Mindfulness. What is it? How does it help our stress levels? How do we achieve it? All of these questions were ones I had for Erik Marks, a staff clinician at Counseling and Mental Health Services. After discussing what things stress people out the most, and how people usually deal with stress- by stress suppression- Erik and I discussed how to be more mindful of our thoughts and thus, help manage and alleviate stress, anxiety, and worry.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness, for the purposes of stress and anxiety reduction, is the practice of bringing our minds back to the present moment, without judement or criticism. Just come back to here and now. Over time, this helps us help our mind from racing to future events, and potentially a catastrophic ending. For instance, if someone is vying for an “A”, but does not get it, thoughts may snowball from ” I won’t graduate with a high GPA” to “I won’t get the career/job I want,” to “What if I became homeless?” “It can be easy for our minds to wander to these negative endings”, says Erik Marks, “but the importance or truth of these thoughts can be lessened by practicing mindfulness. The idea is, by moving our mind away from the storyline, over time, we are able to interject with rationality into our own emotionally driven thought patterns.“
“Mindfulness is a process of non-judementally acknowledging stress and not adding more to the story,” Erik noted. “The individual comes back to the moment and doesn’t put any judgement on their situation,” he added. “Instead, they find the reality in the moment and bring the mind to here and now.” As people practice mindfulness more, Erik asserts that thinking negatively or positively about their stresses and thoughts becomes more of a choice. So, in the future, practicing mindfulnessnow can help us be less reactive to our own thinking and decrease negative endings we may imagine.
What are some exercises we can do to increase mindfulness?
There are many exercises and techniques one can use to increase mindfulness. It is important to remember that in order to achieve mindfulness, one must be open to trying different techniques because some exercises that work for some people may not work for others. The goal of the exercises is to focus on your current state, and detach from thoughts about the stresses. Erik states “you don’t have to take my word for it, (my telling you it is true doesn’t help you), see for yourself and if you start feeling and seeing results, you can fine-tune these exercises to get the most out of them. I tell people a fair trial period to see some results is about three months.” Erik also said that “incrementally increasing the use of these exercises is usually best. For instance, one may want to try to give themselves a minute or two each day to stretch or practice breathing. Over time, one may be able to handle more time in the state of mindfulness.”
Breathing: Erik suggests: “focus on breath coming in and out of your body; don’t try to change it, just observe. When your mind moves to a thought (it always moves to a thought, that’s “normal;),” just label that thought as “thinking” and come back to observing your breath” OR as others suggest: Slowing down your breathing can help to calm your physiology and merge into a state of mindfulness. There are different types of breathing exercises. For example, one may be exhaling air out in thirds, pausing, then taking a long inhale.
Yoga: This flexibility exercise can help to stretch your muscles and decrease physiological tension. Also, the process of being mindful of your breath and the exercises can help to get your mind into the present.
Eating: Ever scarf down food without tasting it? With mindful eating, one can practice chewing the food, tasting it, and feeling the textures in the mouth. This awareness can help to focus attention on the act of eating, and decrease thoughts about stress.
Smelling: We’ve all heard the expression, “stop and smell the roses”. For some people, heightening this sense and cluing into smells may help to increase mindfulness and focus them on the moment. If you like the smell of something, focusing on that for a minute or two may be a great option.
Walking, running, or other exercise: Some people are able to shut of their thoughts during exercise. Not only does exercise have positive effects on health, but it can help to decrease thoughts of stress during time devoted to exercise.
What are the resources on campus for helping with stress?
- Mindfulness workshops: The Counseling and Mental Health Services Center (CMHS) offers drop-in, mindfulness workshops throughout the semester. At these workshops, you’ll have the opportunity to practice some of the exercises above. You may find something that works for you and you’ll get the tools to continue the exercise in your dorm room or in your apartment.
- Audio Series for Relaxation, Stress Reduction, and Mindfulness: The audio series available online through CMHS allows you to listen to recordings on how to practice mindfulness exercises. There is also more information on tips for practicing mindfulness.
- Counselors: All counselors at CMHS have training in stress management and reduction. Talking to a counselor is a good step in confronting your stresses and determining a game-plan for trying to decrease stress. To find out more about what to expect and set up an appointment, you can go to the following link.
- Relaxation Room: This room, located at CMHS, has a biofeedback system that monitors your stress level, real-time feedback, and gives you exercises to help reduce the level. In fact, you will actually see the reduction as it happens. . To use the room, you should call CMHS to schedule a time to reserve it for yourself.
- Yoga Classes: The Phys. Ed. Department at Tufts, as well as TSR, offer yoga classes each semester.
- Active Minds: This student group is great for students who want to increase awareness about mental health and discuss this topic with other students.
- You!! “Students themselves are the most important resources,” says Erik. To decrease stress, you can be your own advocate and find resources that you feel may help you. In fact, Erik suggests google-ing “mindfulness” and “stress reduction” to find information.
The Bottom Line
“In the long run, practicing mindfulness will help you lead a happy and healthier life”, says Erik. “By being able to focus on this present moment and giving up urges to think about or try to control the future will help you also be more effective”.