear & panic, by Jeffrey Brantley MD
- Grieving Mindfully: A Compassionate and Spiritual Guide to Coping with Loss, by Sameet M. Kumar
- A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, by Bob Stahl and Elisha Goldstein
Amy Hoogervorst is a national board-certified health and wellness coach who helps people create and sustain new habits. Since her early introduction to mindfulness, she’s completed the MBSR course at Duke and uses mindfulness practices with her coaching clients. You can schedule a free discovery call with Amy here.