There’s a bright spot of news amid frightening statistics that illustrate the harsh environment stress creates in the body, and that’s all the people who are embracing mindful practices like meditation, yoga, and tai chi to relax and melt tension.
Research suggests that while stress is unhealthy, a big part of managing that tension is learning how to respond to it. Penn State University Professor David Almeida says:
“Our research shows that how you react to what happens in your life today predicts your chronic health conditions (10 years down the road).”
Almeida says his research shows that a stressed person who dwells on troublesome circumstances, allowing them to ruin the day, is more likely to experience health problems later on than a person who takes stress triggers in stride and moves past them as quickly as possible.
Everyone experiences stress, but not everyone knows how to respond to it. Thankfully, you too can learn to let those stressful incidents, days, or even weeks just slide out from your mind, returning to the sense of lightness that comes when staying in the present moment. Learning stress management tools is an integral component of mental health.
Mindful practices are like eating an apple, but for your mental health and wellbeing.
This practice of staying in the present, in the now, is known as mindfulness. Mindful practices like meditation, yoga, and tai chi help practitioners learn how to focus on what’s happening in the moment and stop thinking about past events or anticipating future ones.
Thought patterns related to stress and anxiety tend to revolve around future happenings, many times involving worst-case scenarios that probably won’t happen. On the other hand, depressive thought patterns often ruminate on past events, painful things that a person may have trouble letting go of.
In the present moment, most of these things aren’t happening. A lot of mental anguish comes from brining the past or future into the present moment, which most of the time is not as stressful as our thoughts make it out to be.
Staying mindful and present is a practice, and fortunately, there are many ways to train the mind to think this way. If you’re thinking of starting one of these practices, you’re not alone.
Millions of people nationwide are practicing yoga, which is the most commonly adopted mindful practice, according to a National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health survey, with meditation and others not far behind. From 2002 to 2012, the number of yoga practitioners nationwide nearly doubled, up to 21 million, according to the survey, and about 18 million people now meditate.
With so many people taking up these mindful practices because of the vast benefits, they’ve never been more accessible.
1. Yoga for lessening stress and anxiety
The physical practice of yoga involves linking body movement with breath through specific postures, known as asanas. There are many types of yoga, ranging from vigorous vinyasa practices to slower, more relaxed types like yin that focus on increasing flexibility. All the practices emphasize breath-centered movements. No matter your age, weight, or physical condition, there is a yoga practice for you.
Yoga has been found to be beneficial for stress and anxiety, as well as alleviating symptoms of conditions like bipolar disorder. A study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Practice found that people with bipolar disorder considered the mindful practice “life changing.” One study participant said:
“I might not be alive today were it not for yoga.”
Other participants in the study said yoga reduced stress and anxiety while promoting freedom from depressive thought patterns. For many people, yoga functions as a moving meditation, helping to focus the mind on the present moment.
Researchers noted a few cautions for people with bipolar tendencies practicing yoga. Some experienced agitation from rapid breathing techniques while another person experiencing depression couldn’t get out of bed for three days after an especially slow, meditative practice.
This underscores the importance of finding the right type of practice for you, focusing on slow soothing movements if anxious and stressed, or a faster practice to send breath and energy through the body of a person feeling sad or lethargic.
Other research has uncovered yoga’s benefit for expecting mothers. Women who experience stress during pregnancy are more likely to give birth prematurely or have children with behavioral and developmental problems later in life. But pregnant women who took yoga once a week for eight weeks experienced lower levels of stress, according to research published in the journal Depression and Anxiety.
2. Meditation, the ultimate mindful practice
Mindfulness meditation is the practice of sitting and watching the breath. Although it sounds simple, this time of non-doing has been found to offer tremendous health benefits, including reduced stress and depression.
Researchers from Sweden’s Lund University found mindfulness meditation to be as effective as traditional therapy for treating depression and anxiety. The results were so successful that scientists said meditation could be used as an alternative to psychotherapy.
Meditation could also help people break addictions, according to researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Researchers said the mindful practice was useful when added to a conventional program of therapy and medication.
Many people find meditation boring, or balk at the idea of sitting on a cushion for hours everyday. Not to worry. As little as 25 minutes per day has been found to be effective, Carnegie Mellon University researchers found in a study.
The participants who meditated for 25 minutes over three consecutive days experienced lower stress levels and decreased activity of cortisol, a stress hormone that causes inflammation and other health problems when chronically elevated.
3. Tai chi improves psychological wellbeing
Tai chi is a gentle martial art that, like yoga, is also considered a moving meditation. The mindful practice offers profound mental health benefits with its ability to reduce stress and improve overall wellbeing.
Tai chi emphasizes deep breathing, which is a powerful way to calm the nerves and focus the mind on the present moment. In addition to alleviating stress, anxiety, and depression, tai chi is believed to promote a more restful sleep, improve joint pain, and strengthen the immune system, reports Mayo Clinic.
Studies evaluating tai chi’s benefits are limited, but researchers gave the mindful practice the “cautious thumbs up,” according to a review of research published in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Scientists said tai chi seems to offer promise for fighting anxiety and depression, but needs more studies to quantify the benefits.
Do you have a favorite mindful practice to dissolve stress?
Image by John Gillespie via Flickr