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Mindfulness: How Paying Attention Can Lower Stress and Boost Your Health

woman sitting cross-legged on the floor with hands on knees

You may have heard the word “mindfulness” quite a bit during the past 18 months.  We often recommend it as a way of reducing stress – and it is clinically effective at doing so.

Mindfulness means staying in the present moment. For example, instead of feeling guilty or resentful about the past or experiencing anxiety about the future, you can look at what’s in front of you and around you, take a couple of deep breaths, pay full attention, and try to accept what is happening without judging it or reacting to it.

No one has to know you are doing this, but you will notice you begin to feel calmer. If you were wearing a heart rate monitor, you might see it decreasing. You may also become less reactive in situations where there is tension. As a result, your brain is open to be more creative and more effective at solving problems. A story on the American Psychological Association website shows how this works. Other research findings published in 2014 in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine suggest that mindful meditation can help ease psychological stresses like anxiety, depression and pain.

First Learn the Basics

Spending a few minutes learning the basics, and then some time each day practicing, has enormous benefits, not just on your mental health, but your physical health too. It has been proven to improve your numbers, heart rate and blood glucose among them.

You can learn how to be “everyday mindful” by meditating, and it can be just for minutes a day. Try sitting in a quiet space, focus on taking deep breaths, and when your mind wanders, that’s OK. Gently bring it back to your breath. Set a timer so you don’t need to think about counting the minutes.

There are  many online articles that teach the basics, including this one, and books too. I like The Mind of the Leader: How to Lead Yourself, Your People and Your Organizations for Extraordinary Results, by Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter. I found it to be an excellent book that offers many practical tools.

A study published in a clinical psychology journal showed that meditators reported significantly higher levels of mindfulness, self-compassion and overall sense of well-being, and significantly lower levels of psychological symptoms, rumination, thought suppression, fear of emotion, and difficulties with emotion regulation, compared to non-meditators.

Mindfulness is Real

Now I know there are some people reading the term mindfulness who might dismiss it as an airy New-Age concept.

What if I told you it could save your job, or your life?

That’s not hyperbole. Someone who practices mindfulness – and you do have to practice it regularly in order to benefit from it day to day – will likely not explode with angry words toward a colleague, will probably not use a gesture while driving that could incite road rage, and will not lash out in an unpleasant email.

You’ve probably read, heard about, or experienced the uptick in uncivil behavior we are seeing in restaurants, at stores, even in schools and public meetings. Yes, we are living in an environment rife with stress elevated by COVID-19, and it seems people’s patience, including our own, has been worn down.

This has led to disrespectful behavior, including threats, yelling, and worse. An immediate hostile reaction can change your life in a way you wouldn’t choose, or would come to regret.

Reducing Emotional Reactivity

That’s why mindfulness can be so powerful, besides being a stress-reducer. It keeps you from immediately responding in a negative way to people and circumstances with a knee-jerk response that can easily escalate a situation. Clinical research has shown that mindfulness reduces what’s called emotional reactivity. This is the source of a lot of ugly confrontations, often triggered by inflammatory topics such as masks, vaccinations, or politics.

When you lose control and lash out, even as a way to intimidate others, you actually lose your power and become ineffective. You are at the mercy of your negative emotions, you are not using the rational part of your brain, and the results of an outburst can be damaging.

In fact, it is the person who speaks quietly - who doesn’t inflame an interaction with more anger - who is truly in control.

The workplace – especially one in which the stakes and pressure are high, and the staffing is not optimal – is another place where people can be triggered and may respond by taking out their emotions on those around them.

So yes, practicing mindfulness can have a life-changing effect – on your health, your work, and on your relationships with colleagues, friends and family. A 2020 Harvard Business Review article showed how mindfulness and teamwork can go hand in hand.

Besides meditation, another way to achieve mindfulness is through activities that require your complete concentration. For example, this past summer I tried rock climbing for the first time. When you’re climbing rocks, you can’t think about anything other when what you are doing – literally getting a grip on what’s right in front of you. You are naturally in the moment.

Friends who love strength-training say that practice does the same for them. In those moments, it’s just you and the weight you are lifting – your mind isn’t wandering to some stressful situation in your life. You can practice mindfulness with meals too during every stage, from prepping to cooking, eating, and cleaning up. Give dinner prep your undivided attention and appreciate the journey that each ingredient took to get to your kitchen. While eating, observe the colors and smell, take a small bite, and take the time to really savor the textures and flavors. Notice how it might change with each bite and as you become more full.

Having these focused moments becomes immensely relaxing. You give your mind a break from ruminating on a past you cannot change and worrying about a future event that may or may not ever happen.

The result of practicing mindfulness is that it can help you manage anxiety and provide more self-control, so you aren’t at the mercy of outside events or situations. It lets you be in charge of how you respond, and brings emotions to a manageable level. It benefits both your mental and physical health. It improves your work quality and your creativity.

And it makes life for you, and those around you, more pleasant.

Peter J. Pronovost, MD, PhD, is Chief Clinical Transformation and Quality Officer at University Hospitals.

Related Links

A great place to learn mindfulness is through programs and classes at University Hospitals Connor Whole Health Network. University Hospitals Connor Whole Health offers a wide variety of clinical services to help guide you to optimal health. Our board-certified and licensed practitioners have unique skills and areas of expertise, which enable us to give our clients specialized care to meet their individual needs.