You know those days where you are so busy running from one commitment to another without a moment to just stop, breathe, and collect yourself? Days without any downtime are downright stressful. In my work as a psychotherapist, I wear many different hats. I am often running between two different places at some point each day. If I’m not careful, my whole day can be stress-ridden. But I’ve found that practicing mindfulness throughout my day has helped me keep the effects of burnout at bay.
Mindfulness was first identified as beneficial by psychologist Jon Kabat-Zinn in his work in the 1970s and eighties (although forms of mindfulness have been practiced for much longer). At its core, it involves being fully aware of the present moment in a nonjudgmental way. This includes your emotions, thoughts, bodily sensations, and the environment around you.
Practicing mindfulness has a host of benefits supported by research, including reduced stress, anxiety, depression, anger, rumination, and fatigue. It’s been linked to an increase in empathy, sense of meaning in life, self-compassion, and positive mood. Mindfulness has also been shown to boost focus, working memory, and cognitive flexibility—all beneficial during a busy day.
Practicing mindfulness does not mean dedicating a large chunk of your valuable time for daily meditation. Incorporating just little moments of mindfulness throughout your day is effective as long as you’re consistent. It takes practice, but some studies show that participants experienced the benefits of practicing mindfulness in just a few weeks.
Want some practical ways to try mindfulness? In each exercise below, practice being fully aware of the present moment using your five senses while observing your thoughts, emotions, and what is going on around you. It’s OK if you find yourself getting distracted about your upcoming meeting, to-do list, or the conversation you just had with your boss. Simply redirect your attention back to the present moment without dwelling on the fact that you were distracted.
01. Mindful Eating
On busy days, it’s easy to inhale meals on the go or to snack mindlessly without even thinking about what you are eating. Mealtime is an easy way to start practicing mindfulness. We all have to eat anyway, right? BBC recommends first being aware of whether you are experiencing any hunger sensations. Remove distractions like your computer or smartphone. Sit down while eating, and focus on each bite. Eat slowly and observe all of your actions as you eat (picking up your fork, scooping up a tomato slice, bringing it to your mouth, etc.). Chew slowly and observe any sensations you experience while eating, such as the texture of the food and its taste. Not only will you appreciate your food more when you eat this way, but you’ll also have a nice break during the day to focus on just one thing—nourishing your body and mind.
02. Mindful Moving
If most of your stressful day is spent sitting at your desk, your muscles can become tense and tight. Taking five-minutes breaks throughout the day to move and stretch is a great opportunity to practice mindfulness. If you spend most of your day sitting, read Verily’s guide on how to give your body a little extra love.
The Mayo Clinic also recommends a series of stretches you can do while at the office including shoulder, neck, and lower back stretches. Before starting each stretch, note how that particular area of your body is feeling. How tense is it? Then, as you stretch, observe the change that happens in your muscles. And once you have finished, observe how that muscle feels. Not only will your formerly tense body benefit, but you will have given yourself a mental break as well.
03. Mindful Breathing
I tell my patients that you can breathe mindfully anywhere and in any situation, and no one is going to notice or call you out. It simply involves breathing in slowly through your nose, holding that breath, and breathing out slowly through your mouth. Observe your body and mind as you breathe. Research has found that mindful breathing directly counteracts the effects of stress on the body. When your body experiences stress, your heart rate increases, your breathing becomes more quick and shallow, your muscles tense, and your blood rushes to your core. Deep breathing helps to reduce your heart rate, increase oxygen flow in the bloodstream, reduce blood pressure, and calm feelings of anxiety, Harvard Health says. Do it during your commute, before a meeting or phone call, and at your desk when you are having trouble focusing. It’s an easy and versatile mindfulness practice.
04. Take a Nature Break
A change of scenery, especially spending time outside with nature, is a perfect way to engage your senses. Go for a walk during your lunch break, and make an effort to observe using your other senses besides sight. What do you smell as you walk? What does the ground feel like beneath your feet? Can you feel a breeze? Perhaps the sun feels warm on your face? Can you taste anything? What do you hear? This helps you disengage from your worries to engage fully in the present moment.
05. Wait Mindfully
When I’m waiting for something, whether I’m early for an appointment, at a red light, or in line for coffee, I tend to scroll through my phone checking emails and social media. Sometimes, I don’t even realize that I’m doing it. I have been trying to make an effort to be more intentional about observing the world around me instead of using my phone as a crutch. Lately, I’ve been trying to practice mindful breathing and use my five senses to notice what is happening around me in the present moment. Use waiting times as opportunities to practice mindfulness and as on-the-go stress reducers.
Using small pockets of time in your hectic day to practice mindfulness is an effective way to adapt it to the reality of your busy schedule. Best of all, you can pick and choose which practices you’d like to use in a way that works best for you and your unique needs. If you’ve got five minutes, why not start today?
Photo Credit: Molly Winters Photography