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Last Updated on January 21, 2021

5 Powerful Self-Care Ideas for When Life Is Stressful

5 Powerful Self-Care Ideas for When Life Is Stressful

Stress affects everyone, invariably in different ways. Regardless of how stress shows up in your life, when it does, it takes over, making it difficult to stay in the present moment or show gratitude for what and who we have in our life. In the eye of the stress storm, everything is tossed around into oblivion, and self-care ideas go out the window.

However, this is the moment when self-care is the most important. When you notice that you’re struggling with stress, anxiety, or powerful emotions, it’s time to get back to a sense of balance by showing yourself love and compassion.

How Does Stress Show Up?

On a physical scale, stress tends to be behind many of our typical ailments, such as headaches, insomnia, muscle tension, or body aches and pain.[1] When we’re in stressful situations, our body activates our fight-or-flight response through the stress hormone, cortisol.

According to the American Institute of Stress, when the body is in this mode due to stress, “the body’s sympathetic nervous system is activated due to the sudden release of hormones. The sympathetic nervous system stimulates the adrenal glands, triggering the release of catecholamines, which include adrenaline and noradrenaline. This results in an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate.”[2]

While our fight-or-flight response is extremely helpful when we’re in situations that risk our survival, not every situation is that dire. However, the body doesn’t know how to differentiate between such scenarios.

Rather, we become accustomed to seeing every stressful situation as life-threatening, and we become locked into this fight-or-flight response automatically. This causes us to burn out because our body is constantly fighting or fleeing from threats that are not causing us any real harm.

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On a mental and emotional scale, stress affects your thoughts, feelings, and ultimately your behavior. Everything is interconnected. When stress takes a toll on our bodies, this has a domino effect on how we process our thoughts and feelings. Therefore, it is not uncommon to see correlations between depression and anxiety when it comes to dealing with stress.

Self-Care Ideas to Combat Stress

Below are five self-care ideas for combating stress in your life. Consider implementing them into your daily routine for the best results.

1. Start a Brain Dump Writing Exercise

When you’re overwhelmed with thoughts, it can become very difficult to stay present and focused. This could affect you at work, in school, or in your relationships. It’s as if your mind were filled to the brim with thoughts that are constantly competing for your attention. If left unattended, this can affect your performance or your state of being, so it’s important to turn to self-care ideas in these moments.

One exercise to get this under control is called a brain dump, and it’s exactly what it sounds like. Start by getting comfortable with a pen and paper or your favorite journal. Without any special formatting or introduction, just start writing any and all thoughts that come up.

Consider your paper a blank canvas onto which you’re going to spill every thought, no matter how small or unimportant. This can look like a laundry list, a jumble of words, or a paragraph.

Don’t focus on how it looks or how well it’s organized. The idea is to give your thoughts an exit. Once they’re on paper, they’re no longer swimming in your head for attention.

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Once you have them written down, leave them as they are. We have a tendency to want to fix our thoughts. Instead, allow them to simply exist as they are—they’re not right or wrong. Consider coming back to this exercise daily or whenever you feel like you have a lot on your mind.

2. Sweat It out

There is nothing more therapeutic than moving the physical body when it feels the weight of stress. Energetically, we carry our day in our body, mostly in our neck, shoulders, and hips. If we’ve had a particularly difficult day, that energy is going to feel tense and unsettling. This is why it’s so important to move and really break a sweat!

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America[3]:

“Scientists have found that regular participation in aerobic exercise has been shown to decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilize mood, improve sleep, and improve self-esteem.”

Find what exercise regimen works for you, and commit to it for a few days per week for your mental and physical health. Scientists have also found that even 10-15 minutes of aerobic exercise can have a tremendous effect on your body. Go for a run, take a spin class or a power yoga class, or dance the stress away in Zumba. Whatever gets your heart rate up and breaks a sweat is one of the perfect self-care ideas to keep the stress away.

3. Seek the Care of a Therapist

Sometimes writing out our thoughts and feelings doesn’t seem quite enough. This is common and to be expected. After all, we are complex human beings who want to understand and process our emotions on a deeper level. This is why spending time in a regular therapy session is so beneficial!

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In the presence of a professional, we can open up about what stressful situations we’re going through. We don’t have to keep our emotions bottled up, and we know that our honesty will be protected and safeguarded.

Additionally, when we’re feeling stressed, we often want to simply vent and get things off of our chest. Having someone on the receiving end who will simply listen and hold space is a truly healing gift. We can often leave the session feeling more empowered, seen, and offloaded of the stress we brought in.

Lastly, we may be able to receive guidance from our therapist on a particular situation we’re struggling with. Having someone else’s perspective on something we’re too emotionally close to can be just the right solution and a great addition to our self-care routine.

Here are more self-care ideas from a therapist: Self Care Tips During Difficult Times (A Therapist’s Advice)

4. Interrupt Your Day

When it comes to self-care ideas, this may seem like a derailing technique, but give it a shot! Interrupting your day means introducing something entirely new or random into a routine that is very monotonous or typical.

If your work or school day is the same sequence of events every single day, bringing in an interruption can be quite conducive to your productivity and creativity. This can look like pausing in the middle of the day for a yoga stretch at your desk or in your office. It could be playing your favorite playlist in-between meetings or taking a walk outside for lunch. Not only does this stir up new energy for your day, but it can also help you de-stress

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As I said above, when we’re too close to a situation or conflict, we have a harder time breaking away. We’re so emotionally and mentally invested that we don’t see how that proximity is affecting our health. So, interrupt yourself when you’re feeling stress coming on, and do something fun, random, and refreshing to feel good.

5. Get Some Energy Work Done

Energy work is anything that is being done to improve the circulation and energetic flow of the body. This could be a massage, a Reiki session, chiropractic adjustment, or acupuncture[4].

Moving the body helps move the energy that is blocked or stuck. This is why exercise is so important. However, sometimes we need a session where that work is done for us by a licensed professional.

In such treatments, we have the luxury to relax and receive the benefits of the treatment, making it a beautiful way to squeeze in self-care!

You can find even more stress management techniques in the following video:

Final Thoughts

Stress is, unfortunately, a common part of every life. It affects everyone, but to what extent it affects you is personal. One thing is for sure, and that is that stress has a tremendous effect on our physical, mental, and emotional state.

This is why regular exercise is so important, as well as mental stimulation and emotional release. These self-care ideas won’t necessarily guard you from ever feeling stressed again, but they will certainly help you manage it better and offer amazing health benefits along the way.

More Self-Care Ideas

Featured photo credit: Alisa Anton via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Mayo Clinic: Stress Management
[2] The American Institute of Stress: How the Fight or Flight Response Works
[3] Anxiety and Depression Association of America: Physical Activity Reduces Stress
[4] Medical Acupuncture: Does Acupuncture Reduce Stress Over Time? A Clinical Heart Rate Variability Study in Hypertensive Patients

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Aleksandra Slijepcevic

Accredited and Certified Vinyasa Yoga Teacher writing for Health & Fitness

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Published on April 9, 2021

What Is Mindfulness And How It Helps Your Mental Wellness

What Is Mindfulness And How It Helps Your Mental Wellness

Mindfulness has become a popular buzzword in the health and wellness industry. However, few people truly understand what it is. My aim here is to teach you what mindfulness is and how it helps your mental wellness. By the end of this article, you will understand the meaning and benefits of mindfulness. Additionally, you will develop the ability to integrate mindfulness into your daily life.

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is approximately 2500-years-old with deep roots in the Eastern world as a spiritual, ethical, and philosophical practice. These roots are intimately connected to the Buddhist practice of vipassana meditation.[1]

Mindfulness continues to be practiced as a cultural and spiritual tradition in many parts of the world. For Buddhists, it offers an ethical and moral code of conduct. For many, mindfulness is more than a practice—it is a way of life.[2]

However, mindfulness has evolved in the Western world and has become a non-religious practice for wellbeing. The evolution began around 1979 when Jon-Kabat Zinn developed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).[3] Since then, mindfulness has emerged in the health and wellness industry and continues to evolve.

It is important to recognize the distinctions between mindfulness as a clinical practice and mindfulness as a cultural practice. The focus of this article is on the clinical model of mindfulness developed in the West.

Many researchers have integrated aspects of Buddhism and mindfulness into clinical psychiatry and psychology. Buddhism has helped to inform many mental health theories and therapies. However, the ethical and moral codes of conduct that drive Buddhist practices are no longer integrated into the mindfulness practices most-often taught in the Western world.[4] Therefore, Western mindfulness is often a non-spiritual practice for mental wellness.

Mindfulness aims to cultivate present moment awareness both within the body and the environment.[5] However, awareness is only the first element. Non-judgmental acceptance of the present moment is essential for true mindfulness to occur. Thoughts and feelings are explored without an emphasis on right, wrong, past, or future.

The only necessary condition for mindfulness to occur is non-judgmental acceptance and awareness of the present moment. Mindfulness can be practiced by anyone, anywhere, and at any time. It does not need to be complex even though structured programs exist.

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How Mindfulness Helps Your Mental Wellness

Along with MBSR, other models have been developed and adapted for use by clinical counselors, psychologists, and therapists. These include Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).[6]

Structured models of mindfulness allow researchers to study its benefits. Research has uncovered an abundance of benefits including mental, physical, cognitive, and spiritual. The following is not a comprehensive list of all its benefits, but it will begin to uncover how mindfulness helps mental wellness.

Benefits on Your Mental Health

Practicing mindfulness can have positive impacts on mental health. It has been positively associated with desirable traits, such as:

  • Autonomy
  • Agreeableness
  • Conscientiousness
  • Competence
  • Empathy
  • Optimism

Mindfulness helps to improve self-esteem, increase life satisfaction and enhance self-compassion. It is associated with pleasant emotions and mood. Overall, people who practice this appear to be happier and experience more joy in life. Not only does it increase happiness but it may also ward off negativity.

Mindfulness helps individuals to let go of negative thoughts and regulate emotions. For example, it may decrease fear, stress, worry, anger, and anxiety. It also helps to reduce rumination, which is a repetition of negative thoughts in the mind.

MBSR was originally designed to treat chronic pain. It has since evolved to include the treatment of anxiety and depression. Clinical studies have shown that MBSR is linked with:

  • Reduced chronic pain and improved quality of life
  • Decreased risk of relapse in depression
  • Reduced negative thinking in anxiety disorders
  • Prevention of major depressive disorders
  • Reducing substance-use frequency and cravings

However, more research is needed before these clinical studies can be generalized to the public. Nevertheless, there is promising evidence to suggest MBSR may be beneficial for mental health.[7]

Benefits on Your Cognitive Health

Mindfulness has many important benefits for cognitive health as well. In a study of college students, mindfulness increased performance in attention and persistence. Another study found that individuals who practice it have increased cognitive flexibility. A brain scan found increased thickness in areas of the brain related to attention, interception, and sensory processing.[8]

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To explain this another way, practicing mindfulness can improve the ability to shift from one task to the next, increase attention span and increase awareness of bodily sensations and the environment. Therefore, it has the potential to literally change your brain for the better.

Harvard researchers are also interested in studies of the brain and mindfulness. One researcher studied how brain changes are sustained even when individuals are not engaged in mindfulness. Their research suggests that its benefits extend beyond the moments of mindfulness.[9]

Another study found that the benefits of mindfulness training lasted up to five years. In this particular case, individuals participating in mindfulness activities showed increased attention-span. Mindfulness has also been shown to increase problem-solving and decrease mind wandering.[10]

What Is Mindfulness Meditation?

Mindfulness can be practiced in many different ways. However, most practices include these elements:

  • An object to focus awareness on (breath, body, thoughts, sounds)
  • Awareness of the present moment
  • Openness to experience whatever comes up
  • Acceptance that the mind will wander
  • The intention to return awareness to the object of focus whenever the mind wanders

A practice that encompasses these elements is typically called mindfulness meditation. Most mindfulness meditations will be practiced between 5 to 50 minutes, per day.[11]

There is truly no right or wrong way to practice mindfulness. Most mindfulness meditations are done seated with an object of focus related to the breath, body, thoughts, emotions, or sounds. However, daily activities such as walking or eating can be practiced as a form of mindfulness meditation, as long as the aforementioned elements are in place.

Four Mindfulness Meditations and Their Benefits

Not all forms of mindfulness are created equal. Each practice has unique goals, structure, and benefits. The following four mindfulness meditations are linked with improved mental wellness related to vitality, happiness, and attention.

The results come from a study designed to explore the benefits of these four practices. All of these stem from traditional Buddhist practices.[12]

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1. Loving-Kindness Meditation

Loving-kindness is a form of meditation that focuses on sending love and compassion to others. It may begin with kindness for the self and extend outward towards close family and friends, communities, nations, and the world. Loving-kindness may even involve sending love and compassion towards enemies.

The study found that eight-weeks of loving-kindness meditation increased feelings of closeness to others. However, it did not reduce negative feelings towards enemies. Additionally, one week of loving-kindness mixed with compassion training increased the amount of positive feelings participants experienced.[13]

2. Breathing Meditation

Breathing meditation is a practice where the focus remains on the breath. Whenever the mind begins to wander, the attention is brought back to the breath.

In many different mindfulness and yoga practices, specific breathing (pranayama) practices are taught. However, for beginners, simple diaphragmatic breathing that focuses on each inhale and exhale is sufficient.

The effects of breathing meditation relate to attention. Breathing meditation is linked to changes in the way information is processed. Buddhist monks who practiced breathing meditation were able to process a greater amount of information than monks who practiced compassion meditation.

3. Body Scan Meditation

A body scan is as simple as it sounds. Attention is brought to each part of the body. Participants can choose to start from the top of the head or the bottom of the feet. It can be helpful to imagine a warmth or a color spreading from one body part to the next as each part begins to relax.

When body scan and breathing are combined, there are many benefits. Interoceptive sensitivity is the mind’s ability to focus on bodily cues. It is strengthened by body scanning. Body scanning also helps with attention and focus.[14]

4. Observing Thoughts Meditation

In observing thoughts meditation, the focus is on the thoughts. This is an opportunity to practice non-judgmental observation. It is also a practice of non-attachment.

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Within the study, participants practiced structured observation of thoughts. First, they brought their attention to their thoughts and labeled them within several categories: past, present, future, self, or others. Then, they practiced observing their thoughts without an emotional reaction.[15]

The benefits of this practice were robust. First, participants showed great improvement in the ability to observe their thoughts without judgment. Second, the practice greatly reduced rumination. As a result, participants had fewer emotional reactions to their thoughts and developed greater self-awareness around their thinking patterns.

In summary, there are many different ways to practice mindfulness meditation. The choice may be determined by the benefits each practice offers. For example, body scanning can increase bodily awareness. Thought-observation can increase self-awareness and decrease rumination. Regardless, every practice may increase positivity, energy, and focus.[16]

Considerations Before You Begin Practicing Mindfulness

Mindfulness is still a relatively new concept in clinical research. Critics worry that its benefits have been overstated. There is also concern that the Western world has changed it into something most Buddhists would not recognize.[17]

Mindfulness is a state of mind that builds self-awareness. As a result, it may force individuals to face difficult emotions, memories, and thoughts. In a study of long-term, intense mindfulness practices, 60% of participants reported at least one negative outcome. Some cases are related to depression, anxiety, and psychosis.[18]

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to mental wellness. Mindfulness offering promising results but there are also risks involved. Working with a therapist may be a great way to start a mindfulness practice while monitoring for risk.

Final Thoughts

Mindfulness is a powerful practice that has deep roots in Buddhism. It is a practice of present-moment awareness, acceptance of the present moment, and non-judgment of thoughts, emotions, or circumstances.

It has many benefits that may increase mental wellness. However, there are also some risks to consider. Overall, you should consider your unique profile before beginning a practice or consider working with a therapist at the start.

More About Practicing Mindfulness

Featured photo credit: Simon Migaj via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] NCBI: A Perspective on the Similarities and Differences Between Mindfulness and Relaxation
[2] Sage Journals: Mindfulness in Cultural Context
[3] Greater Good Magazine: What is Mindfulness?
[4] Sage Journals: Mindfulness in Cultural Context
[5] Greater Good Magazine: The State of Mindfulness Science
[6] NCBI: Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health: A Review of Empirical Studies
[7] NCBI: Mindfulness Meditation and Psychopathology
[8] NCBI: Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health: A Review of Empirical Studies
[9] The Harvard Gazette: When Science Meets Mindfulness
[10] Greater Good Magazine: The State of Mindfulness Science
[11] NCBI: A Perspective on the Similarities and Differences Between Mindfulness and Relaxation
[12] ResearchGate: Phenomenological Fingerprints of Four Meditations: Differential State Changes in Affect, Mind-Wandering, Meta-Cognition, and Interoception Before and After Daily Practice Across Nine Months of Training
[13] ResearchGate: Phenomenological Fingerprints of Four Meditations: Differential State Changes in Affect, Mind-Wandering, Meta-Cognition, and Interoception Before and After Daily Practice Across Nine Months of Training
[14] ResearchGate: Phenomenological Fingerprints of Four Meditations: Differential State Changes in Affect, Mind-Wandering, Meta-Cognition, and Interoception Before and After Daily Practice Across Nine Months of Training
[15] ResearchGate: Phenomenological Fingerprints of Four Meditations: Differential State Changes in Affect, Mind-Wandering, Meta-Cognition, and Interoception Before and After Daily Practice Across Nine Months of Training
[16] Greater Good Magazine: How to Choose a Type of Mindfulness Meditation
[17] NCBI: Has the Science of Mindfulness Lost Its Mind?
[18] NCBI: Has the Science of Mindfulness Lost Its Mind?

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